SAN DIEGO — Navy prosecutors alleged Monday that a sailor charged with setting the fire that destroyed the USS Bonhomme Richard last year was “disgruntled” after dropping out of Navy SEAL training, while his defense lawyers criticized the preliminary hearing as unfair.
Prosecutor Cmdr. Rich Federico told the court that text messages show Seaman Apprentice Ryan Sawyer Mays lied about his SEAL training to family and friends and was angry about being reassigned to the Bonhomme Richard. They also said he used foul language with officers days before the blaze.
Mays denied igniting the amphibious assault ship that burned for nearly five days and injured dozens aboard. His lawyers told the court that the government did not properly share the information it had gathered against him.
The defense lawyers said the Navy only recently had handed over 28,000 pages of material and hours of videos that were impossible to review before Monday’s hearing.
The junior sailor was charged with aggravated arson and the willful hazarding of a vessel a fire that was the worst non-combat Navy warship blaze in recent memory.
The hearing will determine whether there is enough evidence to proceed with a military trial.
About 160 sailors and officers were on board when the fire started July 12, 2020, in the lower storage area of the 840-foot (256-meter) vessel, which had been docked at Naval Base San Diego while undergoing a two-year, $250 million upgrade.
More than 60 sailors and civilians were treated for minor injuries, heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation. Left with extensive structural, electrical and mechanical damage, the billion-dollar ship was scrapped.
Mays was assigned to the ship after dropping out of training to become a Navy SEAL. He was described by some fellow sailors as a person with disdain for the Navy, according to investigators.
May has maintained his innocence and noted to investigators that he helped fight the blaze, which sent acrid smoke wafting over San Diego for five days.
Officials assessing the ship’s damage found three of four fire stations on the ship had evidence of tampering: Fire hoses had been disconnected and one was cut, according to court documents.
Investigators also found uncapped bottles containing small amounts of highly flammable liquid near the ignition site, including one that tested positive for a heavy petroleum distillate such as diesel, kerosene or jet fuel, according to the documents.
Mays told investigators he was in the hangar bay when he became aware of the fire, according to court documents. He described how he assisted firefighters, alerted at least one crew member of the threat and eventually helped fight the blaze, according to the documents.
Winds coming off San Diego Bay whipped up the flames that shot up the elevator shafts and exhaust stacks. Two explosions — one heard as far as 13 miles (21 kilometers) away — caused the fire to grow.
Dozens of Navy officials, including several admirals, face disciplinary action for systematic failures that investigators said prevented the blaze from being put out sooner, according to investigators.