Attorneys Put NCIS on Trial in Bonhomme Richard Fire Case

Bonhomme Richard

US Navy sailors and federal firefighters battle a blaze sweeping the amphibious warship Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego on July 12, 2020. Bonhomme Richard had been going through a maintenance availability that began in 2018 when the fire destroyed the vessel. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Christina Ross.

US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Christina Ross.

SAN DIEGO — Seaman Recruit Ryan Mays began his case against investigators who blame the US Navy sailor for sparking the 2020 blaze that destroyed the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard.

On Friday, Sept. 23, the prosecution rested its case against the 21-year-old sailor, and court watchers got a taste of what’s likely to become a cornerstone of the defense team’s tactics in this, the second week of Mays’ court-martial trial here.

Defense attorneys pounced on the words of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service special agent who led the probe into a fire that caused $1.2 billion in damages to the warship. They accused him of a rush to justice, targeting Mays from the beginning in a biased investigation that landed him a convenient scapegoat.

“I didn’t even know who Seaman Recruit Mays was at the time,” Special Agent Albert Porter told the courtroom, adding that “facts drove the train.”

Bonhomme Richard

Salvage contractors remove the air traffic control tower from the fire-damaged amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard on March 4, 2021, to prepare the vessel for towing to the breaker yard. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Cosmo Walrath.

US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Cosmo Walrath.

Porter said he used his status as a SEAL veteran to gain rapport with Mays, who flunked out of initial training for the elite unit. He suspected simmering anger about that failure boiled over with Mays, triggering his decision to incinerate the warship.

Prosecutors have sought to portray Mays as an arrogant and disgruntled non-rate with an angry motive and ample time to plot his arson. To buttress their pitch, prosecutors showed clips culled from nine hours of video footage capturing Mays’ interrogation.

The camera captured Mays staring at Porter, as if catching him in a lie, before he bluntly said, “I’m really smart, dude. I got you.”

As those words echoed through the courtroom, Mays’ head fell into his hands. It was a rare sign of emotion from a defendant who has sat stoically in his seat during the first week of his court-martial trial.

Bonhomme Richard

US Navy sailors rush down the pier to join federal firefighters battling a blaze on board the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard on July 17, 2020, at Naval Base San Diego. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Zachary Pearson.

US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Zachary Pearson.

Porter was replaced on the stand by a pair of masters-at-arms, the Navy’s version of military police. Prosecutors say they heard Mays confess to setting the blaze.

Master-at-Arms Senior Chief Jeremy Kelley testified that he heard Mays utter, “I’m guilty. I did it.”

“Something to that effect,” Kelley added.

Prosecutors painted those words as an earnest confession from a sailor who has steadfastly maintained his innocence. Defense attorneys said it was merely the sarcastic and frustrated phrase of a beaten-down sailor who was badgered by the brass and NCIS investigators.

On Monday morning, defense attorneys get their chance to build on that.

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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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