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Another suspect in Bonhomme Richard fire searched the internet about fire moments before smoke was detected on board

The sailor was seen sprinting from the Lower Vehicle Deck and had photos of fires, google searches of fires, and handwriting that matched, "I set the ship on fire."

SAN DIEGO — On September 27, more than a week into the court martial of Seaman Recruit Ryan Mays, the man charged with purposely setting fire to the USS Bonhomme Richard, the military judge presiding over the case heard what has been the most explosive testimony to date.  

That testimony, however, came from witnesses called by the defense team, all of which centered on new information about another suspect that the Navy was investigating but was forced to stop after the suspect was separated from service.

Naval Criminal Investigative Services Special Agent Maya Kamat, the lead investigator in the Bonhomme Richard fire, was called to the stand by defense attorneys representing Mays.

Kamat testified that she was the first person to interview Sailor Kenji Velasco, the prosecution's star witness who said he saw Seaman Recruit Mays head down to the Lower Vehicle Deck just minutes before the fire began.

She confirmed that Velasco was initially unable to identify Mays and failed to do so during several subsequent interviews.

And while Velasco's identification of Mays has long been at the center of dispute for Mays' defense team, it was the information that Special Agent Kamat revealed about the Navy's other suspect that it was looking into before the team zeroed in on Mays.

According to Kamat's testimony, a sailor on the ship, Miya Polion, saw a man sprinting from the Lower V at around 8:03 a.m. on July 12, 2020. 

Polion notified investigators and described the man that day as being a person of color wearing blue coveralls, later identifying the sailor as "EM"

The identification prompted Kamat, according to her testimony, to interview Sailor EM four times in the following weeks.

During those interviews, NCIS investigators discovered that at approximately 7:45 a.m., the morning of the fire, just 18 or so minutes prior to him allegedly running from the Lower V and before smoke was seen billowing from it, EM searched the internet for information on, "heat scales and fire white," according to Kamat's testimony.

When Kamat and other NCIS investigators asked the sailor about the internet search, EM said he was doing research for a novel that he was writing. 

Kamat later confirmed that she read excerpts of EM's novel. The book was about fire-breathing dragons. The beginning of the novel was set on a burnt down warship.

Kamat also testified that during a search of EM's phone, investigators found a diagram on the phone that he drew a year prior depicting three phases of a fire.

Kamat testified that while EM was a suspect, their investigation led them to determine that he was no longer a person of interest.

Meanwhile, defense attorneys argued that the decision was made not because of their investigation but because Sailor EM was discharged from the Navy and that it no longer had jurisdiction to question him.

During cross-examination, Kamat told prosecutors that she and her team concluded that the sailor who identified EM was too far away to make a positive identification.

After Kamat's testimony, the defense then called a forensic handwriting expert that worked with investigators. The handwriting expert, Thomas Murray, said that investigators discovered handwriting left on a port-a-potty on the pier shortly after the fire. The message read, "I set the ship on fire."

Forensic document expert Murray said the handwriting matched samples that Sailor EM submitted during its investigation. Mays, on the other hand, had been in the brig and could not have been responsible for writing the message.

The defense is expected to rest on September 28, sending the case to Military Judge Captain Derek Butler to decide.

Editor's note: This story was originally published with the name of the additional suspect discussed by NCIS investigators during the trial but was removed due to the fact that the sailor has not been charged.

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