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Sailor charged with starting fire that destroyed Navy ship found not guilty

<i>Lt. John J. Mike/US Navy</i><br/>Port of San Diego Harbor Police Department boats combats a fire at Naval Base San Diego on July 12. A sailor charged in connection with starting a fire that destroyed a Navy warship while it was docked in San Diego has been found not guilty.
U.S. Navy
Lt. John J. Mike/US Navy
Port of San Diego Harbor Police Department boats combats a fire at Naval Base San Diego on July 12. A sailor charged in connection with starting a fire that destroyed a Navy warship while it was docked in San Diego has been found not guilty.

By Oren Liebermann, CNN

A sailor charged in connection with starting a fire that destroyed a Navy warship while it was docked in San Diego has been found not guilty.

Seaman Recruit Ryan Mays was acquitted on charges of willful hazarding of a vessel and aggravated arson, the Navy said in a statement, following a court martial in which a judge ruled there was not enough evidence that Mays set the fire that destroyed the USS Bonhomme Richard more than two years ago.

After the judge issued the verdict, Mays collapsed on the table and sobbed, his defense attorney Gary Barthel said, feeling as if a thousand-pound weight had been lifted off his shoulders.

Outside the courthouse, Mays said he was “grateful that this is finally over” and called it “the hardest two years of my entire life.”

“I’ve lost time with friends. I’ve lost friends. I’ve lost time with family, and my entire Navy career was ruined,” Mays said. “I am looking forward to starting over.”

A Navy spokesperson, Cmdr. Sean Robertson with the US 3rd Fleet, told CNN in a statement, “Seaman Recruit Mays was found not guilty on the charges of willful hazarding of a vessel and aggravated arson. The Navy is committed to upholding the principles of due process and a fair trial.”

The fire on board the amphibious assault ship raged for four days before it was finally extinguished, destroying the ship and forcing the Navy to scrap the billion-dollar vessel. The USS Bonhomme Richard had been in port for upgrades to allow it to accommodate Marine Corps F-35B fighter jets when the fire broke out.

One year after the fire, the Navy charged that Mays was responsible. Mays had been a member of the ship’s crew at the time.

But Mays’ defense attorney said the evidence was never strong and that the judge recommended at the preliminary hearing that the case not go forward.

“My take on this case from the very beginning is that it was a weak case,” Barthel said.

Still, the command pushed forward with the court martial, leading to the two-week trial and, ultimately, a not guilty verdict.

Barthel said the Navy needed someone to blame for a fire that destroyed an entire ship instead of acknowledging the problems on board the ship that allowed the fire to spread.

A Navy investigation released last October found the fire was “clearly preventable” and was the result of a series of systematic failures.

The cascade of errors and breakdowns involved 36 Navy personnel, the investigation found, including the commander of the USS Bonhomme Richard and five admirals, who failed to maintain the ship, ensure adequate training, provide shore support, or carry out proper oversight.

Even before the fire, the condition on the ship was “significantly degraded,” the investigation found, including firefighting equipment, heat detection capability and communications equipment, allowing the flames to spread more quickly. Meanwhile, the ship’s crew had failed firefighting drills, including a repeated inability to apply firefighting chemicals during drills on 14 straight occasions leading up to the fire.

In July, the Navy announced that it would punish more than 20 sailors for the fire. The most serious actions focused on the leadership of the warship and the fire response team. The ship’s former commanding officer, Capt. Gregory Scott Thoroman, and former executive officer, Capt. Michael Ray, received punitive letters of reprimand and forfeiture of pay. The former command master chief, Jose Hernandez, received a punitive letter of reprimand.

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CNN’s Barbara Starr contributed to this report.

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