Defense witnesses disclose that another suspect in the fire searched the internet about fire moments before smoke was detected on board.
In July of 2020, a 1,100-degree fire blazed aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard.
In a post about my concerns about American military readiness and priorities, I noted that the ship was decommissioned in April 2021, and the investigation was winding down.
There has been another development in the case, as the sailor charged by the U.S. Navy in the incident has been found not guilty of setting the fire.
Seaman Recruit Ryan Mays was acquitted of charges of arson and the willful hazarding of a ship, Commander Sean Robertson, a spokesman for the U.S. 3rd Fleet, said in a statement.
The decision followed a two-week court-martial in which Navy prosecutors argued that Mays, who was 19 at the time of the blaze, started the fire due to disgruntlement with his work. Defense lawyers said lithium-ion batteries or a spark from a short on a forklift could have been to blame.
“The Navy is committed to upholding the principles of due process and a fair trial,” Robertson said.
Had Mays been found guilty, he could have faced life in prison.
Navy prosecutors portrayed Seaman Mays as a disgruntled serviceman who had hoped to become a Navy SEAL but dropped out and was reassigned to other duties.
The defense centered on the lack of evidence for that scenario.
Navy defense lawyers countered that the fire was a result of carelessness and complacency on the part of Navy commanders, and that there was no evidence that the fire was arson or that Seaman Mays had lit it.
Going into the trial, it was clear the prosecution faced challenges. At a preliminary hearing in December, a Navy judge recommended against taking the case forward, saying the lack of evidence made a conviction unlikely. Even so, the commander with convening authority over the case, Vice Adm. Stephen T. Koehler, decided to proceed.
Another factor that helped the defense was the disclosure from witnesses called by the defense team that centered on new information about another suspect (designated EM) that the Navy was investigating but was forced to stop after the suspect was separated from service.
It was reported that the sailor was seen sprinting from the ship’s Lower Vehicle Deck and had photos of fires, google searches of fires, and handwriting that matched, “I set the ship on fire.”
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.
There was also a separate command investigation of Bonhomme Richard officers, crew, and ship condition. The findings indicate that the conditions were ripe for a devastating blaze.
The command investigation, led by a three-star admiral, sent a team of investigators on a prodigious and methodical examination of the fire. As the months passed, the investigators uncovered in exhaustive detail an astonishing array of failures — broken or missing fire hoses, poorly trained sailors, improperly stored hazardous material — that had primed the ship for a calamitous fire.
…A separate investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, for its
The command investigation traced the problems back to when the Bonhomme Richard docked for maintenance and Navy leaders throughout the ranks abandoned responsibility for the ship’s safety.
Risks mounted, and nobody paid attention. All told, investigators determined that the actions of 17 sailors and officers directly led to the loss of the ship, and those of 17 more, including five admirals, contributed. The long list was a staggering indictment of everyone from sailors to top admirals who had failed in their jobs.
…Command investigators also found that the admirals charged with overseeing ships in maintenance hadn’t noticed the rising risks on the Bonhomme Richard. Other admirals and captains responsible for fire response didn’t ensure even foundational precautions, such as having large fire pipes on the piers and the distribution of ship maps to local fire departments.
The Navy was at risk for mishandling even a minor fire, investigators found.
As military recruiting levels hit historic lows, stories like this will not inspire a reversal in the trend.DONATE
Donations tax deductible
to the full extent allowed by law.