A disgruntled sailor who flunked out of the grueling course to become a Navy SEAL is accused of starting a fire in July 2020 that burned for nearly a week aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard before crews were finally able to bring it under control.
According to an unsealed search warrant affidavit, obtained by The Washington Times, authorities believe Seaman Apprentice Ryan Sawyer Mays, 20, started the fire aboard the Bonhomme Richard while it was docked at the pier in San Diego.
The fire produced flames that raged for five days. The damage to the amphibious assault ship was so severe that the Navy ultimately decided to scrap it because repairs would have cost more than $3 billion and taken several years to complete, officials said, making it among the most expensive arson episodes in the country’s history.
Arson investigators said the fire began in the Bonhomme Richard’s lower storage areas for vehicles, known by sailors as the “Lower V,” according to the affidavit.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service interviewed 177 service members assigned to the ship. One of the sailors, identified in the court document as Kenji Velasco, told investigators he saw someone in the Lower V area shortly before the fire erupted. Although the person was wearing a face mask, he was “fairly confident” the person was Seaman Mays, according to the affidavit.
Seaman Mays repeatedly denied starting the fire aboard the Bonhomme Richard, telling investigators he was not even in the Lower V area at the time. He maintained his innocence throughout the entire interview with the investigators. He later told investigators he thought someone was setting him up, according to the document.
Officials have raised questions about possible evidence tampering at the scene. Agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) discovered a small plastic bottle containing unidentified liquid near the spot where the fire is believed to have started.
The ATF agents flagged the bottle as evidence and wrapped a piece of orange tape around it. They left it on a spool of rope so crime scene technicians could mark it as evidence and have it analyzed. But when they returned, the bottle was missing. According to the affidavit, a large-scale search of the ship failed to turn up any sign of the bottle. Seaman Mays’ section was on duty at the time.
Senior leaders aboard the Bonhomme Richard told NCIS investigators that Seaman Mays often had a bad attitude and “showed disdain toward authority and the U.S. Navy.” According to the affidavit, Seaman Mays joined the Navy with the intent of becoming an electronics specialist. But then he wanted to try out for the elite Navy SEAL commando unit.
His attempt only lasted for five days out of the six-month-long training program. He later returned to the Bonhomme Richard as an undesignated seaman, according to the affidavit.
“According to Navy leadership, the morale and behavior of sailors who had aspired to become a SEAL, and then find themselves serving in a more traditional role on a Navy ship, are frequently very challenging,” NCIS agents wrote in their search warrant affidavit.
Seaman Mays has been charged with arson. An upcoming military hearing will determine how the case is handled.
• Mike Glenn can be reached at email@example.com.
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