- The Washington Times - Monday, December 13, 2021

A sailor received a first preliminary court hearing Monday at the U.S. Navy’s base in San Diego, California, over allegations that he started the fire in July 2020 that resulted in the total loss of the USS Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault ship.

The loss of the ship, and the shortcomings exposed as the crew tried to extinguish the blaze, have become another black eye for the service. Some three dozen Navy personnel — including five admirals and the ship’s commander and executive officer — have been faulted in the subsequent investigation for the ship’s condition and lack of preparation to fight the blaze. The two-day hearing began Monday afternoon in California.

According to court documents in the case, Seaman Apprentice Ryan Mays, 20, is charged with willfully hazarding a vessel, a violation of Article 110 under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and aggravated arson, a violation of Article 126.

The ship was undergoing an extended maintenance period at Naval Base San Diego when the fire broke out. Seaman Apprentice Mays, a Bonhomme Richard crew member, denies any involvement and said he helped battle the blaze.

His lawyers told the court Monday that the government did not properly share the information it had gathered against him, according to the Associated Press. The Navy only recently had handed over 28,000 pages of material and hours of videos that were impossible to review before Monday’s hearing, the defense team alleged.

Prosecutor Cmdr. Rich Federico displayed text messages that the government says showed Seaman Apprentice Mays lied about his failed SEAL training to family and friends and was angry about being reassigned to regular duty aboard the Bonhomme Richard. Officers on the ship say he directed foul language at them in the days before the blaze.

The fire began in the ship’s lower vehicle storage area. The flames spread quickly, erupting into a conflagration that burned for nearly five days. Dozens of sailors and firefighters were injured or treated for smoke inhalation before the flames were finally brought under control. 

Agents with the Naval Investigative Service and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) searched the ship after it was deemed safe. According to the search warrant affidavit, they found evidence including at least one bottle containing liquid later identified as a heavy petroleum distillate, such as jet fuel.

The preliminary hearing is expected to take at least two days, Navy officials said.

Seaman Mays faces 20 years in prison and a dishonorable discharge if convicted in the arson case. A Kentucky resident, he enlisted in the Navy in May 2019. 

In addition to the criminal case, the Navy also ordered an investigation into the Bonhomme Richard fire that identified a number of contributing factors that resulted in the Navy’s decision to scrap the billion-dollar warship.

They blamed the loss on the material condition of the ship; the training and readiness of the ship’s crew; the integration between the ship and support shore-based firefighting organizations; and oversight by commanders across several Navy organizations.

“Although the fire was started by an act of arson, the ship was lost due to an inability to extinguish the fire,” former U.S. 3rd Fleet commander Vice Adm. Scott Conn, who oversaw the investigation, told USNI News in October. “In the 19 months executing the ship’s maintenance availability, repeated failures allowed for the accumulation of significant risk and an inadequately prepared crew, which led to an ineffective fire response.”

— This article was based in part on wire service reports.

• Mike Glenn can be reached at mglenn@washingtontimes.com.

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