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Seaman Recruit Ryan Sawyer Mays leaves a Naval Base San Diego Courthouse Thursday after being arraigned at a general court-martial for allegedly setting fire to the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard in July 2020.

Seaman Recruit Ryan Sawyer Mays leaves a Naval Base San Diego Courthouse Thursday after being arraigned at a general court-martial for allegedly setting fire to the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard in July 2020. (Andrew Dyer)

SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — The San Diego sailor charged with setting the devastating fire on the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard was arraigned Thursday in a Navy courtroom just 1,000 feet from where the 844-foot warship burned over four days in July 2020.

Seaman Recruit Ryan Sawyer Mays, 20, a former deck seaman on the ship, is charged with aggravated arson and the willful hazarding of a vessel. He denies the charges.

While the sailor has been arraigned and his general court-martial is officially underway, it will be months before the trial begins as prosecutors and defense attorneys each requested start dates no sooner than August.

Navy Capt. Ryan Stormier read the charges to Mays during Thursday's arraignment but the defense elected not to enter a plea until a trial is scheduled. Mays, via an attorney, has previously denied starting the fire.

Mays also asked to delay choosing a trial by judge or jury until the Navy settles on a trial date.

Gary Barthel, a San Diego-based civilian lawyer who has been representing the sailor pro bono since 2020, is no longer representing the sailor, he told The San Diego Union-Tribune Thursday after the arraignment. Mays is represented instead by two Navy defense attorneys — Lt. Cmdr. Sharlena Williams and Lt. Tayler Haggerty, who were present at a preliminary hearing held on the base in December.

Barthel said he'd been working for Mays pro bono on the assumption the Navy would not send the case to trial. According to Barthel, the hearing officer presiding over Mays' December hearing, recommended against sending the sailor to court-martial over concerns about the evidence.

The preliminary hearing officer's report was not released by the Navy and Barthel previously declined to provide the document to the Union-Tribune. However, during witness testimony at the December hearing, defense attorneys questioned witnesses about statements made to investigators over several interviews after the fire. One witness said he saw Mays go into the lower vehicle storage area — where the fire began — just minutes before the first sign of smoke.

However, the sailor's certainty that he saw Mays seemed to increase during interviews with Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents in the days after the blaze, defense attorneys said during the December hearing.

Navy prosecutors did not submit physical evidence leaking Mays to the fire during that hearing.

In court Thursday, Mays again appeared to be wearing the wrong rank insignia on his uniform. According to the Navy, Mays was reduced in rank to seaman recruit, or E-1, in January. However, in court Thursday, Mays wore two white stripes on his sleeve indicating his rank as seaman apprentice, or E-2.

At Mays' December hearing, he wore the three stripes of a seaman, or E-3, while his actual rank was E-2, prosecutors said in court at the time.

Mays declined to comment on the case or his rank when asked by the Union-Tribune after Thursday's arraignment.

The Bonhomme Richard burned more than four days blanketing the neighborhoods nearest the base in noxious black smoke. In late 2020, the Navy decided repairing the ship would be too costly and elected to send it to the scrapyard. It was decommissioned in April and towed to a Texas ship-breaker.

©2022 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Visit sandiegouniontribune.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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