The Navy announced Friday that it is taking to court-martial a junior sailor accused of setting the fire that destroyed the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard in 2020.
“After careful review of the preliminary hearing report, (U.S. 3rd Fleet commander) Vice Adm. Steve Koehler … referred charges against Seaman Recruit Ryan Sawyer Mays to a general court-martial,” the San Diego-based 3rd Fleet said in a statement.
Mays is charged with aggravated arson and willful hazarding of a vessel in connection to the July 12, 2020, fire, which burned for days, led the Navy to scrap the $1.2 billion flattop and exposed systemic ship firefighting failures at all levels.
But Mays’ civilian defense attorney, Gary Barthel, questioned whether the Navy is seeking justice or simply making his client a scapegoat for the high-profile disaster, which occurred while the amphib was undergoing maintenance in San Diego.
According to Barthel, Capt. Angela Tang, the legal officer who presided over December’s preliminary hearing and heard evidence in the case, recommended to Koehler that the case not go to court-martial.
“(Tang) didn’t believe the government could prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Barthel said.
“You hand-picked this officer, she made a recommendation to you, and you just totally disregarded it,” he added. “I have to conclude the Navy is not interested in seeking justice for this case and is making Mays a scapegoat.”
Third Fleet spokesman Cmdr. Sean Robertson said Koehler made his decision after considering the entirety of the preliminary hearing report but declined to discuss specifics since the case is ongoing.
Tang could not be reached for comment.
Barthel declined to provide records showing Tang’s decision, and 3rd Fleet has declined to provide Tang’s report following the preliminary hearing, known as an Article 32, because such documents remain part of an ongoing case.
Barthel said his client “continues to maintain his innocence.”
Tang’s legal opinion on the strength of the Navy’s case was only a recommendation, and Koehler is completely within his rights to still refer the case to court-martial, according to Lawrence Brennan, a retired Navy captain, attorney and law professor at Fordham University.
“It’s certainly not unheard of,” Brennan said of Koehler’s decision to override Tang’s recommendation. “It’s a recommendation from a junior to a flag officer. (The flag officer) has absolute discretion.”
While Mays is now charged with starting the fire, a subsequent Navy investigation revealed failures at all levels to extinguish the inferno, which burned for nearly five days and led the sea service to decommission the once-mighty warship.
That investigation, released last fall, recommended disciplinary action against dozens of personnel, including multiple admirals.
The Navy has yet to make any of those disciplinary actions public.
A date has not yet been set for Mays’ arraignment.
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.