Closing Arguments Begin in Bonhomme Richard Blaze Trial

Bonhomme Richard

US Navy sailors battle a blaze sweeping the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard on July 12, 2022, at Naval Base San Diego. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Christina Ross.

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

SAN DIEGO — Closing arguments are slated to begin in the court-martial trial of the US Navy sailor accused of torching the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard in 2020.

With no panel of his peers on hand to decide if Seaman Recruit Ryan Mays sparked the $1.2 billion blaze on July 12, 2020, his fate will fall to a lone military judge, Capt. Derek Butler, who’s expected to begin deliberations on Thursday, Sept. 29.

If convicted, Mays faces a lifetime behind bars.

Prosecutors over the past two weeks have painted Mays, 21, as a disgruntled non-rate arsonist, simmering with rage over being booted from initial training for the SEALs.

But his defense team has sought to puncture holes in the prosecution’s theory, portraying him as a convenient scapegoat in a bungled probe that rushed to quick justice.

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. When the fire destroyed it, the vessel had been going through a maintenance availability that began in 2018. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Christina Ross.

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

Butler learned Tuesday that the Naval Criminal Investigative Service had identified an alternative suspect for the fire but never charged him.

NCIS Special Agent Maya Kamat testified that authorities quit probing the enlisted fireman’s possible role in the blaze after he separated from the Navy.

She and other witnesses spoke of the other suspect’s suspicious internet searches in the days leading up to the fire; graffiti that claimed “I did it” scrawled inside a pierside portable outhouse, words written while Mays was in the brig on pretrial confinement; and a different person who might’ve been seen running from the vehicle deck on board the ship moments after the fire erupted.

Gary Barthel, Mays’ former civilian defense attorney, told Coffee or Die Magazine he believes federal agents assigned to NCIS and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives tried to “rush through the scene” instead of diligently probing the cause of the blaze, triggering “missteps” that missed evidence that would’ve exonerated Mays.

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.

Barthel said he believes Mays’ military attorneys have presented a compelling case to free the seaman recruit, but he conceded the alleged eyewitness testimony of Personnel Specialist 2nd Class Kenji Velasco might be “the hardest part to overcome.”

The petty officer told Butler he was sure he saw Mays, wearing blue boot camp-issued coveralls, carrying a bucket down a ramp to the vehicle deck moments before the fire broke out.

Although other witnesses spotted Mays wearing a different uniform that morning, and the defendant’s legal team repeatedly pointed out that Velasco’s memories about what he saw in 2020 have evolved over the past two years, Butler is still left with a lone eyewitness who allegedly can put Mays at the scene of the blaze.

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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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