A hearing to help determine whether a junior sailor will go to court-martial for allegedly setting fire to the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard, scheduled for this week, has been pushed back to December, Navy officials confirmed Monday.
This summer, the Navy preferred arson and a hazarding a vessel charges against Seaman Apprentice Ryan Sawyer Mays for starting the July 12, 2020, fire that eventually destroyed the ship as it underwent maintenance in San Diego.
The Article 32 hearing, originally slated for Wednesday, would have involved an officer reviewing evidence against the junior sailor and then making a recommendation to the head of U.S. 3rd Fleet on whether charges should be referred to court-martial.
But command spokesman Cmdr. Sean Robertson told Navy Times that Mays’ defense team requested that the hearing be pushed back to the week of Dec. 13.
May’s lead civilian defense attorney, Gary Barthel, did not respond to requests for comment by Navy Times’ deadline Monday, but said in August that Mays “always maintained his innocence and denies any wrongdoing with regard to the fire aboard the Bonhomme Richard.”
Despite the high-profile nature of the charges against Mays, whose identity was initially disclosed in a federal search warrant affidavit in August, 3rd Fleet has declined to publicly release a copy of Mays’ charge sheet.
Such charge sheets are considered public records.
In declining to release Mays’ charge sheet, Robertson referred Navy Times to the sea service’s Manual of the Judge Advocate General, or JAGMAN. But the section of the manual cited by Robertson, 0142, makes no mention of why a charge sheet would not be releasable in such a high-profile case.
The Navy’s refusal to make Mays’ charge sheet public is a failure of “basic transparency,” according to Eugene R. Fidell, a military law expert who teaches military justice at New York University’s School of Law. In 2019, Fidell served on a panel for the Navy’s comprehensive review of its legal system.
The service’s refusal to release such a public document is confounding, he said, especially given the fact that Article 32 hearings are open to the public.
“It makes no sense,” he said. “It’s … a self-inflicted wound, in terms of public confidence in the administration of justice in the Navy.”
While the Navy has charged Mays with starting the Bonhomme Richard fire, an investigation released last month revealed that systemic failures at multiple levels allowed the amphib to burn for nearly five days.
Big Navy later decided that it would cost too much to repair the devastated flattop, and the ship was sold for scrap earlier this year.
The amphib was commissioned in 1998 and cost $1.2 billion in 2020 dollars.
It was in the midst of a $250 million upgrade when the fire started, and the Navy paid several millions of dollars more to send it to the scrapyard, an ignominious end that began this spring.
Dozens of Navy officials, including several admirals, are facing disciplinary action for failures to stop the inferno.
“It’s a major case, and a case of great interest not only within the Navy but also of enormous interest to anyone concerned about national defense, and any taxpayer,” Fidell said.
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.