A military judge has acquitted a 21-year-old sailor of arson charges after a 2020 fire destroyed a $1.2 billion Navy amphibious assault ship. Capt. Derek Butler, who oversaw the trial by court-martial for Seaman Recruit Ryan Sawyer Mays, handed down his not-guilty verdict on Friday, more than two years after the blaze on the USS Bonhomme Richard at California's Naval Base San Diego, reports the San Diego Union-Tribune. The Navy had claimed that Mays had lit cardboard in a lower compartment, "disgruntled" after he'd dropped out of SEAL training, per the Washington Post. But the case against him had been largely circumstantial—a fact acknowledged even by prosecutors—with just one eyewitness to the July 12, 2020, incident.
The Post calls the verdict "a remarkable outcome for the Navy, which found widespread command failures contributed to the blaze yet sought to prosecute a single, low-ranking crew member." A 2021 Navy report found the ship was "particularly vulnerable" to fire, with most of its hundreds of fire extinguishers not working, missing fire hoses, combustible material in its compartments, and a crew not well trained to combat a blaze. NBC News reports that a command probe found nearly two dozen admirals and sailors "failed responsibilities" that contributed to the fire, with disciplinary measures handed down for most of them.
The Navy ultimately determined it couldn't salvage the ship, and it decommissioned and scrapped it last year. Mays, who was 19 when the 844-foot ship was destroyed, and who'd faced life in prison if he'd been convicted, spoke to reporters after the verdict, calling it a "long two years," per the Union-Tribune. "I'm so grateful this is finally over," he said. "I've lost time with friends, I've lost friends, I've lost time with family and my entire Navy career was ruined. I am looking forward to starting over." The Union-Tribune notes it's not clear what his Navy future will entail: He's still listed as active duty, but he tested positive for drugs in 2021, and the Navy has a zero-tolerance policy on that. (Read more Navy stories.)