SEAL Dropout Who Shipmates Said ‘Hates’ the Navy Is Suspected in Bonhomme Richard Fire
A search warrant application has revealed new details about the investigation into the fire aboard the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard and the man investigators suspect of starting it.
According to the document, filed with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California in September 2020, Naval Criminal Investigative Service, or NCIS, investigators suspected a disgruntled sailor — Ryan Sawyer Mays — of starting the Navy‘s worst U.S. warship fire outside of combat in recent history.
The Bonhomme Richard burned out of control for approximately five days, damaging 470 compartments out of 1,400 on the ship, according to the affidavit. Shortly after the blaze was out, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday said there was fire and water damage, to varying degrees, on 11 of 14 the ship’s decks.
The application was unsealed Tuesday. The Daily Beast was the first to report on its contents.
On July 29, the Navy announced that a sailor had been charged under Article 110, wrongful hazarding of a vessel, and Article 126, aggravated arson, of the Uniform Code of Military Justice in connection with the blaze. Cmdr. Sean Robertson, a service spokesman, confirmed in an email to Military.com on Wednesday that Mays is the sailor who was charged.
Records on Mays released by the Navy show that he reported to boot camp at Naval Station Great Lakes, on May 29, 2019. In the search warrant application, investigators said that Mays joined the service “with the intent on becoming trained in the Advanced Electronics Computer Fields.” They add that, at some point, he “changed his career goals to becoming a Navy SEAL.”
Records show that Mays attended a preparatory school for the special warfare teams while still at Great Lakes. In September 2019, he reported to the Basic Underwater Demolition School — more commonly known as BUD/S — the first step in becoming a Navy SEAL. However, investigators say, “Five days after training began, Mays exercised his option out of training and ‘Dropped on Request.'”
He left BUD/S in March 2020 and was stationed on the Bonhomme Richard by the end of the month, records show. Investigators say he was an undesignated seaman on the ship.
Undesignated seaman, unlike most sailors, do not have an assigned specialty and typically help Boatswain’s Mates doing some of the most labor-intensive work on a ship. It is considered an undesirable, low-status position.
“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 search warrant application says.
Mays’ fellow sailors and leadership described him as someone who had a strong dislike of the Navy. One sailor characterized him to investigators as someone “that ‘hates’ the U.S. Navy and the Fleet.”
And the ship’s command master chief “identified Mays as a person who showed disdain towards authority and the U.S. Navy,” the application says.
The document also sheds more light on how the fire started and the direction the investigation took after the blaze was extinguished.
According to the search warrant application, Seaman Kenji Velasco told NCIS that just minutes before smoke emerged from the Lower V area — the area of the ship previously identified as the likely starting point for the fire — a sailor passed him carrying “a metal bucket in his hands by the bucket itself, rather than its handle, in front of his torso and sarcastically stated, ‘I love Deck.'”
Velasco later said “he was ‘fairly sure’ and ‘90% sure'” the person he saw was Mays, adding that he was known to use the phrase “I love deck,” the affidavit says.
In an interview with NCIS agents, Mays “repeatedly denied having started the fire on the BHR or having been in the Lower V on the day of the fire,” according to the court document.
“He maintained his innocence as to being the cause of the fire throughout the entire interview,” it adds. “At one point, after being told that he had been identified as having descended the ramp to the Lower V, before the fire started, Mays stated that he was being setup.”
Military.com repeatedly reached out to Mays’ lawyer, Gary Barthel, for comment but did not hear back before publication. However, Barthel previously told Military.com that his “client is adamant that he’s not guilty of anything that he’s been charged with.”
After the fire was extinguished, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigators found four bottles and two cans in the Lower V, some of which contained small amounts of liquid.
“One liquid sample, which was associated with the second bottle, tested positive for a heavy petroleum distillate,” the application notes.
Examples of heavy petroleum distillates include diesel, kerosene and jet fuel.
On July 22, 2020, less than a week after the fire was put out, Lt. Cmdr. Felix Perez, the officer in charge of the ship’s damage control efforts, conducted a walkthrough of the upper and lower V compartments with NCIS and ATF agents.
Perez told investigators that three of the four fire stations in those spaces “were not in their normal configuration,” adding that he thought that they “appeared to have been purposely tampered with and/or disconnected.”
One of the ship’s chief petty officers told investigators Aug. 12, 2020, that he had spoken with Mays on an unknown date after the fire, and that Mays said he had been in the Lower V that day to store hoses.
Ultimately, “the progression and migration of the fire, coupled with the time in which a witness indicated that he believed he had observed Mays enter the Lower V … and the report of smoke led the [investigators] to classify the fire as incendiary,” the application says.
On Aug. 20, 2020, investigators interviewed Mays for about 10 hours. This included breaks, as well as physical walk through the ship. The interview shifted from Mays’ personal life to his whereabouts on the day of the fire to the location of his laptop computers.
At one point, investigators say that Mays told them he had been engaged to a female sailor but that the relationship ended when she became pregnant and Mays learned he was not the father. However, when questioned, the woman told NCIS “that she was not pregnant, never became pregnant, and had previously taken a pregnancy test to confirm that she was not pregnant.”
The woman also described Mays as being “volatile and ‘bipolar.'”
After this interview, Mays was arrested, the affidavit says. Barthel previously told Military.com that Mays was confined to the Marine Corps Station Miramar, California, brig for several months late last year before being released.
In all, investigators say that about 177 sailors assigned to the ship submitted written answers to a questionnaire in the days following the fire.
The agent requesting the warrant just weeks after Mays’ interview and detention asked for it to be sealed because “Mays is not aware of the full extent of the investigation.”
The application notes that “Mays has already given contradictory statements about the location of his computer, possibly for the purpose of frustrating the investigation.”
Navy records show that Mays currently is stationed at Amphibious Squadron 5 in San Diego.
Barthel told Military.com in a previous interview that Mays is not locked in the brig and is “performing his duties on a daily basis.”
Dismantling of the Bonhomme Richard began April 15 after it was determined it would take at least $2.5 billion and five years to fix the ship.
— Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.
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