Verdict in Bonhomme Richard Arson Trial: Not Guilty

Bonhomme Richard

Flanked by his legal team and loved ones, US Navy Seaman Recruit Ryan Mays, center, greets reporters at Naval Base San Diego on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. Mays, 21, was found not guilty of torching the amphibious warship Bonhomme Richard in 2020. Photo by Tom Wyatt/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Photo by Tom Wyatt/Coffee or Die Magazine.

SAN DIEGO — The sailor whom military prosecutors blamed for torching the amphibious warship Bonhomme Richard in 2020 strolled out of the courtroom here, a free man.

After deliberating overnight, on Friday, Sept. 30, judge Capt. Derek Butler found Seaman Recruit Ryan Mays not guilty of sparking the $1.2 billion blaze.

Mays, 21, had faced a lifetime in prison if he’d been convicted of arson and willfully hazarding the vessel.

As the verdict was read, Mays broke down in tears. He always insisted he was innocent, a non-rate scapegoat for superiors making a quick rush to justice.

“I can say that the past two years have been the hardest two years of my entire life,” he told reporters.

“I’ve lost time with friends. I’ve lost friends,” Mays added.

Navy Ship USS Bonhomme Richard Burns At Naval Base In San Diego

Sailors and federal firefighters combat a fire sweeping the amphibious warship Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego on July 12, 2020. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Christina Ross.

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

The verdict arrived less than 24 hours after prosecutors and defense attorneys delivered their final arguments, capping a court-martial trial that spanned two weeks.

Lt. Cmdr. Jordi Torres, the lead defense attorney, invoked Orwellian language when he warned Butler that “groupthink” and “cognitive bias” polluted the minds of investigators, who dismissed all evidence that didn’t prop up their rickety case against the seaman recruit.

Torres argued that investigators were too quick to label Mays a sullen and vindictive malcontent, bent on destroying his warship after he flunked out of initial training to join the elite SEALs. He said that easy motive colored the probe, leading investigators to overlook other causes for the fire that erupted on July 12, 2020, not to mention alternative suspects.

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.

Torres began and ended his pitch to the judge by showing a videotaped interrogation of Mays, who tearfully told investigators, “I didn’t do anything. Let me go.”

During his closing argument, Navy prosecutor Capt. Jason Jones called Mays’ alleged arson a “sucker punch” to the sea service for daring to boot him from BUD/S.

While conceding that only circumstantial evidence connected Mays to the blaze, Jones argued that was “not a lesser type of evidence.”

“The only verdict justice demands is guilty,” the prosecutor told the judge.

The judge disagreed.

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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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