This post has been updated with additional details.
NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO, Calif. — A military judge today acquitted a young sailor accused by the Navy of setting a 2020 fire that ultimately destroyed an amphibious warship as it neared completion of a major modernization and overhaul.
Capt. Derek Butler’s findings – not guilty of arson and of hazarding a vessel – puts an end to a two-year ordeal for Seaman Recruit Ryan Sawyer Mays. As a 19-year-old deck seaman, he was fingered by a shipmate who claimed he saw Mays near where the fire began in the former USS Bonhomme Richard’s (LHD-6) lower vehicle deck.
At hearing the verdict, given briefly by the judge, there was a loud collective gasp in the courtroom and Mays, standing between his attorneys, dropped to his chair and sobbed loudly.
After a minute or so, a crying, red-faced Mays hustled to the galley and tightly hugged his wife. His father came to him and tightly held him.
“I never had a doubt,” he told Mays. “I love you, ” his mother said.
“I am so grateful that this is finally over. It’s been a long two years,” Mays said outside the court building, flanked by his wife, parents and defense team. “I’ve been waiting a long time.”
The past two years, he said, “have been the hardest of my entire life as a young man. I’ve lost time with friends. I’ve lost friends, ” he said. “I’ve lost time with family, and my entire Navy career was ruined. I’m looking forward to starting over.”
“I’m thankful for the judge that heard the evidence and cleared my name,” he added. “And thank you to those of the media who tried to tell my story. You don’t understand how grateful I truly am.”
Gary Barthel, a retired Marine Corps attorney and a defense consultant on the case, called on the Navy, “to accept responsibility for the fire,” said Gary Barthel, a retired Marine Corps attorney and a defense consultant in the case. The ship’s lower vehicle deck was a “junkyard,” sailors testified, and “the Navy was attempting to clean up its mess by accusing Seaman Mays.”
“If history is any lesson, the Navy has in the past had a hard time acknowledging responsibility for something. I do not anticipate that the Navy will come back and make the conclusion that this was an undetermined cause of the fire. I think that the Navy will hang on to the belief that this was an arson. But the fact is that Seaman Mays has been found not guilty. ”
The Navy “is determined to try to hold somebody accountable rather than accept full responsibly for their own negligence,” Barthel added. “This verdict puts pressure on the Navy now to accept responsibly and answer to the American people and to Congress as to what caused this $1.4 billion ship to go up in flames.”
Mays “feels like he has been a victim throughout this process, ” said Barthel, who represented the sailor at his preliminary hearing in December 2021. For two years, as the investigation and prosecution continued to portray him as an arsonist despite Mays’ insistence he was innocent, that “has tainted his motivation and his desire to stay in the Navy.”
It’s unclear how much longer Mays, who enlisted in 2019, will remain in the Navy. He had been assigned to Amphibious Squadron 5 in San Diego while his legal case continued.
“The Navy is committed to upholding the principles of due process and a fair trial,” a Third Fleet spokesman, Lt. Samuel Boyle, said in a statement.
Defense attorneys had argued that there was more than enough reasonable doubt in the Navy’s prosecution to find him not guilty of the charges. They said he’s consistently pressed his innocence and questioned whether it was arson that started the blaze or just an accidental fire sparked by faulty vehicles or lithium-ion batteries that were stored in the area, which sailors and contractors working on the ship had used as a junkyard.
Navy criminal investigators accused Mays of starting the fire because he was angry at dropping from the training course to become a Navy SEAL. During court sessions, prosecutors described him as disgruntled and unhappy about his assignment to a ship stuck at the pier for maintenance.
“Seaman Mays’ life has been put on hold,” Lt. Cmdr. Jordi Torres, the lead defense attorney, argued on Thursday morning during closing statements. The sailor who claimed to have seen Mays in the Lower V “is the only evidence the government has … if there’s even an arsonist to begin with.”
“There was no open flame that they recovered, ” Torres said, adding that “apparently having a lighter makes you an arsonist.” Investigators found a small lighter during a search of Mays’ personal belongings.
The lead prosecutor, Capt. Jason Jones, has argued there was sufficient evidence to convict Mays on both counts. He denied Mays’ attorneys’ contention that investigators and prosecutors were biased in their fervent pursuit of the young sailor.
“There has never been a myopic focus on Seaman Mays,” Jones said. He defended the investigation and prosecution, adding that “we’ve proven it beyond a reasonable doubt.”
In 2020, Mays was held for three months in pre-trial confinement in a San Diego brig, but was released without being charged. Then, in July 2021, the Navy formally charged him but did not order his confinement as the case wound through a preliminary hearing and then went to trial.
Defense attorneys grilled investigators and government experts in fire forensics and engineering over their conclusions and argued the investigation failed to present any specific, strong physical and forensic evidence that Mays was in the deck at the time and had set the fire.
Investigators, Torres said, did not pursue possible links to two other recent fires – a burned mattress aboard amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD-2), berthed at Pier 8, the afternoon the fire broke out aboard Bonhomme Richard and, a few weeks earlier, a small fire aboard BHR in a cup in an engineering space.
“We really don’t know what happened there entirely,” Torres argued, “because NCIS didn’t investigate it. ”
Investigators questions Mays for nearly 10 hours one day in early August 2020 before he was confined to the brig. At one point in the investigation, he began to cry. “I didn’t do anything. Let me go,” he said in a video clip played in court Thursday during Torres’ closing arguments.
“This is not a close call ” the attorney told the judge. “The evidence did not support a conviction. Not by a long shot. Seaman Mays is innocent.”
“This court must find him not guilty now,” he added, “and finally let him go.”