Charges have been preferred against a junior sailor suspected of starting a multi-day fire that destroyed the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard last summer in San Diego, the Navy announced Thursday.
The sailor is a seaman apprentice and was a crew member on the ship, according to U.S. 3rd Fleet spokesman Cmdr. Sean Robertson. It caught fire on July 12, 2020, and burned for four days before being sent to the scrapheap earlier this year.
The sailor has been charged with aggravated arson and hazarding of a vessel or aircraft under Articles 126 and 110, respectively, of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, according to Robertson.
The date for an Article 32 preliminary hearing has not been set, Robertson said.
Similar to a grand jury proceeding, an Article 32 will involve an officer reviewing all the evidence and then making a recommendation to the convening authority about whether charges should be referred against the accused.
“An impartial officer will make determinations and recommendations by the (Uniform Code of Military Justice) prior to any further trial proceedings — including whether or not there is probably cause to believe an offense has been committed and to offer a recommendation as to the disposition of the case,” Robertson said in an email Thursday.
Citing Navy legal regulations, Robertson declined to identify the sailor, a standard practice for the service when charges have not yet been referred.
“Evidence collected during the investigation is sufficient to direct a preliminary hearing in accordance with due process under the military justice system,” Robertson said.
He did not immediately clarify whether the accused sailor is being held in confinement.
Robertson also declined to say whether this was the same sailor who the Associated Press reported was being questioned by authorities on suspicion of arson last August.
Recently released emails from the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, which assisted Navy firefighters in battling the Bonhomme Richard blaze, show that an official from a San Diego-based Navy legal office was involved in discussions of evidence preservation aboard the ship last November.
Mention of a “trial counsel,” or prosecutor, in one email raises questions about whether the sea service was at some point planning to, or actually did, charge someone in connection to the fire, before backing off for reasons that have not been made public.
On Nov. 25, an email from a Navy official who signed the message “XO,” short for executive officer — a unit’s second-in-command — noted that “trial counsel had requested to “preserve some evidence in the Lower V,” a reference to the ship’s aft section.
The Navy has yet to release the findings of several investigations into the inferno, but Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday pledged last summer that those probes will be made public.
Officials told Navy Times this month that they expect the primary command investigation to be completed this summer.
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