NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO, Calif. – A junior sailor was arraigned Thursday on charges that he deliberately set a fire aboard USS Bonhomme Richard in 2020, the alleged act that led to the Navy’s decision to scrap the big-deck amphibious ship.
Seaman Recruit Ryan Mays didn’t enter a plea on the charges when he appeared in a Navy courtroom for the half-hour proceeding before Capt. Ryan Stormer, the military judge who will oversee the general court-martial.
Mays responded “Yes, your honor” and “No, your honor” to several questions posted by Stormer. The sailor, who has been assigned at Amphibious Squadron 5, appeared in court wearing the service dress blue uniform with an incorrect rank insignia that didn’t reflect his rank at E-1, which a Navy spokesman verified.
It’s unclear yet when the case of U.S. v SR Ryan Mays will begin.
Government prosecutors were seeking a late-August trial, but defense attorneys asked for late-September schedule to provide extra time to line up expert witnesses.
In a brief argument, Lt. Shannon Gearhart told Stormer that defense attorneys had “more than enough time to prepare” in the case. “The evidence and the nature of this case has largely not changed since the defense was provided evidence” starting in August 2021, when Mays was formally charged by the U.S. 3rd Fleet commander, Vice Adm. Stephen Koehler the convening authority in the case, said Gearhart, who will prosecute the case along with Lt. Chesley Nyardi and Capt. Jason Jones.
But in arguing for extra time to secure expert witnesses, defense attorney Lt. Tayler Haggerty also said that Lt. Cmdr. Sharlena Williams – both defense attorneys represented Mays during his Article 32 preliminary hearing in December – is slated to make a permanent change-of-station move during that August timeframe. Delaying the start of the trial until September, Haggerty said, would provide Williams’ replacement time to familiarize themselves with the case and evidence that the attorney noted included more than two terabytes of documents and evidence that the government has provided the defense in the case.
Stormer is expected to issue his decision soon and set dates for the trial.
Mays also deferred a decision on whether he wants the case argued before a military jury or by judge alone, options provided under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
The government’s case against Mays stems from an in-depth command investigation into the fire, which began on a Sunday morning, July 12, 2020, while Bonhomme Richard was berthed at Pier 2 at the naval base.
The fire broke out as the amphibious assault ship was wrapping up a $249 million overhaul and modernization with upgrades to accommodate the Marine Corps’ fifth-generation F-35B Lightning II joint strike fighter jets. The fire began in the lower vehicle stowage deck but quickly spread unabated through nearly every deck of the 844-foot-long ship for nearly five days.
The investigation, released in October 2021, raised suspicions that the fire was deliberately set but also detailed a litany of errors and failures by numerous people that led to the fire’s uncontrolled spread and subsequent destruction across the ship. Among red flags the investigators found were that the ship’s crew wasn’t fully prepared or equipped to properly fight the fire, various agencies squabbled over the firefighting response, and various commands at different levels didn’t provide sufficient training or oversight.
Vice Adm. Scott Conn, who was the fleet commander at the time, 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.
The Navy has yet to announce what actions and punishments are being levied against those individuals.