A junior sailor who is accused of setting the fire that destroyed the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard last year had previously attempted to become a Navy SEAL, according to an affidavit filed by an investigator for a search warrant.
The Daily Beast and San Diego Union-Tribune first reported that Navy investigators believe that Seaman Apprentice Ryan Sawyer Mays started the fire aboard the Bonhomme Richard as it sat pierside in San Diego, California, which ultimately led the Navy to decide to scrap the ship because repairing the vessel would have cost more than $3 billion and required between five and seven years of work.
Mays was charged on July 29 under the Uniform Code of Military Justice with allegedly violating article 110, improper hazarding of a vessel; and article 126, aggravated arson, a Navy official said.
Mays enlisted in the Navy in May 2019 and was a student at SEAL training in Coronado, California from September 2019 to March 2020, according to his official Navy record. After he washed out of the program, known as Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Training, he was assigned to the Bonhomme Richard in March 2020 and as of April 15, was serving under the commander of amphibious squadron 5.
While Mays initially wanted to be trained in advanced electronics computer fields, he eventually decided he wanted to attend Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training, a special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service wrote last September in an affidavit for a search warrant of Mays’ email and internet accounts.
“Mays started BUDS in approximately October 2019; however, five days after training began, MAYS exercised his option out of training and “Dropped on Request,” known as a DOR,” the affidavit says. “The DOR officially ended his pursuit of becoming a SEAL. After his DOR from the SEAL training program, Mays was reassigned to BHR [Bonhomme Richard] as an undesignated Seaman.”
“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,” the affidavit says.
After the fire, Mays told investigators that he was training for special operations and planned to reapply to become a SEAL again, the affidavit says.
A Naval Special Warfare Command spokesman declined to provide any information on Wednesday about why Mays had left Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training.
So far, the Navy has not publicly identified Mays as the sailor who has been charged with aggravated arson and hazarding a vessel for the Bonhomme Richard fire.
The blaze that broke out aboard the ship on July 12 burned for five days and damaged 470 of the 1,400 spaces on the Bonhomme Richard, the NCIS affidavit says. Seventy-one people were reportedly injured during the fight to extinguish the inferno.
Investigators believe that the fire began in the lower vehicle stowage, known as “Lower V,” the affidavit says. Evidence of arson was discovered after the blaze, including liquid in a bottle that tested positive for heavy petroleum distillate. It was also discovered that firefighting equipment in the area where the fire started had also been rendered inoperable.
Lt. Cmdr. Felix Perez, the Damage Control Assistant, told investigators that lower vehicle stowage had been inspected two days before the fire, and that it was “nearly impossible” that damage control sailors would not have checked the three firefighting stations affected.
According to the NCIS affidavit, one crew member told investigators he saw a sailor headed to lower vehicle stowage about five minutes before the fire broke out. While the crew member initially said he could not identify the man he saw, he later realized the sailor was the same height and had the same build as Mays.
The crew member also told investigators that the sailor had said “I love deck,” which is an expression that Mays used, the affidavit says.
The Bonhomme Richard’s Command Master Chief Jose Hernandez described Mays as, “a person who showed disdain towards authority and the U.S. Navy,” the affidavit says.
Mays also allegedly posted “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” on his Instagram page on June 14, 2020, the affidavit says. The line is a quote from the movie Apocalypse Now.
Mays has insisted that he did not start the fire aboard the Bonhomme Richard and he was not in lower vehicle stowage on July 12, 2020, although he was the only member of the ship’s crew to describe smelling a “burning fuel/rubbery smell” during the fire, according to the affidavit, which noted that forklifts and ammunition carts in the area where the fire started had rubber wheels that had melted because of the heat.
“He maintained his innocence as to being the cause of the fire throughout the entire interview,” the affidavit says. “At one point, after being told that he had been identified as having descended the ramp to the Lower V, before the fire started, Mays stated that he was being setup.”
Mays’ attorney Gary Barthel could not be reached for comment on Wednesday. Barthel downplayed the NCIS affidavit in an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune.
“The warrant is just an affidavit from an (NCIS) agent,” Barthel told the newspaper. “It’s always possible the evidence will show this warrant was not valid.”
The Bonhomme Richard is the second vessel that the Navy has had to scrap because of a fire. In 2012, a blaze aboard the Los Angeles-class submarine USS Miami caused more than $700 million worth of damage. The Navy decided it was too expensive to repair the boat.
Casey Fury, a shipyard worker, was later sentenced to 17 years in prison for setting the fire aboard the Miami.
Read the NCIS affidavit below:
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