Defense Goes on the Offensive in Bonhomme Richard Fire Trial

Bonhomme Richard

A helicopter from the “Merlins” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 3 fights a fire sweeping the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard on July 13, 2020, a day after the blaze erupted on the vessel moored pierside at Naval Base San Diego. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class David Mora Jr.

US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class David Mora Jr.

SAN DIEGO — The defense team in the court-martial trial of Seaman Recruit Ryan Mays is now on the offensive, working to puncture holes in the prosecution’s argument that the sailor torched the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard in 2020.

Their first strike on Monday, Sept. 26, came against the shifting memories of Operations Specialist 2nd Class Kenji Velasco, who testified last week that he saw Mays in his boot camp-issued coveralls carrying a bucket down a ramp to the deck where the blaze erupted moments later.

But the defense called a string of sailors who testified that they saw Mays wearing his Type III Navy Working Uniform on the morning of the fire, not coveralls, suggesting that Velasco’s eyewitness testimony might be off.

Bonhomme Richard

US Navy sailors fight a fire sweeping the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard on July 13, 2020. On the morning of July 12, a fire erupted on board the warship, which was moored pierside at Naval Base San Diego. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Hector Carrera.

US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Hector Carrera.

Later in the afternoon, testimony veered to sailors assigned to a sister Wasp-class amphibious warship, Essex, which was moored roughly a mile away from Bonhomme Richard when the July 12, 2020, fire began.

The crew of the Essex had come to the rescue of the burning Bonhomme Richard, but they also had a mysterious fire break out on their warship that day.

Hull Technician 1st Class Brian Shultz told the courtroom he happened upon a “small haze” in a troop berthing space around 3 p.m. that afternoon, the smoky remnants of a mattress blaze that had already extinguished itself.

The lead investigator in the Essex probe, Naval Criminal Investigative Service Special Agent Alexandra Baruffi, testified that she interviewed two suspects in the Essex fire but determined they had no connection to the Bonhomme Richard blaze.

But the courtroom became tense as the defense team leaped on what they claimed were Baruffi’s spotty memories and lack of preparedness to testify. They wanted to treat her as an adverse witness, with a vested interest in propping up the NCIS investigation into the Bonhomme Richard fire, but the judge denied their request.

Bonhomme Richard

Lee Ann Ritterpusch, an industrial hygienist at South West Regional Maintenance Center, evaluates smoke plume and atmospheric levels pierside of the the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego, on July 14, 2020. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Garrett LaBarge.

US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Garrett LaBarge.

Aviation Boatswain’s Mate Fuel Senior Chief Lino Aguilar-Barrow, a witness for the prosecution, had told the court last week that Mays claimed to be in the lower vehicle stowage area on the day before the fire broke out there.

The defense closed Monday’s trial by calling Midshipman 3rd Class Joshua McGill, who testified remotely from the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, to refute that.

A friend and former shipmate of Mays, he told the court he could account for the whereabouts of Mays in the days leading up to the fire, and the senior chief got it wrong.

The trial is expected to conclude on Wednesday.

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Tom Wyatt is an intern at Coffee or Die Magazine. He is an active duty Naval Special Warfare Boat Operator and a proud father living in San Diego, California. Tom is a budding reporter, looking to pursue journalism and fiction writing upon exiting the Navy.
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