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Sailor charged with starting $3 billion ship fire hated the Navy, witnesses say

Sailors and Federal Fire San Diego firefighters combat a fire aboard USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) July 12, 2020. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jason Kofonow/Released)
August 04, 2021

The U.S. sailor charged with setting fire to USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) that resulted in $3 billion in damages to the amphibious assault ship has been named and identified this week. Witnesses who knew him say he had developed hatred and disdain for the Navy.

The San Diego Union-Tribune reported the sailor, who remained unidentified when the Navy initially announced charges on Thursday, has since been identified as 20-year-old Seaman Apprentice Ryan Mays. Gary Barthel, a San Diego-based military lawyer who represents Mays, confirmed to the San Diego Union-Tribune that his client was charged and said he denies any wrongdoing.

“He’s been adamant,” Barthel said. “He denies any involvement with the starting of the fire.”

The fire, which began on USS Bonhomme Richard on July 12, 2020, resulted in a blaze that Navy sailors, Federal Fire Department and San Diego Fire Department firefighters fought for four days before it was out. Amid the firefighting efforts, 63 people were injured, including 40 Navy personnel and 23 civilians. The ship’s aircraft-carrier-style flight deck was damaged in places and many of the ship’s decks had sustained fire and water damage.

The Navy ultimately decided to scrap the ship after estimates to repair it exceeded its original construction cost. Repairing the ship would have cost more than $3 billion and five-to-seven years to complete. Repurposing the ship would have cost more than $1 billion. The ship’s original construction cost was about $761 million.

The San Diego Union-Tribune reported, based on Mays’ Navy service record, that the Kentucky native joined the Navy and graduated boot camp in July 2019, before he completed a Navy SEAL prerequisite school in Illinois and reported to the Basic Underwater Demolition School (BUD/S) at Naval Base Coronado in September of that year. By March 2020, Mays left BUD/S, bound to report to the USS Bonhomme Richard as a deck seaman.

The Daily Beast further reported on a copy of a search warrant filed on Sept. 3, seeking access to Mays’ email account.

The legal documents stated Mays “started BUDS in approximately October 2019 but within five days he exercised his option out of training through a process known as “Dropped on Request,” (DOR). The DOR officially ended his pursuit of becoming a SEAL. After his DOR from the SEAL training
program, Mays was reassigned to Bonhomme Richard as an undesignated Seaman.

The legal documents further stated, “According to Navy leadership, the morale and behavior of sailors who had aspired to become a SEAL, and
then find themselves serving in a more traditional role on a Navy ship, are frequently very challenging.”

Sailors subsequently interviewed about Mays would go on to say the sailor had developed a hatred and disdain for the Navy.

According to the probable cause statement in the warrant filed by Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) special agent Maya Kamat,  investigators determined the ship fire originated at or near the starboard elevator bulkhead in the Lower V section of the ship. Witnesses described seeing a “light-skin male” wearing clean coveralls, a facemask, carrying a silver/metal bucket with both hands in front of his body descend into the Lower V of the ship, where the fire began.

One sailor who was interviewed by investigators, Seaman Kenji Velasco, did not initially identify Mays but when discussing his witness questionnaire,
Velasco did mention a sailor named Mays that he said “hates” the U.S. Navy and the Fleet. After the fire began, Valesco said the same individual he saw enter the Lower V of the ship passed by and sarcastically stated, “I love
Deck.” Velasco said he did not observe anyone else enter the Lower V area except that individual before the fire started.

Another sailor interviewed, Boatswain’s Mate Third Class Matthew Betz, told investigators about a conversation he had with Valesco the day after the fire started in which Velasco said the person he saw go down to the Lower V said “Fuck deck” or “I love deck” when he went down the ramp. Betz indicated he believed the person Velasco described going down
to the Lower V was Mays, according to the legal documents.

In another interview, Command Master Chief (CMC) Jose Hernandez also
identified Mays as a person who “showed disdain towards authority and the U.S. Navy.”

In a June 14, 2020 Instagram post, about a month before the fire, Mays posted a photo with the caption, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

In his own interview with investigators, Mays said he had dated a female sailor, proposed to her and she had accepted but then deployed to Los Angeles on the USNS Mercy, which was deployed during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Mays said he learned she had become pregnant, and separated from her after he learned he was not the father.

During his interview, Mays also told investigators he was willing to take a polygraph exam, after which he was arrested. As Mays was being processed for the arrest, the legal documents state two Master-at-Arms designated sailors “heard Mays say (unasked) that he was guilty, seemingly talking to himself.”

Following his arrest, Mays continued to agree to take a polygraph test. After administering two series of questions, Mays was informed the test determined “deception was indicated to the relevant questions.” According to the affidavit, “When he was informed of the possible deception indications, MAYS became extremely upset and denied any involvement in starting the fire.”

Investigators also later learned details about Mays story about his marriage proposal and the female sailor’s subsequent pregnancy were contradicted by the female sailor in question. The female sailor, identified as Petty Officer Third Class Armelle Ane denied Mays ever proposed to her and said never became pregnant. Ane further described Mays as being volatile and “bipolar.”

Barthel told the San Diego Union-Tribune, “The warrant is just an affidavit from an (NCIS) agent. It’s always possible the evidence will show this warrant was not valid.”

Barthel said his client was briefly held in pretrial confinement at the Navy Consolidated Brig at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in November, but that he was released and has been performing his regular duties since then.