USS Bonhomme Richard fire suspect hated Navy, dropped out of SEAL training, documents say
4th August 2021

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The sailor accused of setting fire to a naval amphibious assault ship that burned for five days and injured 71 people voiced hatred of the Navy and attempted to become a Navy SEAL, according to a search warrant affidavit. 

Investigators with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) believe Ryan Sawyer Mays, 20, set the blaze on July 12, 2020 that destroyed the USS Bonhomme Richard while docked in San Diego, an NCIS special agent wrote in the September filing. The fire raged for several days and forced the Navy to scrap the ship, as it would have cost up to $3 billion to make repairs that would have taken between five and seven years to complete. 

Investigators believe the fire started in the lower vehicle stowage area, also called the “Lower V.” The blaze damaged 470 spaces out of 1,400 and 71 people were injured trying to extinguish the flames. During the investigation, several bottles were found near where the fire started containing small amounts of liquid. 

Navy Ship FireSmoke rises from the USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego after a July 2020 explosion and fire.
(AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

One liquid sample tested positive for heavy petroleum distillate, a substance similar to diesel, kerosene and jet fuel, the filing states. 

The Navy has not publicly identified Mays as the sailor accused of setting the blaze. He became known to investigators after they interviewed 177 sailors assigned to the ship. One sailor said he saw a “light-skin male” in clean overalls and a facemask carrying a bucket of water to the “Lower V” but didn’t recognize the person.  

In another interview, the sailor, identified as Kenji Velasco, mentioned Mays, who he said “‘hates’ the U.S. Navy and the Fleet,” according to the affidavit. 

“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 filing states. “Velasco further explained that after the fire on the BHR he was attending a muster at the base theater, when he asked Mays if he had gone to the Lower V before the fire started. According to Velasco, Mays, replied, ‘Yes.'”

Other sailors told investigators the person seen carrying the bucket of water could be Mays based on his clothing and statements. Furthermore, a command master chief said Mays “showed disdain towards authority and the U.S. Navy.”

Ryan Sawyer Mays, 20, is charged with torching the USS Bonhomme Richard in July 2020. He allegedly hated the Navy and posted "I love thesmell of napalm in the morning" on Instagram as a fire continued to rage aboard the warship, according to an affidavit for a search warrant. 

Mays joined the Navy in 2019 with the intent of becoming trained in advanced electronic computer fields. He later changed his careers goals and wanted to become a Navy SEAL, according to the affidavit. 

He began SEAL selection training in October 2019 but dropped out after five days. He was then re-assigned to the USS Bonhomme Richard as an undesignated seaman. 

“According to Navy leadership, the morale and behavior 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 says. 

Mays’ lawyer, Gary Barthel, did not immediately return a Fox News request for comment. Cmdr. Sean Robertson of the Navy’s Third Fleet confirmed to Fox News that Mays is the sailor charged in connection with the fire. He declined to comment further.  

The affidavit also includes an Instagram post from Mays account made on June 14, 2020, two days after he allegedly torched the ship. 

The post read: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” He later told investigators the post was a homage to the Vietnam war film, “Apocalypse Now.”

During a 10-hour interview with investigators, Mays said he dated a female sailor but broke off their engagement after he learned she became pregnant from someone else. The female sailor later told investigators she was not engaged to Mays and was never pregnant. 

In this July 14, 2020, file photo, a helicopter from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 3 combats a fire aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) at Naval Base San Diego. A sailor, 20-year-old Ryan Mays, has been charged with starting the fire that destroyed USS Bonhomme Richard had been assigned to the ship’s crew after dropping out of Navy SEAL training, according to a newly unsealed court document. 
(Mass Communications Specialist 3rd Class Garrett LaBarge/U.S. Navy via AP, File)

She said she had taken a pregnancy test to confirm she wasn’t pregnant and described Mays as “volatile and ‘bipolar.'”

Mays denied being in the lower vehicle stowage area the day of the fire despite being the only person who reported smelling “burning fuel/rubbery smell” on a questionnaire given to all sailors assigned to the ship. The temperatures from the flames were so hot, investigators noted two forklifts each had two tires that burned and melted. 

The affidavit also suggested the ship’s firefighting equipment may have been sabotaged before the fire. 

“He maintained his innocence as to being the cause of the fire throughout the entire interview,” the NCIS agent wrote in the affidavit. “At one point, after being told that he had been identified as having descended the ramp to the Lower V, before the fire started, Mays stated that he was being setup.”

Barthel told Fox News last week that “it’s been an obviously difficult time for my client.” 

Because of the extensive damage, the USS USS Bonhomme Richard was eventually decommissioned. 

“We did not come to this decision lightly,” said then-Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwaite last year. “Following an extensive material assessment in which various courses of action were considered and evaluated, we came to the conclusion that it is not fiscally responsible to restore her.”

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