NOT GUILTY: Military judge issues verdict in USS Bonhomme Richard arson case
A military court judge found 21-year-old Seaman Recruit Ryan Mays not guilty of setting the fire that destroyed the USS Bonhomme Richard in July 2020
A military court judge found 21-year-old Seaman Recruit Ryan Mays not guilty of setting the fire that destroyed the USS Bonhomme Richard in July 2020.
Captain Derek Butler ruled that prosecutors failed to present enough hard evidence that tied Mays to the arson and instead relied on a circumstantial case, buoyed by the strength of just a single eyewitness.
The July 2020 fire burned in San Diego Bay for more than four days before crews managed to put out the flames, however, not before gutting the ship at an estimated cost of $1.2 billion.
Butler’s verdict comes after a nine-day trial in which prosecutors painted Mays as a disgruntled sailor who sought revenge over a failed bid to become a Navy SEAL. Meanwhile, Mays’ defense introduced new information that the Navy had another suspect but was forced to give up its case after the sailor was kicked out of the service.
WATCH: Not Guilty: Seaman Recruit Ryan Mays speaks after trial ends:
The Verdict: Judge takes less than a day for not guilty verdict
Military court judge, Captain Derek Butler, spent less than a day before returning to the bench with a not guilty verdict against Seaman Recruit Mays.
The verdict marked the end of the Navy's two-year-long prosecution of Mays which was almost entirely based on the eyewitness account of a single sailor who testified that he saw Mays minutes before the fire started.
At 9:21 am, after just less than a day of deliberation, military judge Captain Derek Butler returned a not guilty verdict against Seaman Recruit Ryan Mays.
After the verdict was read, Mays sobbed loudly in court before walking to the galley to hug his wife.
Outside of the courtroom, after two years of silence, Mays spoke to reporters for the first time.
"I'm so grateful this is finally over," he said. "It's been a long two years. I've been waiting a long time. I could say the past two years have been the hardest of my entire life as a young man."
Mays, who was flanked by his defense attorneys, his wife, and family added, "I've lost time with friends. I've lost friends. I've lost time with family and my entire Navy career was ruined. I'm looking forward to starting over," he added.
The not-guilty verdict now places the focus back on the Navy's decision to move forward with the criminal trial. That decision was made in spite of the recommendations that a separate military court judge made during Mays's preliminary hearing in December 2021.
The Trial: The Case Against Seaman Recruit Ryan Mays
On September 29, nine days after the trial began at Naval Base San Diego, the prosecution and defense delivered closing arguments in the high-profile case.
Mays faces charges of arson and willful hazarding of a vessel. If convicted, Mays could be sentenced to life in prison.
Closing arguments in the Navy's case against Mays come a little over two years after a small fire inside the Lower Vehicle Deck sparked, and smoldered for nearly two hours before spreading out of control. This, as Navy personnel on board the warship, were left without clear orders on how to fight the fire and were left without standard fire-fighting equipment at its disposal.
What began as a small fire on the morning of July 12, 2020, turned into an inferno that burned in San Diego Bay for four full days. The fire gutted the amphibious assault ship and forced the Navy to scrap it, leaving taxpayers to foot a $1.2 billion dollar loss.
As the fire raged, special agents at the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, scrambled to gather evidence and search for eyewitnesses. Weeks after the fire, experts combed the Lower Vehicle Deck for evidence as to what started the fire. Finding none, they focused on testimony from a sailor standing guard the morning of the fire who said he saw a sailor, who after a series of interviews he identified as Mays, walk down the ramp into the Lower V minutes before smoke began billowing out while holding a bucket.
For its closing arguments, Navy prosecutors hammered home the importance of that testimony. They said the fire was "a mischievous act performed by a disgruntled sailor aimed at proving a point."
Prosecutors said Mays had the motive, the opportunity to start the fire, and the ability to do so. Prosecutors admitted that its case was largely circumstantial, however, that is also the case in most arson cases.
Conversely, the defense said the prosecution's case was filled with bias. Mays' attorneys accused prosecutors of ignoring the evidence that didn't fit in their narrative. The defense said the Navy relied on an eyewitness who had changed his story numerous times and admitted that he felt "pressured" to name a suspect.
The arguments brought to an end a contentious trial filled with bickering between fire experts, conflicting eyewitness accounts, and testimony from the Navy's top investigator that revealed that special agents had zeroed in on another suspect but were forced to stop looking into the sailor because he was discharged from the service.
The Prosecution's Case: The Experts and The Eyewitness
The Navy's case relied heavily on testimony from a single eyewitness as well as the investigation of the fire scene conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF).
At the heart of its case was testimony from Personnel Specialist (PS2) Kenji Velasco who was assigned to security duty on the morning of July 12, 2020.
Kenji Velasco Testimony
Velasco testified that he was standing guard when he witnessed somebody dressed in "boot camp coveralls" and in a brown mask, from the corner of his eye, walk down to the Lower V carrying a five-gallon bucket. The man, according to Velasco, yelled, "I love deck."
Velasco said it was the last time he saw the man before seeing smoke creep up the ramp from the Lower V.
Velasco said he knew Mays and knew his voice. He also knew that Mays was upset with the Navy and resentful of his duty after he was forced to drop out of BUDS Navy SEAL training.
Despite that, Velasco testified that several days transpired, and numerous interviews with special agents before identifying Mays as the person he saw that day head down into the Lower V.
"It was a crazy day," Velasco said during his September 22 testimony. "I was in panic mode."
During his testimony, Velasco testified that it was his supervisor on the ship, Matthew Betz, who first brought up Mays' name after he told Betz that the person he saw was wearing boot camp coveralls.
Prosecutors also relied on testimony from a different sailor who said she overheard Mays say that he did it as he walked to the brig, something the defense said Mays was being sarcastic about after spending 10 hours with investigators.
In addition to testimony from witnesses, for their case, prosecutors leaned heavily on the fire investigation from the ATF.
That investigation found that an accelerant was likely used to start the fire. The determination was made after investigators were unable to find another cause for the fire.
The Defense: The Navy Lacks Evidence and Ignored Key Suspect
Mays' defense, meanwhile, spent days poking large holes into the Navy's case, in addition to presenting new evidence that the Navy was forced to abandon its investigation into another suspect who was kicked out of the Navy before charges could be submitted.
In regards to the testimony from eyewitness Velasco, defense attorneys grilled Velasco on the stand about why it took him so long to identify Mays and why his story had changed since fingering Mays since the fire.
While on the stand, Velasco said that at first he wasn't sure it was Mays and he didn't want to name any names when he was first asked about what he witnessed that day.
Velasco said it wasn't until his superior Betz said Mays liked to wear the same coveralls that Velasco said the person he saw the day of the fire was wearing.
Velasco also admitted that he told others that he thought the fire was likely caused by electrical issues and that he wasn't sure that it was Mays at first.
Velasco said special agents "pressured" him during the investigation and that he was "scared" during the dozen or so interviews.
"Didn't you tell investigators that you were not sure that the person you saw was white," asked Mays' defense attorney.
"Yes, sir," testified Velasco.
Defense attorneys also spent time debunking what they felt was a cursory and deficient investigation by the ATF.
While confirming that they could not find an exact cause of the fire, defense experts said they were unable to rule out faulty electrical wiring on a forklift that was stored in the Lower V as well as eight lithium batteries that had exploded before or during the fire.
However, it was the testimony from the Navy's lead investigator that caused the biggest splash in the case.
In an unusual turn, it was the defense that called the Navy's top special agent in charge of the investigation to the stand.
The agent, Maya Kamat, testified that agents had another suspect in the days and weeks after the fire.
That suspect, "Sailor E.M.," was seen "sprinting" from the Lower V at around 8:03 the morning of the fire.
Special Agent Kamat testified that she interviewed E.M. - CBS 8 is not using the sailor's real name due to the fact that he was never charged with the crime - and that she found that he had searched the internet 15 minutes before the fire for "heat scales, fire white."
When asked about the Google search, E.M. told Kamat that he was doing research for a novel he was writing about fire-breathing dragons. Kamat testified that she read portions of his novel and it started on a burnt-down warship named the "TB3R."
Kamat also testified that during a search of E.M.'s phone, investigators found a diagram on the phone that he drew a year prior depicting three phases of a fire.
Adding to it, the defense called a handwriting expert who examined writing on a portable toilet that was on the pier next to the Bonhomme Richard. The message, "I lit the ship on fire," was found to have similarities with handwriting samples from E.M.. Mays on the other hand was ruled out from writing the message because he was in the brig when the handwriting was found.
Despite the leads, Kamat testified that the Navy's investigation into E.M. stopped after he was discharged from the Navy and it no longer had jurisdiction. Kamat also testified that E.M. was ruled out as a suspect.
According to Mays's defense team consultant, Gary Barthel, the U.S. Attorney's Office decided against pursuing criminal charges against suspect E.M., leaving the Navy without the authority to continue its investigation.
In response, the Navy opted to pursue its case against Mays.
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