A junior sailor will be tried at a general court-martial on charges that he intentionally started a fire that grew into a raging blaze in 2020 that burned the former USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) for days, the Navy announced Friday.
The U.S. 3rd Fleet commander, Vice Adm. Stephen Koehler, on Wednesday formally referred two charges – of arson and hazarding a vehicle – against Seaman Recruit Ryan Mays to a general court-martial “after careful review of the preliminary hearing report,” fleet spokesman Cmdr. Sean Robertson said in a statement. “Charges were brought in response to evidence found during the criminal investigation into the fire that started” on July 12, 2020, aboard Bonhomme Richard, which the Navy initially planned to repair but later decided to scrap from the inventory.
Mays, 22, was served notice of the charges Friday morning, according to the charge sheet, a copy of which 3rd Fleet released to USNI News.
The junior sailor had been confined for nearly two months in 2020 after investigators zeroed in on him as a suspect after several sailors aboard the ship told Navy and U.S. Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents they had spotted Mays in a vehicle deck area before the fire broke out that morning. But 3rd Fleet, then led by Vice Adm. Scott Conn, filed no charges before releasing Mays, who was confined from Aug. 20 to Oct. 14, 2020, the sailor’s civilian attorney told USNI News.
Koehler, who took the helm of 3rd Fleet in June 2021, preferred charges against Mays a month later.
During an Article 32 preliminary hearing held in December at Naval Base San Diego, two sailors testified to seeing someone they believe was Mays in the area before the fire was reported.
But in her recommendations to 3rd Fleet, the hearing officer, Capt. Angela Tang, “believed that the evidence wasn’t strong enough” for a court-martial, said Gary Barthel, a civilian attorney representing Mays.
“She recommended the charges not proceed to trial, giving the problems with the government’s case,” Barthel said.
Koehler’s decision “disappointed Mays,” the attorney said. ”He’s looking at proving his innocence at trial. He’s disheartened. He believed Capt. Tang listened to all of the evidence and listened to all of the witnesses.”
“The Navy is not looking for justice in this case,” added Barthel, a retired Marine Corps judge advocate now in private practice in the San Diego area. “They are just looking for a scapegoat.”
Bonhomme Richard was one of four big-deck amphibious ships homeported on the West Coast when a fire broke out in the lower vehicle deck. The ship and crew was in the final days of a $249 million maintenance availability and upgrades that included support for the new F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter jet, and some of the ship’s company that weekend had begun moving back onto the ship from a berthing barge.
But the initial fire quickly spread through assorted boxes, equipment, vehicles and other items. Unhampered by a non-working shipboard firefighting system, the fire moved freely across onto other decks through ventilation trunks and open ramps that further fueled the flames. It was an hour or so before a responding fire crew from the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department put the first hoses of water onto flames, but the fires further erupted and forced all crews to abandon the ship for the pier.
It took four days before a joint federal fire rescue attack got the fire under control, and still more days before hot spots and fires were finally extinguished.
An in-depth investigation into the cause of the fire, overseen by Conn and released in October 2021, raised suspicion about it being deliberately set but also detailed a long chain of failures that led to a crew unprepared to properly fight the fire, inter-agency squabbles over the firefighting response, insufficient training and oversight and other concerning problems.
Conn identified 36 individuals who contributed to the loss of the $2 billion ship, including the ship leadership triad, who were fired after the incident. Adm. Sam Paparo, the U.S. Pacific Command commander, has been overseeing administrative actions and punishment against those individuals.
Four big-deck amphibs remain homeported in San Diego and available to support Marine Corps units with the West Coast-based Marine Expeditionary Force after the September 2020 arrival of USS Tripoli (LHA-7).