ATF Investigator: Bonhomme Richard Fire Deliberately Set, No Direct Physical Evidence Points to Accused Sailor

December 14, 2021 3:13 PM
Fire aboard USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) at Naval Base San Diego on July 12, 2020. US Navy Photo

SAN DIEGO – The fire that eventually destroyed much of the former USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) likely was deliberately set to ignite cardboard boxes in a stowage area packed with assorted items that fire investigators ruled out as the ignition source, a federal fire investigator testified in a Navy court Monday.

Matthew Beals, a special agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, told a Navy judge that he concluded in the ATF investigation that the fire was deliberately set by Seaman Apprentice Ryan Mays, a deck crewman allegedly spotted in the area before the fire broke out, with a lighter that was found at some point in Mays’ possession.

Mays was among the ship’s crew who were questioned initially and suspected of starting the July 12, 2020 fire. His name came up after one sailor, a petty officer who was assuming watch by the vehicle deck ramp, told investigators he saw Mays in the ship’s Lower V deck in the time before the fire was reported. While investigators agreed the fire was deliberately set, investigators found no direct evidence that Mays used that lighter to set the fire, Beals said.

“Everyone was on the same page that we had an incendiary fire,” Beals testified as the government’s witness on the first day of a preliminary hearing for Mays, who is charged with aggravated arson and willful hazarding of a vessel for allegedly setting the fire that quickly spread across 13 of the ship’s 14 decks.

“The application of an open flame” ignited combustibles, likely cardboard “tri-walls” that were stacked near a bulkhead in the Lower V deck or from the ignition of liquid vapors, possibly diesel or mineral spirits that were stored in the space, he said in questioning by lead prosecutor Cmdr. Richard Federico at the hearing before Capt. Angela Tang, the Article 32 officer.

Beals said he couldn’t decisively conclude which was the other ignition source, despite eight months of investigation. “Not for certain,” he replied when cross-examined by Gary Barthel, a retired Marine and civilian attorney representing Mays. He added that “we found a lighter in Mays’ locker.”

Barthel countered that other Bonhomme Richard crew members have lighters. Investigators found no DNA match tying Mays to anything found and examined at the source of the fire, which included a bottle found containing a heavy petroleum distillate, the special agent testified.

“You have no physical evidence of an open flame … from the scene from where the fire originated?” Barthel asked.

“I agree with that,” Beals replied.

Beals said that he had reached his conclusion of a fire deliberately set by Mays because of Mays’ statements to investigators — to include “outlier” descriptions of smelling diesel and burning rubber on the day of the fire, contrary to others — and his denial that he had been in the Lower V that morning. One witness told investigators he spotted Mays leaving the Lower V carrying a metal bucket several minutes before the fire was reported.

Defense attorneys told Tang that same witness made several inconsistent statements and only reported Mays’ location later, not on the day of the fire. Mays had arrived on Bonhomme Richard that Sunday morning for his duty assignment with the ship’s deck department after the shift turnover at 7:45 a.m. The fire was first reported around 8 a.m., after several sailors reported seeing smoke in the Lower V deck.

Defense attorneys contend, and Beals agreed, that there were conflicting statements from several sailors about who was seen in the vicinity and may have set the fire and which uniform — coveralls or the camouflage working uniform — Mays wore that day. One of those sailors, since kicked out of the Navy, was investigated by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service for suspicious texts and statements. Another witness, the petty officer who claimed he saw Mays in the Lower V that morning, was slated to testify for the government on Tuesday morning.

Mays had joined Bonhomme Richard several months earlier, after he voluntarily dropped from BUD/S, the Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL training for prospective Navy SEALs. Several sailors had complained about his disgruntled attitude.

One of Mays’ supervisors testified that the young sailor “didn’t want to be here. He wanted to go back to BUD/S, and that was apparent every day,” said Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Beau Benson. “I could tell he just didn’t enjoy being in the fleet.”

Benson, who had first spotted white smoke in the Lower V around 8:10 to 8:20 a.m., said he saw Mays the morning of the fire but didn’t recall which uniform the young sailor wore.

The vehicle stowage area, which typically is packed with Marine Corps vehicles and equipment when a Marine expeditionary unit is embarked, was “kind of like a big toolshed for every department at the time,” Benson testified. The area was strewn with CO2 canisters, forklifts, fuel hoses and chains along with toolboxes from shipyard contractors doing the maintenance availability. The space also was a “skate spot,” or the hangout for sailors “trying to stay out of sight,” he said when questioned by defense attorney Lt. Cmdr. Sharlena Williams. The space isn’t secured, and when asked, he said he didn’t know if any sailors were smoking there.

Bonhomme Richard was wrapping up a nearly two-year, $249 million maintenance overhaul when the fire broke out. It came during a weekend when the first groups of sailors began moving back onto the ship after living aboard a nearby berthing barge during the maintenance period.

Testimony continues Tuesday with the government’s six remaining witnesses, including an NCIS special agent who worked on the criminal investigation, before Mays’ defense team gets to call its witnesses.

Vice Adm. Stephen T. Koehler, the U.S. 3rd Fleet commander, is the convening authority in the case and ordered the preliminary hearing to determine whether the charges against Mays should be handled at a court-martial, administratively handled or dismissed. Tang, as the preliminary hearing officer, will collect evidence and testimony and make a recommendation to Koehler, who has the final say.

Gidget Fuentes

Gidget Fuentes

Gidget Fuentes is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She has spent more than 20 years reporting extensively on the Marine Corps and the Navy, including West Coast commands and Pacific regional issues.

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