A military judge on Friday acquitted a sailor of arson in connection with a fire that destroyed a billion-dollar amphibious assault ship.
The ruling in favor of Ryan Sawyer Mays, 21, came after a nine-day trial at the Naval Base San Diego over the blaze aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard.
“I can say that the past two years have been the hardest two years of my entire life as a young man,” he said in a statement outside the courthouse. “I’ve lost time with friends. I’ve lost friends. I’ve lost time with family, and my entire Navy career was ruined. I am looking forward to starting over.”
Military prosecutors charged Mays with arson and the willful hazarding of a ship. They said he lit cardboard boxes on fire in a lower vehicle storage area of the $1.2 billion ship, which was docked in San Diego and undergoing maintenance at the time.
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Prosecutors said Mays was angry and vengeful about failing to become a Navy SEAL and being assigned to deck duty, prompting him to ignite the cardboard boxes on July 12, 2020. They said he wanted to drive home his text earlier to his division officer that the ship was so cluttered with contractors’ material it was “hazardous as f—.”
However, they did not present any physical evidence. Meanwhile, defense attorney’s sewed doubt in the creditability of Seaman Kenji Velasco, a key witness for the prosecution who changed his account over time.
The prosecutor, Capt. Jason Jones, acknowledged in court a Navy report last year that concluded the inferno was preventable and unacceptable and that there were lapses in training, coordination, communications, fire preparedness, equipment maintenance and overall command and control.
Mays thought he would be jumping out of helicopters on missions with the SEALs, but instead he was chipping paint on the deck of a ship, and he hated the Navy for that, Jones said.
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“When on deck, you are about as far away from the SEALs as you are ever going to be,” Jones said.
Defense lawyers said the government rushed to judgment and failed to collect evidence showing lithium-ion batteries or a sparking forklift could have started the fire.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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