A 20-year-old sailor with a grudge against the U.S. Navy and a failed attempt at becoming a Navy SEAL under his belt is accused of setting an amphibious assault ship ablaze and singlehandedly costing the Navy $30 million in damage.
According to an NCIS search warrant affidavit obtained by The Daily Beast, Ryan Sawyer Mays aroused the suspicions of investigators almost immediately after the 40,000-ton USS Bonhomme Richard went up in flames on July 12, 2020, burning for nearly five days and leaving dozens injured while extinguishing the ferocious blaze.
Mays, whose identity has not previously been revealed, now faces charges of arson within a special maritime and territorial jurisdiction, use of fire to damage federal property, and making a false statement, the warrant states. If the Navy instead proceeds with a court martial, Mays will be charged with aggravated arson and willful hazarding of a vessel, said a Navy spokesman. Mays does not have a lawyer listed in court records, and could not be reached for comment.
The fire raged through the 14-deck ship after beginning in a cargo hold, with the temperature onboard exceeding 1,000 degrees at times, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday told reporters last summer. The fire aboard the Bonhomme Richard, which was waiting on a $250 million upgrade at the time, was finally tamed by some 400 sailors from 16 vessels, helicopters dumping water on the flames, the Naval Base San Diego Fire Department, and numerous civilian fire departments from surrounding cities.
Every deck above the waterline was damaged, and although no deaths or serious injuries were reported, 71 people were hurt or treated for smoke inhalation. At least 18 firefighters filed workers’ compensation claims following the blaze, specifying they suffered, among other things, concussions, orthopedic issues, and dehydration.
Mays was identified by NCIS investigators after they interviewed some 177 sailors assigned to the Bonhomme Richard. One reported that he had seen a “light-skin male” in clean coveralls and a face mask carrying a metal bucket into the Lower V—the ship’s aft section—but didn’t recognize the person in question. But later, the sailor, named in the search warrant affidavit as Kenji Velasco, “did mention a sailor named Mays that ‘hates’ the U.S. Navy and the Fleet,” the filing states.
In further interviews, Velasco said he was “fairly sure” and “90 percent sure” he saw Mays descend into the Lower V before the fire broke out. He also noted that firefighting equipment in the area seemed to have been tampered with.
“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 affidavit states, adding that other sailors had also suggested to investigators that the person in question seemed to be Mays based on his clothing and language and that a command master chief “identified Mays as a person who showed disdain towards authority and the U.S. Navy.”
Investigators reviewed Mays’ now-private Instagram account, and found a post that stated, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” the affidavit explains. Mays’ service record showed that he joined the Navy in 2019 “with the intent on becoming trained in the Advanced Electronics Computer Fields,” then “changed his career goals to becoming a Navy SEAL.” But five days after beginning SEAL training, Mays dropped out and was reassigned to the 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 states.
Mays told investigators he was willing to take a polygraph exam, after which he was arrested. Mays is said to have then incriminated himself in the presence of two Master-at-Arms designated sailors, who “heard Mays say (unasked) that he was guilty, seemingly talking to himself,” according to the warrant. He later denied ever making the comments, and denied involvement in the arson, claiming he was being “set up.”
Investigators also dug into Mays’ personal life and discovered several red flags. After telling investigators during an initial 10-hour interview that he’d recently separated from a female sailor upon discovering that she was pregnant and he was not the father, investigators “later learned this was mostly contradicted by the female sailor” in question, the warrant said.
That sailor recounted to investigators that while Mays had gone around telling everyone she was pregnant and that he was “going to be a father,” she had never been pregnant and made that clear to him, even taking a pregnancy test to prove it.
It was not clear if that series of events was thought to have pushed Mays toward the alleged arson. NCIS investigators seized Mays’ iPhone, searched his car and apartment, and swabbed his cheek for a DNA sample. So far, Mays’ DNA has not been a match for DNA found at the scene.
Last November, the Navy said it would scrap the Bonhomme Richard in light of estimated repair costs of as much as $3.2 billion. The ship cost about $750 million when it was built in 1998, or about $1.2 billion by today’s standards. The investigation, according to the affidavit, is ongoing.