Hearings Begin in USS Bonhomme Richard Arson Case

bonhomme richard fire
Courtesy USN

Published Dec 14, 2021 10:08 PM by The Maritime Executive

At preliminary hearings in San Diego this week, Navy prosecutors laid out their case that the fire aboard the amphib USS Bonhomme Richard in July 2020 was started by a "disgruntled" crewmember who had recently washed out of the Navy SEAL training program. 

Seaman Apprentice Ryan Mays stands accused of arson and hazarding a vessel in connection with the fire, which tore through the center of the ship over the span of five days. The scale of the destruction was so extensive that the Navy decided to strip and scrap Bonhomme Richard, even though it had just undergone a $250 million refit. 

The Navy's internal investigation sharply criticized the vessel's commanders and crew for their role in the casualty, citing training shortfalls, poor industrial hygiene during a yard period, and poor coordination within and among units. Once started, the fire spread quickly, and the crew (and assisting units) were not able to assert effective control. 

Though the blame for the outcome of the fire may be shared, investigators assert that the blaze was started intentionally by one individual. According to experts from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the fire began in the Lower V hold, a vehicle deck which was in use as a storage area. The point origin appeared to be a thick-walled cardboard crate, which may have been coated with fuel to accelerate combustion. Uncapped bottles containing flammable liquid were found nearby. 

Seaman Mays was on duty on the morning of the fire, and he had been assigned to cleaning abovedecks. Just after 0800 hours, Seaman Kenji Velasco - who was standing watch near Lower V - told investigators that he saw a "light-skinned male" in coveralls and a face mask walk down into the hold carrying a metal bucket. In a series of interviews, Velasco said that this individual spoke to him briefly as he passed, saying "I love deck" - a sarcastic phrase that Velasco knew Mays used. Mays has denied that he was in the hold. 

In a preliminary hearing on Tuesday, Velasco admitted that he had revised his testimony about what he saw several times. He initially told investigators that he was not sure who the individual in the hold was; then said that he was 90 percent sure it was Mays; then said that he was completely sure it was Mays. “I just wanted to make sure it was him that I saw,” he explained at the hearing, according to Navy Times. 

The prosecution may have to make its case without physical evidence tying Mays to the scene. ATF Special Agent Matthew Beals told the hearing that investigators found no DNA evidence or other clues at the scene that would directly implicate Mays; the investigative team reached its conclusion because of the testimony of Mays' shipmates and the presence of a lighter in his locker. When questioned by Mays' attorney, Beals allowed that there may have been other people aboard the ship who owned lighters.