U.S. Navy officials launched an extensive investigation when the USS Bonhomme Richard went up in flames in San Diego in 2020. Seaman Recruit Ryan Sawyer Mays was officially acquitted of charges Friday accusing him of setting fire to the $1.2 billion warship.
Mays was facing a life sentence if convicted of the aggravated arson and willful hazarding of a vessel charges, according to The New York Times. The 21-year-old wept as a Navy judge read the verdict and found him not guilty on all counts after a nine-day trial.
“I can say that the past two years have been the hardest two years of my entire life as a young man,” Mays said outside the courtroom, per NPR. “I’ve lost time with friends. I’ve lost friends. I’ve lost time with family, and my entire Navy career was ruined. I am looking forward to starting over.”
The USS Bonhomme Richard burned for more than four days starting July 12, 2020, and was the worst warship fire in Navy history outside of combat. After suffering heavy structural, electrical and mechanical damage, the warship was scrapped entirely — costing the Navy billions.
The prosecutors claimed Mays was angry about his failure to become a Navy SEAL and started the fire after being assigned to deck duty, according to The Washington Post. However, they failed to present physical evidence against him, and Seaman Kenji Velasco — a key witness — kept changing his story.
Gary Barthel, a former Marine judge who represented Mays at a preliminary hearing, told the AP the lower vehicle storage area “became a junkyard, and I believe throughout this entire process, the Navy was attempting to clean up their mess by accusing Seaman Mays of these allegations.”
The USS Bonhomme Richard was undergoing $250 million in repairs at the time of the fire. Prosecutor Capt. Jason Jones admitted in court that a 2021 Navy report concluded serious gaps in equipment maintenance, fire preparedness, and extensive command failures.
The report found only 15 out of the 807 fire extinguishers aboard were working. It also revealed two firefighting teams tried finding a working hose at one of the ship’s 216 fire stations, but only 29 of them worked, before adding the fire was “completely preventable.”
“Seaman Recruit Mays was found not guilty on the charges of willful hazarding of a vessel and aggravated arson,” said Lt. Samuel R. Boyle, a spokesman for the U.S. 3rd Fleet, per CBS News. “The Navy is committed to upholding the principles of due process and a fair trial.”
The Navy ultimately disciplined 28 people, including three admirals, alongside Mays for the incident. One captain, an executive officer and a top enlisted sailor were given letters of reprimand that limit promotions — and typically lead to dire ends for Navy careers.