A young sailor accused of setting fire to a US Navy warship was angry about being assigned to deck duty after failing to become a Navy SEAL, according to prosecutors.
Ryan Sawyer Mays, 21, is accused of aggravated arson and the wilful hazarding of a vessel – charges he has denied.
On the first day of the court martial at Naval Base San Diego, prosecutor Commander Leah O’Brien described Mays as arrogant, adding that the fire had been “a mischievous act of defiance gone wrong”.
The USS Bonhomme Richard burned for nearly five days in July 2020, sending smoke over San Diego, where the ship had been for a major upgrade.
Some 115 sailors were on board and nearly 60 suffered heat exhaustion, smoke inhalation and minor injuries.
The ship was so badly damaged that it had to be scuttled.
But Mays’ military defence counsel Lieutenant Tayler Haggerty said prosecutors had presented no physical evidence proving he was behind the fire.
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She said investigators had ignored evidence and witness accounts so they could find a scapegoat for the loss of a costly ship that had been badly managed by senior officers.
Sarcastic and flippant
Once they had decided the culprit was Mays, a sailor known to be sarcastic and flippant, “nothing else mattered”, she added.
“Just because the government eliminates, ignores, pieces of evidence, it doesn’t mean the court should.”
The trial, which is expected to last two weeks and is before Navy judge Captain Derek Butler, has been hampered by the inability of many witnesses to remember what happened on the day of the fire.
‘I can’t remember a lot’
Petty Officer Jeffrey Garvin, the warship’s former fire marshal, fought back tears when asked by the prosecution about the day, saying: “I’m still trying to work through this in therapy myself. I apologise.”
Later, he said: “I can’t remember a lot.”
More than 20 senior officers and sailors were disciplined by Navy leaders in connection with what were described as widespread leadership failures that contributed to the disaster.
A report by the Navy last year said that the fire damage was preventable and unacceptable, blaming a lack of training, coordination, communication, fire preparedness, equipment maintenance and command and control.
Some of the crew members who testified said that the lower vehicle storage area where the fire started was filled with bottles, tools, generators, tractors, and other equipment.
Defence lawyers said investigators ignored the fact that lithium batteries were stored next to combustible material such as cardboard boxes, and that there was evidence pointing to another sailor who has since been fired from the Navy.
The trial continues.