US sailor who allegedly set billion-dollar ship ablaze hated Navy, warrant claims

NCIS investigators zero in on Ryan Sawyer Mays after speaking to 177 sailors

Gustaf Kilander
Washington, DC
Wednesday 04 August 2021 22:23

Navy sailor charged with arson in connection to San Diego warship fire

A 20-year-old man stands accused of causing $30m worth of damage to the US Navy after allegedly setting fire to an amphibious assault ship.

An application for a search warrant for Ryan Sawyer Mays was unsealed on Tuesday and obtained by The Daily Beast. The basis for the warrant request was the affidavit of a Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) special agent.

Mr Mays was under suspicion following the 12 July, 2020, fire on the USS Bonhomme Richard, a 40,000-ton ship that burned for almost five days causing dozens to be injured as they tried to extinguish the flames.

The identity of Mr Mays has previously not been published. He’s facing charges including arson within a special maritime and territorial jurisdiction, use of fire to damage federal property, and making a false statement, according to the legal filing.

A Navy spokesman told The Daily Beast that if the Navy instead continues with a court-martial, Mr Mays would face charges of aggravated arson and wilful hazarding of a vessel.

Mr Mays doesn’t have a lawyer listed in the court documents.

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday told reporters at the time last summer that the fire took over the ship’s 14 decks after beginning in the cargo hold. The temperature on the vessel at times reached 1.000 degrees (537.7 C).

Around 400 sailors from 16 vessels as well as helicopters, the Naval Base San Diego Fire Department, and multiple civilian fire departments worked to put out the flames.

Port of San Diego Harbor Police Department boats combat a fire aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) at Naval Base San Diego, July 12, 2020.

Damage was done to every deck above the waterline, with 71 people hurt or treated for smoke inhalation. At least 18 firefighters filed claims for compensation after suffering from concussions, orthopaedic issues, and dehydration among other things, The Navy Times reported.

After speaking to 177 sailors assigned to the burning ship, NCIS investigators zeroed in on Mr Mays. One of the sailors said he had seen a “light-skin male” wearing clean coveralls and a face mask moving towards the rear of the ship. The witness is named in the search warrant affidavit as Kenji Velasco, who said that he didn’t recognise the man he had seen, but later added that “a sailor named Mays ... ‘hates’ the US Navy and the Fleet,” the filing says.

In subsequent interviews, Mr Velasco said he was “fairly sure” and “90 per cent sure” that he saw Mr Mays move towards the lower vehicle storage area of the ship, known as the lower V, before the fire erupted.

“Velasco further explained that in the hours and days after the fire, it had dawned on him that the individual who descended to the Lower V at 0805 on the day of the fire was Mays’s height and build, had fair hair that could be seen coming out from his cover, like Mays, sounded like Mays, and said, ‘I love deck,’ which is an expression Velasco knew Mays to say,” the legal filing adds.

The affidavit also says that other sailors made similar suggestions about Mr Mays and that a command master chief “identified Mays as a person who showed disdain towards authority and the US Navy”.

Investigators looked into Mr Mays’ Instagram account, which is now private, and found a post with a caption that states: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

Investigators looked into Mays Instagram account, which is now private, and found a post with a caption that states: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

Mr Mays joined the Navy in 2019 “with the intent [of] becoming trained in the Advanced Electronics Computer Fields,” but later “changed his career goals to becoming a Navy SEAL”.

He reportedly dropped out five days into SEAL training and was reassigned to the Bonhomme Richard as an “undesignated Seaman”.

“According to Navy leadership, the morale and behaviour of sailors who had aspired to become a SEAL, and then find themselves serving in a more traditional role on a Navy ship, are frequently very challenging,” the affidavit asserts.

Mr Mays told investigators that he would agree to take a polygraph exam, which led to his arrest. Mr Mays is said to have later incriminated himself by seemingly speaking to himself within earshot of two Master-at-Arms designated sailors who unprompted “heard Mays say that he was guilty”.

Mr Mays later denied making the comments as well as any involvement in the arson, claiming that he was being “set up”.

During a 10-hour interview with investigators, Mr Mays said he had recently ended a relationship with a female sailor after discovering that she was pregnant and that he wasn’t the father.

The legal document states that investigators later learned that “this was mostly contradicted by the female sailor”.

Mr Mays’ phone was seized by NCIS, who also searched his car and apartment, and swabbed his cheek for DNA, which has so far not been matched to DNA found at the scene.

The Navy said in November that it would scrap the ship, which was facing $3.2bn in repair costs. It cost around $750m at the time of construction in 1998, which by today’s dollar value is around $1.2bn.

The investigation is ongoing, the affidavit said.