USS Bonhomme Richard Crewmember Acquitted of Arson Charges
The Navy court martial proceeding for Seaman Recruit Ryan Mays has ended, and a judge has acquitted Mays of charges of arson in connection with the fire that destroyed the amphib USS Bonhomme Richard in 2020.
Navy prosecutors accused Mays of intentionally starting a fire in the vessel's lower vehicle deck, then escaping through a scuttle. They described him as a malcontent who had dropped out of Navy SEAL training and was resentful at finding himself on low-ranking cleaning duty out in the fleet. For evidence, they presented a witness who claimed with increasing certainty that he had identified Mays headed down to the lower vehicle deck that morning carrying a bucket; the suspect was masked and the witness did not see his face, but claimed that he was recognizable as Mays his clothing and by a phrase he uttered. Further, after Mays' arrest and interrogation, a guard asserted that Mays muttered about being guilty on the way to his cell; Mays maintained that the comment was sarcastic.
The prosecution presented no physical evidence connecting Mays to the fire, nor any definitive evidence that the fire was sparked by arson. The ATF investigator in charge of the inquiry ruled out all other possible causes for the fire and determined arson by a process of elimination, not by virtue of evidence of an intentional ignition. The bay was used as a storage depot for vehicles and lithium batteries, Mays' counsel noted, and presented opportunities for an accidental fire. Mays' lawyers also noted that a different crewmember - who was ejected from the Navy shortly after the fire - had been linked to a series of "I did it" graffiti posts by handwriting analysis.
A 2021 command investigation into the circumstances of the fire unveiled an astonishing sequence of failures leading up to and following the blaze.
"Although the fire was started by an act of arson, the ship was lost due to an inability to extinguish the fire," concluded an investigation led by Vice Adm. Scott Conn, former head of 3rd Fleet. "In the 19 months executing the ship’s maintenance availability, repeated failures allowed for the accumulation of significant risk and an inadequately prepared crew, which led to an ineffective fire response.”
The report uncovered profound deficiencies in fire precautions during yard repairs, including everything from the crew's firefighting training to the industrial hygiene measures on board to the delayed reaction on the day of the fire. The common thread was a failure of leadership, running all the way up to the flag-officer level, Conn found.
Critically, no one used the fixed AFFF firefighting foam system for the lower vehicle hold, "in part because maintenance was not properly performed to keep it ready and in part because the crew lacked familiarity with capability and availability." Conn found that no crewmembers were aware of the location of the button to activate it even if it had been functional.
In July 2022, Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Samuel Paparo made 27 punitive disposition decisions for active-duty personnel connected to the fire, and Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro issued a Secretarial Letter of Censure for one retired officer. The disposition decisions all stopped short of court martial, and they focused primarily on Bonhomme Richard's leadership team.
As for the Bonhomme Richard, the amphib was written off at an estimated cost of $1.2 billion. In June 2021, she was towed to Brownsville, Texas and scrapped.