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USS Bonhomme Richard fire investigation: Unsealed search warrant suggests sabotage, evidence tampering

Posted at 11:13 AM, Aug 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-04 14:13:58-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- Newly unsealed documents revealed more about the investigation into the fire that ripped through the USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego, including possible sabotage of the firefighting efforts and tampering of evidence.

In an unsealed federal search warrant obtained by ABC 10News, Seaman Apprentice Ryan Mays, described as a 19-year-old Navy SEAL dropout, is identified as the primary suspect in the July 2020 ship fire.

Mays has been charged with aggravated arson and willfully hazarding a vessel under articles 126 and 110 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, a Navy spokesperson confirmed last week.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office made the request to unseal the search warrant “so it may be disclosed to the Navy Sailor’s legal defense team in the related case.”

The unsealed documents indicated the possibility someone sabotaged firefighting efforts before the fire erupted on July 12, 2020.

In one passage, a lieutenant commander with "knowledge of, and responsibility for, all fire-fighting equipment and personnel aboard the BHR" told investigators during a walkthrough of the damage that "three of the four fire-fighting stations were not in their normal configuration." The lieutenant commander "opined that three of the four fire stations aboard the BHR appeared to be have been purposely tampered with and/or disconnected."

Additionally, the warrant details the potential tampering of crime scene evidence during the first days of the investigation.

According to the documents, investigators said several bottles found around the “Lower V” (lower vehicle stowage) area of the ship contained a “heavy petroleum distillate,” a flammable liquid like kerosene or jet fuel.

During the early stages of the probe, one of the bottles with the liquid was tagged with evidence markings and set aside for investigators. However, the documents revealed that bottle disappeared the following day, and the evidence tags were “discarded on the floor.”

The documents also detailed investigators’ interviews with several sailors who identified Mays as being in the Lower V area prior to the fire.

Some of the sailors discussed their interactions with Mays to investigators, with a Command Master Chief describing Mays as a “person who showed disdain towards authority and the U.S. Navy."

Navy officials said last week there was enough evidence to hold a preliminary hearing in the arson case.

Mays has denied the accusations and suggested to investigators that he may have been set up.

The fire that gutted the USS Bonhomme Richard took four days for firefighters to knock down. At least 70 people were injured during the firefighting efforts.

The ship was formally decommissioned in April before it was hauled to a scrapyard in Texas.