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Navy judge will rule if a sailor caused a fire on a warship

By JULIE WATSON Associated Press

SAN DIEGO (AP) — No one disputes that the Navy shares the blame for the loss of the USS Bonhomme Richard, the $1.2 billion amphibious assault ship that was engulfed in flames in San Diego in July 2020 when officials failed to respond quickly. and his crew had problems. with broken equipment.

But none of that would have ever happened, according to the prosecution’s closing arguments Thursday, without Ryan Sawyer Mays.

Prosecutors say the sailor, who was 19 at the time, was angry and vindictive about not becoming a Navy SEAL and being assigned to deck duty, so he turned on the boat to send a message.

Defense attorneys said in their closing statements that the Navy was determined to blame someone for the worst noncombatant Navy disaster in recent memory, and the sailor they chose, Mays, could be the wrong guy now facing possible chain life. There is no physical evidence linking the fire to Mays.

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Now it’s up to the only Navy judge, who presided over the nine-day trial at the San Diego Naval Base, to decide.

Mays, who was charged with arson and intentionally endangering a boat, says he is innocent.

Prosecutors say Mays lit cardboard boxes early that Sunday morning in a lower vehicle storage area on the ship, which was docked while undergoing $250 million maintenance work, to get his text message home. previous to his division officer that the ship was so messy. with contractors’ stuff it was “dangerous as (expletive)”.

The prosecutor, Capt. Jason Jones, acknowledged in court a Navy report last year that concluded the inferno was preventable and unacceptable, and that there were failures in training, coordination, communications, fire preparedness, maintenance of the team and overall command and control. The failure to extinguish or contain the fire caused temperatures to exceed 1,200 degrees (649 Celsius) in some areas, melting sections of the ship into molten metal that flowed into other parts of the ship. Navy leaders disciplined more than 20 senior officers and sailors.

Jones told the judge that there is no question that the Navy “missed the boat” that morning, but Mays is to blame for turning it on.

“That dumb back-tack, that’s what the Navy could never have prevented,” he said.

Mays thought he would be jumping out of helicopters on missions with the SEALs, but instead, he was chipping paint off a ship’s deck and hated the Navy for it, Jones said.

“When you’re on deck, you’re as far away from the SEALs as you’ll ever be,” Jones said.

Defense attorneys say the trial only exposed a shoddy investigation by government investigators who rushed to judgment and were unable to gather evidence to show the culprit could also have been lithium-ion batteries or a forklift with sparks instead of arson. Investigators didn’t take notes or photos of any of those other possible causes, they say.

“Sailor Mays pointed out that there were fire hazards on this ship, and now he faces court-martial for arson,” said Lieutenant Commander Jordi Torres, the lead defense attorney.

Torres said the prosecution tried to paint an overconfident “goofy, cheerful-faced sailor” as a criminal mastermind. In fact, he said that Mays had reason to behave. He said Mays believed he still had a chance to try again to become a SEAL, had been working out incessantly at the gym, and even asked one of the investigators, who was a former SEAL, if he would give him a recommendation so he could try it. again to join the elite force.

Torres said the Navy’s case hinges on the testimony of a sailor, Seaman Kenji Velasco, who has changed his story over time.

On the day of the fire, Velasco didn’t tell anyone that he saw anyone go down, even in case a companion’s life might be in danger from the fire raging from the belly of the ship at the time, the defense said.

It wasn’t until days later that he told investigators he saw someone he didn’t recognize wearing overalls and carrying a bucket go to the area. She then said that she thought it was Mays and heard him say sarcastically “I love the cover.” He later said later that he was “100 percent” sure it was Mays.

Meanwhile, investigators discounted another sailor’s account, Torres said. She testified at trial that she saw another co-worker run out of the lower vehicle storage area that morning after the fire started, the defense said.

According to the defense, that sailor was also unhappy and had Googled information on fire-related heat scales. A military handwriting examiner also compared the sailor’s handwriting to graffiti on the wall of a portable toilet that read, “I did it. I set fire to the ship”, with a drawing of a burning ship.

Prosecutors said he showed evidence that he researched fire information for a novel he was writing about a dragon, and say cell phone tracking and other evidence showed he was off the ship before the fire started.

The prosecution also said investigators found no scientific data to support the theory that batteries or a forklift malfunction caused the inferno, while testimony from fellow shipmates bolstered the case against Mays along with her own. words when they escorted him handcuffed and released him, according to the sailor who escorted him to the brig: “It had to be done. I did it.”

The defense said Mays, known for being flippant, was being sarcastic after denying doing so more than 150 times during investigators’ 10-hour cross-examination.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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