A military judge on Friday acquitted a sailor of arson in connection with a fire that destroyed a billion-dollar amphibious assault ship.
The ruling in favor of 21-year-old Ryan Sawyer Mays came after a nine-day trial at Naval Base San Diego over the fire aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard.
“I can say that the last two years have been the hardest two years of my entire life as a young person,” he said in a statement outside the court. “I’ve lost time with friends. I’ve lost friends. I’ve lost time with family and my entire Navy career was ruined. I’m looking forward to starting over.”
Military prosecutors charged Mays with arson and intentionally endangering a vessel. They said he set fire to cardboard boxes in a lower vehicle storage area of the $1.2 billion ship, which was docked in San Diego and under maintenance at the time.
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Prosecutors said Mays was angry and vindictive about not becoming a Navy SEAL and being assigned to deck duty, which led him to set fire to the cardboard boxes on July 12, 2020. They said he wanted take home his earlier text to his division officer that the The ship was so cluttered with contractors’ material that it was “dangerous as f—“.
However, they did not present any physical evidence. Meanwhile, defense lawyers cast doubt on the credibility of sailor Kenji Velasco, a key prosecution witness who changed his account over time.
Prosecutor Capt. Jason Jones acknowledged in court a Navy report released last year that concluded the inferno was avoidable and unacceptable and that there were deficiencies in training, coordination, communications, fire preparedness, equipment maintenance and general command and control.
Mays thought he would be flying out of helicopters on missions with the SEALs, but instead he was splashing paint on the deck of a ship and hated the Navy for it, Jones said.
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“When you’re on deck, you’re as far away from SEALs as you’ll ever be,” Jones said.
Defense attorneys said the government rushed to trial and failed to collect evidence showing lithium-ion batteries or a sparking forklift could have caused the fire.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.