A federal search warrant affidavit unsealed this week has identified the sailor suspected of starting the 2020 fire aboard the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard as Seaman Apprentice Ryan Sawyer Mays, a SEAL training washout who some shipmates said “hates” the Navy.
The affidavit by Naval Criminal Investigative Service Agent Maya Kamat was filed Sept. 3 to compel Google to grant access to Mays’ Gmail account.
The Navy on July 29 announced arson and hazarding a vessel charges against a sailor for starting the multiday fire that began on July 12, 2020, as the ship was undergoing maintenance in San Diego.
While the Navy declined to identify the sailor ahead of an Article 32 hearing that will help determine whether the case goes to trial, a motion filed Tuesday by government prosecutors asking to unseal the affidavit involving Mays states that “a sailor was arrested and charged” in connection to the investigation and that the affidavit should be made public so that it can be disclosed to that sailor’s defense team.
A defense official has confirmed to Navy Times that Mays is the sailor against whom the Navy has preferred charges.
The affidavit for the first time reveals information about the sailor accused of starting the fire and suggests that key firefighting stations may have been tampered with, hindering efforts to extinguish the inferno, which burned for four days and left dozens of military and civilians firefighters injured, according to the affidavit.
That document also reveals that investigators found plastic bottles containing fuel near the fire’s origin site.
Mays, 20, told investigators he did not start the fire and was being “setup,” according to the affidavit.
A Kentucky native, Mays could not be reached for comment and began a new assignment with Amphibious Squadron 5 in April, according to his service record.
His civilian attorney, Gary Barthel, said his client remains on a regular duty status and is innocent of the charges.
Barthel said Mays retained him in September and that his client was held in the brig for 56 days last year.
“My client has always maintained his innocence and denies any wrongdoing with regard to the fire aboard the Bonhomme Richard,” Barthel told Navy Times.
According to the affidavit unsealed this week, Seaman Kenji Velasco reported that he was standing watch near the ramp down to the Lower V storage area of the ship at about 8 a.m. July 12, 2020, when he saw a sailor wearing coveralls and a mask carry a bucket down into the Lower V about five minutes before the first reports of smoke emerged, according to the affidavit.
Velasco later said, “he was ‘fairly sure’ and ‘90% sure’” that it was Mays, the affidavit states.
“I love deck,” the sailor “sarcastically stated” while passing Velasco, a phrase the sailor knew Mays to say, according to the affidavit.
Velasco told investigators that Mays “‘hates’ the U.S. Navy and the Fleet,” according to the affidavit.
“Velasco further explained that after the fire on the BHR, he was attending a muster at the base theater, when he asked MAYS if he had gone to the Lower V before the fire started,” the affidavit states. “According to Velasco, MAYS replied, ‘yes.’”
In an interview with NCIS agents, Mays “repeatedly denied having started the fire on the BHR or having been in the Lower V on the day of the fire,” the affidavit states.
“He maintained his innocence as to being the cause of the fire throughout the entire interview,” it continues. “At one point, after being told that he had been identified as having descended the ramp to the Lower V, before the fire started, Mays stated that he was being setup.”
About six days after the fire began, investigators determined that it originated in the Lower V.
No one reported seeing any sailors come back up the ramp out of the Lower V after the sailor Velasco believed to be Mays went down there the morning of the fire, according to the affidavit.
Other sailors surmised that Mays “could have went up the escape truck, went into the deck berthing area, and took his coveralls off while wearing his cammies underneath,” the affidavit states.
While Mays initially told investigators that anyone in the Lower V during a fire would be “f*****” because the only way back to the Upper V was the ramp, he eventually admitted knowing about other exit points from the Lower V.
“MAYS admitted he had traversed at least one of the two conflagration station ladders where he learned to ‘skate off and hide’ from work,” the affidavit states.
Mays joined the Navy in 2019 and started BUD/S training to become a SEAL in October 2019 but dropped out after five days, according to the affidavit.
He was reassigned to Bonhomme Richard as an undesignated seaman.
“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,” the affidavit states.
On July 21, Command Master Chief Jose Hernandez “identified MAYS as a person who showed disdain towards authority and the U.S. Navy,” according to the affidavit.
The affidavit also cites a June 14 Instagram post of a shirtless Mays which stated, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
Mays would later tell investigators it was a reference to the iconic line form the Vietnam War movie “Apocalypse Now,” according to the affidavit.
Navy Chief Lino Aguilarbarron told investigators on Aug. 12, 2020, that he had spoken with Mays on an unknown date after the fire, and that May said he had been in the Lower V that day to store some hoses.
“Mays stated he did not see anything in the Lower V that would have ignited the fire by itself, more likely the fire was started by someone,” Aguilarbarron told investigators, according to the affidavit.
During a 10-hour interview with NCIS agents on Aug. 20, 2020, Mays said “he was training for special operations and planned to reapply to become a member of the SEAL teams,” the affidavit states.
He also said he mustered the day of the fire with the rest of his duty section on the flight deck at about 8 a.m. and was in the hangar bay when he became aware of the fire, according to the affidavit.
During that interview, Mays recalled a conversation after the fire among deck department sailors in which they talked about seeing an individual in coveralls and a mask carrying a bucket into the Lower V before the blaze started.
“Investigators had not previously mentioned during the course of the interview that the individual had been seen wearing a mask,” the affidavit states. “At one point MAYS told investigators the witness could not have identified him because, ‘I had a face mask on.’”
He was arrested after his interview and booked into the Navy brig aboard Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California.
During the booking process, two masters-at-arms “heard MAYS say (unasked) that he was guilty, seemingly talking to himself,” the affidavit states.
After learning this, NCIS agents brought Mays back in for requestioning that same day, but “MAYS denied he was guilty and denied having said so,” the affidavit states.
Mays asked to take a polygraph test and one was administered on Aug. 21, 2020.
“When he was informed of the possible deception indications, MAYS became extremely upset and denied any involvement in starting the fire,” the affidavit states.
Investigators discovered plastic bottles near the fire’s origin that contained “heavy petroleum distillates,” which can include diesel, kerosene and jet fuel, according to the affidavit.
That affidavit also contains insight from Bonhomme Richard officers suggesting that the Lower and Upper V firefighting stations had been tampered with before the fire.
A few weeks after the fire, the ship’s damage control assistant, Lt. Cmdr. Felix Perez, walked through the Upper and Lower V compartments with investigators and stated that three of the four firefighting stations in those areas “were not in their normal configuration,” the affidavit states.
“One station located on the port side of the Upper V did not have any hoses connected to the firefighting station,” the record states.
“Perez stated that, regardless of maintenance status, there should have been hoses on the racks with at least one hose connected to the fire station,” the affidavit states.
Other Upper V hoses were found cut during initial firefighting efforts, and Perez reported that four months earlier at another ship location, “a fire hose was found cut,” according to the affidavit.
Perez said his team walked the spaces for inspection on July 10, 2020, two days before the fire, and that while one station might have been overlooked, it was “nearly impossible for three of the four closest to and inside the Lower V to have been missed.”
“Perez opined that three of the four fire stations aboard BHR appeared to have been purposely tampered with and/or disconnected,” the affidavit states.
Mays told investigators he broke off a relationship with a pregnant female sailor after he found out he was not the father, according to the affidavit.
That woman told investigators she never became pregnant and “described MAYS as being volatile and ‘bipolar,’” it states.
A few weeks before the fire, CMC Hernandez told investigators that Mays was caught sleeping in berthing during his duty day on July 5, 2020.
He was awoken by a contractor and reacted by “verbally confronting the contractor in an aggressive way, causing the contractor to report the incident to Navy personnel,” according to the affidavit.
Mays told a NCIS special agent that he had taken a picture of the fire with his phone, and that he felt “a small amount of adrenaline and anxiety,” when he learned about the fire, according to the affidavit.
The agent requested the affidavit be sealed when it was filed last fall because “MAYS is not aware of the full extent of the investigation,” and if he was, the agent feared he would seek to evade prosecution and destroy evidence.
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.