NCIS Warrant Reveals Identity of Bonhomme Richard Fire Suspect

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Published Aug 4, 2021 11:22 PM by The Maritime Executive

A U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service search warrant released Tuesday includes the identity of the sailor who stands accused of starting the devastating fire aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard in July 2020. Seaman Ryan Sawyer Mays, a dropout from the Navy SEALS training program who was transferred to Bonhomme Richard, allegedly caused the blaze that tore through the big-deck amphib and reduced it to scrap value. 

The fire on Bonhomme Richard broke out on the morning of July 12, 2020 as she was undergoing a maintenance period at Naval Base San Diego. Despite the best efforts of her crew and almost every available sailor at the base, the fire burned and spread for five days, moving from a lower vehicle deck all the way up to the wheelhouse, damaging 470 compartments out of 1,400. The vessel has been declared a total loss and was towed to Brownsville, Texas for scrapping. 

NCIS agents and forensic specialists from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms National Response Team (NRT) attended the scene after the fire was extinguished. Based on interviews and analytical methods, the NRT specialists confirmed that the fire originated in the the Lower V vehicle deck, and that it was likely incendiary in origin (arson). A number of plastic bottles and soda cans containing diesel or jet fuel were found within the compartment. 

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 - saw a "light-skinned male" in coveralls and a face mask walk down into the vehicle 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. Velasco told investigators that he was "fairly sure" that the individual was Mays.

Velasco and another enlisted sailor saw white smoke shortly after, and they reported the fire. They did not see anyone emerge from Lower V. 

Velasco told the NCIS that there were two "conflagration stations" with escape trunks out of Lower V, and that it is possible that an arsonist could have used these stations to transit up to higher deck levels. On July 31, an NCIS agent inspected the hold again and found that the access door from Lower V into one of the stations was open. This door led to an escape trunk, which gave access to an area near the hangar bay. 

In a screening questionnaire distributed to hundreds of personnel who were on Bonhomme Richard at the time of the fire, Mays had written that he was in the hangar bay at the time of the fire. Also, he alone - out of all respondents - wrote that he smelled a "burning fuel / rubbery smell" from the blaze. According to NCIS, that smell would be consistent with materials that investigators found in Lower V - burned tires and fuel. 

NCIS agents scrutinized Mays' record and found unfavorable reports. Bonhomme Richard's command master chief told them that Mays had issues with authority and did not respect the Navy. This pattern was not too uncommon, NCIS said: "According to Navy leadership, the morale and behavior of sailors who had aspired to become a SEAL, and then find themselves serving in a more traditional role on a Navy ship, are frequently very challenging," the agents wrote. 

On August 20, NCIS agents asked Mays to sit for an interview. When confronted with the allegation that he had been seen entering Lower V, Mays denied that it was him, and told investigators that the witness could not have identified him because "I had a face mask on." 

At the end of the 10-hour interview, Mays was arrested and transferred to the brig at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. He was released in mid-October and returned to Amphibious Squadron 5, his lawyer told The New York Times, where he remains assigned without restrictions on his movements. 

Mays was formally charged with arson on July 29, and he will soon face a preliminary hearing under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Vice Adm. Steve Koehler, the commander of U.S. Third Fleet, will determine whether the evidence from the hearing warrants a court-martial.