Battle Lines Drawn for Bonhomme Richard Arson Trial

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Seaman Recruit Ryan Mays, 21, approaches the Naval Base San Diego courthouse after a lunch break on Wednesday, August 17, 2022.
Seaman Recruit Ryan Mays, 21, approaches the Naval Base San Diego courthouse after a lunch break on Wednesday, August 17, 2022. (Andrew Dyer/San Diego Union-Tribune)

After two days of hearings at Naval Base San Diego, a Navy judge is considering what evidence will be admitted in next month's trial of the sailor charged with setting the fire that destroyed the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard in 2020.

Seaman Recruit Ryan Mays, 21, is charged with aggravated arson and the willful hazarding of a vessel. Prosecutors allege Mays was disgruntled working as a deck seaman on the ship. Defense attorneys say the Navy is looking for someone to blame for the loss of a $1 billion warship.

Mays denies the charges. He faces up to life in prison if convicted.

Cmdr. Derek Butler, the judge presiding over Mays' court-martial, ruled in favor Thursday of defense motions to allow the introduction of an alternative suspect. Defense attorneys say the Naval Criminal Investigative Service was too eager to eliminate another Bonhomme Richard sailor as a suspect as they zeroed-in on Mays.

Mays' defense team will also be able to introduce a theory that a smaller mattress fire on board the landing helicopter dock Essex a mile down the waterfront on the same day as the Bonhomme Richard fire started suggests another suspect started both fires, the judge said.

It wasn't all wins for the defense. Testimony from a Navy master-at-arms who says Mays made a statement out loud along the lines of "I'm guilty, I guess I did it -- it had to be done," when he learned he was being arrested for the crime will be admissible at trial over defense objections.

The judge has yet to rule on other motions, including one from the defense that argues Mays tried to assert his right to remain silent under the 5th amendment during his interrogation by NCIS in 2020. Defense attorneys say everything in the interrogation shouldn't be admissible at trial, including statements he made about his experience at the Navy SEALs' Basic Underwater Demolition School, commonly called "BUDs."

Those statements are key to the prosecution's case to establish what they say was Mays' motive for starting the fire -- that he was angry about leaving BUDs after five days of training and disgruntled living the life of a shipboard sailor.

At Mays' preliminary Article 32 hearing in December, prosecutors alleged he was seen entering the ship's lower vehicle storage area just before sailors saw smoke in the same space. A witness -- a sailor standing watch at the top of the ramp leading to the so-called "lower V" -- testified he saw Mays walk down but not back up just before the fire began. Prosecutors' theory suggests Mays left the space via a ladder on the opposite side of the space from the ramp.

The Bonhomme Richard burned for more than four days at the base in 2020, beginning on the morning of Sunday, July 12. Early confusion as to who was in charge at the scene and the poor condition of the ship's fire station contributed to the blaze raging out of control, a Navy investigation found. The service elected to scrap the vessel last year rather than repair it, citing cost.

Mays, in a departure from previous court appearances, did not shy away from reporters and photographers outside the courthouse Wednesday after the hearing and answered some questions about his life in the Navy while awaiting trial.

Mays said he's on temporary duty at Assault Craft Unit 5 on Camp Pendleton, but is only checking in by phone as he is working a job outside his Navy duties.

"The Navy's aware that I'm working a job outside all this right now," Mays told reporters after court recessed Wednesday.

Mays wore a Navy dress white uniform with a "USS Bonhomme Richard" rocker on his sleeve during the two-day hearing, which ended Thursday. He wore the rank insignia of a seaman recruit, or E-1, after appearing in previous court hearings wearing two distinct incorrect ranks. In December, he wore the rank of a seaman, or E-3, even though his official rank was seaman apprentice, or E-2. After being reduced in rank in January, Mays appeared at his arraignment wearing the rank insignia of a seaman apprentice, or E-2, while his official rank was seaman recruit, or E-1.

Mays' trial is scheduled for Sept. 19-29 at Naval Base San Diego.

© 2022 The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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