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Sailor Charged with Arson in Bonhomme Richard Fire Claims Innocence, Lawyer Says



A junior sailor charged with arson in connection with the fire aboard the Bonhomme Richard last summer insists that he’s innocent and is currently out of jail ahead of a trial, his attorney told Military.com.

On Thursday, the Navy announced that it had charged a sailor in connection with the conflagration that began July 12, 2020, in the ship’s “Deep V” lower cargo hold. The blaze lasted for four days and burned at more than 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. The incident is considered the Navy’s worst U.S. warship fire outside of combat in recent history.

Navy leaders announced in November, four months after the blaze, that the Bonhomme Richard would be scrapped after determining it would take at least $2.5 billion and five years to fix. The 22-year-old, 40,000-ton Wasp-class amphibious assault ship was designed to embark, deploy and land Marines, as well as launch some attack aircraft.

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Dismantling of the ship began April 15.

Although the Navy has not publicly named the sailor, Cmdr. Sean Robertson, spokesman for the Navy’s Third Fleet based in San Diego, told Military.com on Friday that the male sailor, an E-2, is facing charges under Article 110, wrongful hazarding of a vessel, and Article 126, aggravated arson, of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Gary Barthel, the defense attorney for the accused sailor, said that his “client is adamant that he’s not guilty of anything that he’s been charged with.”

“He maintains his innocence,” he added.

The sailor is not currently locked in the brig, the attorney said.

“He’s currently performing his duties on a daily basis,” Barthel said, explaining that the accused arsonist is on shore duty, stationed with an amphibious squadron command in San Diego.

“To my knowledge, there’s no reason and there’s no intent on putting him back in the brig,” Barthel said.

Robertson said that, while a timeline for any trial is not yet available, a preliminary hearing is the next step.

“Right now, we are in a position where the charges have been preferred. It means … he’s been charged,” Robertson explained.

The accused sailor spoke with investigators shortly after the fire and was confined to the Marine Corps Station Miramar brig for several months late last year before being released, Barthel said.

Neither the Navy nor Barthel would release the name of the sailor. Roberston said the government will identify the man if the charges are referred to court-martial. Barthel said that he didn’t “want to bring any more anxiety to him than what he’s already going through.”

The defense attorney explained that he has not yet seen the Navy’s evidence but added, “That’s not unusual.”

News of the charges does not signal any change in the release of the now-completed command investigation into the blaze. Lt. Katie Diener, a Navy spokeswoman, told Military.com that the report is still undergoing command review and will be released “later this summer.”

— Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

Related: One Year After the Bonhomme Richard Fire, Questions Remain Unanswered

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