A Naval Criminal Investigative Services (NCIS) search warrant unsealed Tuesday reveals details about the sailor accused of starting the fire aboard USS Bonhomme Richard in July 2020, and the evidence that led to his arrest.
The warrant identifies the suspect only as a Seaman Apprentice Sailor E2 with the last name Mays. NCIS documents also included a picture of the sailor taken from one of his social media accounts.
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According to the warrant, Mays was identified by Command Master Chief (CMC) Jose Hernandez as a sailor who showed disdain towards authority and the U.S. Navy.
Mays enlisted in the Navy in 2019 and later tried out for Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUDS) training, according to the warrant. Five days in, Mays exercised his option to drop out of the grueling, high-intensity training course and was assigned to USS Bonhomme Richard as an undesignated seaman.
The warrant notes that, according to Navy leadership, sailors who drop out of BUDS and find themselves serving in more traditional roles aboard ships often have morale and behavior issues.
USS Bonhomme Richard
The fire aboard USS Bonhomme Richard broke out July 12, 2020, and burned for nearly five days. It started in the ship's lower storage area, where cardboard boxes, rags and other maintenance supplies were stored. Strong winds coming off the San Diego Bay and at least two explosions — one heard as far as 13 miles away — helped it sprawl out of control.
The fire was classified as arson within days of NCIS and ATF investigators setting foot on the ship. NCIS records filed in federal court suggest someone aboard USS Bonhomme Richard tampered with crime scene evidence in the days that followed.
On July 20, 2020, ATF investigators found an uncapped plastic bottle with trace amounts of liquid in it near the fire's origin. Investigators marked the bottle with tape to alert crime scene technicians, but when investigators returned the next day the bottle was gone and the marking tape had been discarded on the floor. During the time the bottle went missing, Mays' duty section had access to the area, according to the warrant.
Investigators also found three more bottles, some with holes poked in the middle of their caps, and aluminum cans with liquid inside. Tests on at least one of the bottles or cans confirmed the liquid was heavy petroleum distillate, or highly flammable fuel.
NCIS records also suggest someone aboard the ship sabotaged its firefighting capabilities before the fire.
During a walk-through of the fire origin area on July 22, 2020, a Lieutenant Commander responsible for the ship's firefighting equipment noticed three of four firefighting stations in the area were misconfigured. In one station, there were no connected fire hoses. Another fire station was described by the Lieutenant Commander as inoperable.
There was also a hose at another station that was cut, which firefighters discovered during firefighting efforts, according to the warrant.
Multiple sailors also told NCIS investigators they saw Mays in the area where the fire started prior to it starting.
A little more than a month after the fire, NCIS investigators spent 10 hours interviewing Mays. The interview included a walk-through of USS Bonhomme Richard, according to the warrant.
Mays was arrested following the interview. During the booking process, two sailors reported hearing Mays say, out loud, that he was guilty of starting the fire on July 12, 2020. NCIS was alerted and Mays was brought back in for more questioning. Mays told investigators he was not guilty and denied having said so, the warrant said.
Last Thursday, nearly a year after the sailor's arrest, the Navy said it was bringing charges against him. U.S. Third Fleet Public Affairs Officer Navy Cmdr. Sean Robertson said there was enough evidence to direct a "preliminary hearing in accordance with due process under the military justice system."
The next day, an attorney speaking on behalf of the Mays told NBC 7 his client denies the allegations made against him.
Commander Robertson said Vice Adm. Steve Koehler, commander, U.S. 3rd Fleet, is considering court-martial charges and has directed a preliminary hearing, at which an impartial hearing officer will make determinations and recommendations required by the UCMJ prior to any further trial proceedings.
The fire was one of the worst to rip through a U.S. warship outside of combat in recent years, according to Navy officials.
The inferno was fought by hundreds of firefighters, including multiple water-dropping helicopters. It sent acrid smoke billowing over San Diego, and officials recommended people avoid exercising outdoors.
About 160 sailors were aboard the ship at the time the fire sparked and they were able to disembark. At least 57 people — 34 sailors and 23 civilians — were hospitalized with minor injuries, Naval Surface Forces said last year.
After the fire, the amphibious assault ship was left with extensive structural, electrical and mechanical damage and was later scrapped, costing the Navy billions of dollars.
Amphibious assault ships are among the few in the U.S. fleet that can act as mini aircraft carriers.
USS Bonhomme Richard had been nearing the end of a two-year upgrade estimated to cost $250 million when the fire broke out on July 12, 2020. The 840-foot vessel had been docked at Naval Base San Diego while undergoing the upgrade.
In April, the ship was decommissioned in a private ceremony at Naval Base San Diego.
The Associated Press contributed to this report -- Ed.