NAVAL BASE, SAN DIEGO, Calif. – To military prosecutors, the fire that led to a 2020 conflagration that destroyed a multi-billion dollar amphibious warship was “a mischievous act of defiance” by a young sailor angry that he dropped from Navy SEAL training.
But defense attorneys contend that Seaman Recruit Ryan Mays is innocent, the target of a questionable federal investigation into the July 2020 fire aboard USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) that has little evidence to tie him to the blaze.
Mays, 22, a Kentucky native, is facing two felony charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice – one count of aggravated arson (Article 126) and one count of willful hazarding a vessel (Article 110). The latter charge carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
A military judge, Capt. Derek Butler, is presiding over the two-week general court-martial and will determine the fate of May, who opted for a trial by judge rather than have a military jury hear the case.
Bonhomme Richard was berthed at Pier 2 at Naval Base San Diego on the Sunday morning of July 12, 2020, when a fire broke out in the ship’s lower vehicle deck. The ship was at the end of a $249 million scheduled maintenance overhaul that included upgrades to the ship’s combat systems and flight deck to accommodate the Marine Corps’ new fleet of F-35B Lightning II joint strike fighter jets.
Only a fraction of ship’s company was aboard the 844-foot-long vessel that morning. That weekend, junior sailors began moving back aboard the ship, which was in the 88th week undergoing work under the maintenance availability contract the Navy had issued to BAE Systems.
On Monday, prosecutors argued that Mays had a grudge against the Navy and hated doing the drudge work of the deck department. Mays was assigned to the ship after dropping out of the Basic Underwater Demolition Training/SEAL course and his frustration caused him to set his ship afire.
“It was a mischievous act of defiance gone wrong,” Cmdr. Leah O’Brien told the court in opening statements Monday morning.
“There is absolutely no doubt that fire was arson,” O’Brien said, and she argued that “there was nobody in the Lower V… except for one sailor, Seaman Recruit Mays.”
Mays became a suspect after another sailor told Navy and federal fire investigators that he had seen Mays in the lower vehicle deck before the fire broke out.
Investigators, however, in prior testimony, haven’t identified the specific source of what started the fire, which spread quickly from the ship’s lower vehicle stowage area and grew as it spread across most of the ship’s 14 decks. It took hundreds of firefighters and sailors nearly five days to get the fire to get under control. The Navy eventually sold the hulk for scrap.
Mays has denied any role in the fire. His attorneys have argued that fire investigators – led by agents from the Bureau Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service – skipped other possible suspects and selectively left out evidence of other potential causes in the final fire investigation they submitted to the Navy.
“Cognitive bias led this entire investigation astray,” Lt. Tayler Haggerty, one of May’s three military attorneys. Mays, “is innocent,” she said.
Mays had mustered on the flight deck the morning of the fire as the crew was on their Sunday holiday routine, Haggerty said. He did light chores in his assigned spaces before he heard calls of “black smoke” ring out. “He was never in the Lower V,” Haggerty told the court. “So why are we here?”
The attorney argued that investigators dismissed another sailor as a potential suspect for starting the fire, even after they learned that sailor, Fireman Elijah McGovern, had done internet searches that morning for “heat scale white” and “fire color heat scale.” McGovern had been standing watch before the fire started, and investigators who questioned him had said that he said those internet searches were part of his interest in his personal writings about fire-breathing dragons.
It’s unclear whether McGovern, who last year was separated from the Navy, will be called on to testify. Navy prosecutors last month told the judge that they had no luck locating him.
Haggerty described McGovern as having his own grudge against the Navy.
“He did not like being in the Navy,” he said.
She noted that McGovern, whose nickname was Arc, was considered a suspect in what was an inconclusive investigation into a series of graffiti scrawled on ship and portable toilets after the Bonhomme Richard fire. He was eliminated as a suspect even though a handwriting expert found him to be a possible match. Those writings included comments like, “I did it[.] I set the ship on fire. Fuck the ship. One down three to go,” she said.
Defense attorneys also have argued that the fire investigation didn’t examine other potential sources of the fire, including discarded Lithium-ion batteries stored in the Lower V area where fire investigators agree the blaze began.
Seven former Bonhomme Richard sailors testified on Monday – several by video call – and described seeing smoke and their firefighting reporting and response in the initial hour after the fire began
One sailor, Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Beau Thomas Benson, described the area in the Lower V area as a cluttered catch-all, a “junkyard” filled with ship and contractor gear.
Damage Controlman 3rd Class Nelson Ernesto PablosGarcia, during questioning by lead prosecutor Capt. Jason Jones, described thick smoke that filled the area by the Upper and Lower vehicle decks and heat so intense he could feel it through his boots. He made several attempts to reach the lower deck via the ramp but was pushed back by the heat and lack of full protective firefighting and breathing equipment in those early moments of the fire.
The fire “will get hotter by the foot,” PablosGarcia said. He had to close his eyes and nearly got blinded because of the heavy smoke.
Damage Controlman 1st Class Jeffrey Garvin, a fire marshal on duty when the fire broke out, was visibly shaken during questioning on the stand when asked about events that morning.
“It was very intense smoke. Super-hot. It was something I had never felt before,” Garvin testified. He tried to reach the Lower V deck but was turned back by “excessive heat and the inability to breathe.”
Garvin left the hangar bay at times, unprovoked, to reach the space where he and several sailors reportedly saw “orange” glow. He was concerned there were crew members there.
“You’re supposed to make sure everybody is safe,” he said.
The handheld thermal imager he held showed the heat in the spaces to be 900 degrees and higher. The imagers max out at 1,100 degrees, with the screen going white.
Before testimony began, both sides argued over the inclusion of evidence for the judge to weigh about a separate and smaller fire that was reported aboard Bonhomme Richard just a few weeks before the huge blaze. ATF Special Agent Matthew Beals described that fire as a report of a fire in a styrofoam cup.
During questioning by a defense attorney Lt. Cmdr. Jordi Torres, Beals admitted “there was no analysis of the liquid” in the cup, which the attorney said was found in an engineering maintenance space aboard the ship in June 2020 after a sailor reported seeing “12-inch flames” and smoke. The incident wasn’t included in the larger Bonhomme Richard fire investigation.
The trial continues Tuesday, with fire investigators and fire forensics experts expected to testify as the government’s case continues.