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Navy's key witness in the USS Bonhomme Richard case takes the stand

Personnel Specialist Kenji Velasco faced tough questions about his recollection that day and the number of times it has changed.

SAN DIEGO — A key witness in the Navy's prosecution of Seaman Recruit Ryan Mays, accused of setting fire to the USS Bonhomme Richard in July 2020, took the stand Thursday.

Personnel Specialist Kenji Velasco is the Navy's only witness to allegedly see Mays heading down to the Lower V just minutes before smoke began to billow out from the area. 

If convicted of the charges, Mays faces a court martial and life in prison.

Today, September 22, the Navy called Velasco to the stand in hopes of strengthening its case against Mays, and placing the former Seaman Recruit at the scene of the fire. 

During his testimony, Velasco testified that he was standing guard at around 7:45 a.m. on July 12, 2020 when he witnessed somebody from the corner of his eye, walk down to the Lower V carrying a large bucket with him and yelling, "I love deck."

 Velasco said the man that he later identified as Mays did not return and assumed Mays escaped through an escape hatch in the ship.

Minutes later, Velasco testified that he saw smoke billow out of the Lower V.

However, Mays' defense team quickly poked holes in Velasco's account.

Mays' attorneys grilled Velasco about why he waited until more than a week after the fire to identify Mays as the person he saw that day. 

Velasco said he waited to name Mays because "it was a crazy day" and that he was in "panic mode." 

During his testimony, Velasco admitted that it was his supervisor on the ship, Matthew Betz, who first brought up Mays' name to Velasco the day after the fire started. 

Velasco also admitted that he was interviewed eight times by Navy investigators in the weeks and months after the fire and he felt "pressured" and "scared" during the interviews. Meanwhile, others on the ship began to point fingers at Velasco since he was the closest to where the fire started. They, according to Velasco's testimony, called him "fire-starter."

It was then, say defense attorneys, that Velasco honed in on Mays.

"Didn't you tell investigators that you were not sure that the person you saw was white," said defense attorney Lt. Tayler Haggerty.

"Yes, sir," testified Velasco.

"Is it true that you told people that you weren't sure who went down to the Lower V that day?" Asked Haggerty.

"Yes, sir," answered Velasco.

And when asked why he was so slow to identify Mays, Velasco said, "I was scared...I didn't want to get anyone in trouble."

Velasco also confirmed that investigators told him that "a lot was riding on his testimony."

Asked Mays' attorney, "Is it fair to say you didn't like Mays?"

"I didn't sir," answered Velasco.

The Navy's key witness, Velasco, was only on the stand for 38 minutes before both sides were through.

Following Velasco, the prosecution called three other members of the crew that day, one of which was not on the ship the day of the fire. 

All of the men said that when Velasco told them he saw someone wearing "boot camp coveralls" they immediately thought of Mays, who was one of the few on board the ship to wear those types of coveralls while on deck.

All three men also admitted that the first time that Mays' name came up was when they met to discuss so-called "conspiracy theories" about who started the fire that day.

"I'm surprised at the government's direct examination because it was very cursory," said attorney Gary Barthel who represented Mays earlier in his prosecution. "They opened the door to the defense. Velasco admitted that at first, he didn't recognize the individual and that people started pointing at him being the fire starter."

Added Barthel after the testimony, "Velasco seems as if his memory improves over time and I think a lot of that comes from the pressure that he felt to identify a suspect."

The prosecution is expected to end their case tomorrow, September 23, after calling law enforcement officials who worked the case. On Monday, September 26, the defense will begin with their case.

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