Sailor Accused of Starting Bonhomme Richard Blaze Will Be Court-Martialed, Admiral Decides

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Sailors combat a fire aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard
Sailors combat a fire aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard, July 12, 2020 at Naval Base San Diego. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Hector Carrera)

The sailor accused of starting the fire that destroyed the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard is headed for court-martial, the Navy announced Friday. The sailor's lawyer, however, was quick to note that the move goes against the recommendation of the legal officer in his first hearing.

"After careful review of the preliminary hearing report, Vice Adm. Steve Koehler, commander, U.S. 3rd Fleet, referred charges against Seaman Recruit Ryan Sawyer Mays to general court martial," Cmdr. Sean Robertson, a Third Fleet spokesperson, said in an emailed statement.

Mays faces charges of "willful hazarding of a vessel" and "aggravated arson" after his fellow sailors told investigators and the court that they saw him in the area where the fire started on the ship on July 12, 2020.

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Mays' lawyer, Gary Barthel, noted in a phone interview with Military.com that "the preliminary hearing officer, that was appointed by the command, didn't believe that the evidence warranted going to a court-martial."

Capt. Angela Tang, the legal officer mentioned by Barthel, presided over a three-day preliminary proceeding, known as an Article 32 hearing, in mid-December that included testimony from both the prosecution and defense.

When asked about Tang's recommendation, Robertson noted that Koehler made his decision after considering the entirety of the preliminary hearing report. He would not elaborate further, given that the case is ongoing.

Barthel acknowledged that "the command is in a position where they can disregard that [recommendation]."

"It's our position that the Navy's not looking for justice, in this case," Barthel said. "What they're trying to do is make Mays a scapegoat for a billion-dollar ship that ended up burning as a result of other people's negligence," he added, alluding to a Navy report that found major failures by commanders and crew that fueled the catastrophic blaze.

That investigation named 36 people -- including several admirals -- as accountable in the blaze. Seventeen sailors were cited for failures that "directly" led to the loss of the ship, while others "contributed" to the loss. Two sailors were named because they were not effective in responding to the fire once it started.

Adm. Sam Paparo, head of U.S. Pacific Command, is responsible for deciding further punishments for those named in the investigation, but the Navy has yet to announce any disciplinary actions.

Barthel says that Mays "adamantly denies any involvement in starting any fire" and pointed out that "there was no physical evidence linking our client to the fire."

The Navy's case revolves around eyewitness testimony that placed Mays in the area of the ship where the fire began.

Early court records showed that the service saw Mays as a disgruntled sailor, sent to the Bonhomme Richard after failing Navy SEAL training, who expressed disdain toward leaders aboard the ship and hated the service.

Mays is not under confinement and is currently assigned to a squadron at Third Fleet. Robertson said that no trial date has been set.

The dismantling of the Bonhomme Richard began on April 15, 2021, after the Navy decided it would take at least five years and $2.5 billion to fix the ship.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

Related: Navy Brass Expects Captains to Ask for Help After Bonhomme Richard Fire

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