On Friday, U.S. Navy Seaman Recruit Ryan Mays was found not guilty of charges that he started the fire that reduced the USS Bonhomme Richard from an upgraded $1.2 billion ship to scrap metal in July 2020.

The decision ended a two-year legal ordeal for the sailor, who faced charges of aggravated arson and willfully hazarding a ship, for which the maximum sentence was life. 

Mays was 19 years old at the time of the Bonhomme Richard fire. He had dropped out of Basic Underwater Demolition School and was assigned to deck duty on the ship — painting and cleaning — but was trying to get back to BUD/S, according to testimony during the eight-day trial at Naval Base San Diego. 

His peers didn’t like him, saying he was arrogant and difficult, and officers testified he lacked military bearing.

Days before the fire, Mays texted his supervisor that contractors were welding in berthing while he was trying to sleep. 

“It’s dangerous as fuck,” he wrote. Lead prosecutor Capt. Jason Jones seized on the incident in closing arguments. 

“This is a mischievous act by a disgruntled sailor meant to prove his point,” he argued.

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Defense lawyers asserted that the investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the fire was intentionally set.

The ATF investigation found no fingerprints, DNA or any other physical evidence of how the fire started. Agents theorized that the fire was intentionally set by pouring a never-identified flammable liquid onto stacked tri-wall boxes.

Mays’ defense team found other potential sources for the fire and raised the specter of other suspects investigated by the ATF and the Naval Criminal Investigative Services. 

The fire burned for four days and more than 60 people were injured. A 440-page report details the utter failure of Navy personnel to prepare for and to fight the fire in the first hours.

“The Navy loses the ship to (failed) firefighting but it didn’t have a chance once (Mays) started the fire,” Jones argued.

Lead defense lawyer Lt. Commander Jordi Torres scoffed at the prosecutor’s description of Mays as a criminal mastermind. 

“That cheery-face, that goofy sailor who stays out all night working out, this is who Seaman Mays is,” Torres said.

Torres pointed out that Mays still believed he could get back to BUD/S and had been accepted into the Navy’s Search and Rescue school, thinking it would boost his chances. 

Just one witness placed Mays at the scene of the fire that started in the lower vehicle storage deck. Petty Officer Kenji Velasco testified that he saw a sailor in coveralls, a mask, and a hair covering — and carrying a heavy bucket — descend past him into the lower vehicle storage deck. But Velasco didn’t tell NCIS he was sure it was Mays at the first of his eight interviews with investigators. Velasco admitted he was worried that his shipmates thought he was the firestarter. 

Mays was in the brig from August 2020 to October 2020, when the arson investigation took a hard turn toward a new suspect: a sailor assigned to engineering was seen running from the lower deck.

The second suspect was getting off-duty around the time the fire started. Investigators found Google searches for fire scales and colors made the day of the fire on his phone. They also learned he was writing a novel about a dragon living on a burned ship. Their investigation ended when the second suspect left the Navy. 

Back in the courtroom on Friday, after the verdict was announced, Mays leaned forward heavily on the defense team table and sobbed loudly. Still sobbing, he hugged his wife, his father, and his mother.

“I never had any doubt,” said his dad, a retired police officer who attended the trial every day.

Outside the courtroom, Mays read a brief prepared statement: “The past two years have been the hardest years of my life as a young man, ” he said. “I’ve lost time with my friends. I’ve lost friends. I’ve lost time with my family. My entire Navy career was ruined.”

“I am looking forward to starting over,” he added.

Mays did not take questions about future plans, including whether he will try to stay in the Navy. Military defense lawyer Gary Barthel said the Navy cannot boot Mays from the service since he’s been cleared, but an administrative severance is possible, Barthel said.

“We will never know exactly what started the fire,” Barthel added.

Update: 9/30/2022; This article was updated after publication with statements from Ryan Mays, his father, and his attorney.

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