A sailor accused of setting last year’s fire that ravaged the USS Bonhomme Richard appeared in a Naval Base San Diego courtroom Monday for a hearing that will determine if he will stand trial on charges of aggravated arson and willful hazarding of a vessel.
Seaman Apprentice Ryan Sawyer Mays, 20, is charged with setting the July 12, 2020, fire, which burned for several days while the ship was docked at Naval Base San Diego.
Mays appeared for an Article 32 hearing — akin to a preliminary hearing in civilian courts — in which evidence will be presented and weighed as to whether Mays will face further criminal proceedings in connection with the alleged arson of the Navy warship.
Special Agent Matthew Beals, a certified fire investigator with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, was the first witness called to testify.
Beals said that per his investigation into the blaze, he determined that the fire was sparked by an ignitable liquid applied to tri-wall containers in the Lower Vehicle Storage Area of the ship, also known as the “Lower V.” Beals testified that the liquid used was likely diesel fuel or mineral spirits, both of which were available onboard the ship.
The article 32 hearing is expected to last through at least Wednesday, and include about 10 witnesses’ testimony.
Prior to the hearing, Mays’ defense team objected to some of the evidence prosecutors sought to introduce, including a report regarding Mays’ time in the Navy SEAL training program. Prosecutors allege that evidence hinted that Mays, who dropped out of the SEAL training program, was “disgruntled” with the Navy.
Search warrants unsealed earlier this year indicated NCIS investigators sought the seizure of Mays’ online communications, cell phone, vehicle and other items for possible evidence allegedly connecting him to the arson.
The search warrants indicate one sailor reported seeing someone he was “fairly certain” was Mays enter the Lower V just before smoke was reported in the area. Mays was interviewed regarding the blaze and maintained his innocence, while denying being in the Lower V that day and stating “that he was being set up.”
Other details in an affidavit indicate that firefighting equipment may have been sabotaged. Firefighting stations in the Lower and Upper V areas were found to be “not in their normal configuration,” while firefighting hoses connected to the stations were found cut or disconnected.
A Navy official told ATF investigators that he believed the stations were “purposely tampered with and/or disconnected.”
While Mays is the only person criminally charged in connection with the fire, a Navy investigation determined that failures regarding training and oversight, among other factors, also contributed to the ship’s destruction.