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Investigators Release Details About Suspect In Naval Ship Arson That Injured 71

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The U.S. Navy has released new details about the sailor who may have purposefully destroyed a multi-billion dollar Navy ship last summer. Investigators have revealed his name, among other things. Steve Walsh from member station KPBS in San Diego has been following the case and brings us this report.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: For five days in July last year, the USS Bonhomme Richard burned in San Diego Bay. Seventy one people were injured fighting the fire. This class of ship looks like a miniature aircraft carrier. It's designed to transport Marines and their equipment. The vessel was just finishing a major overhaul to carry the new F-35C fighter jet when the fire broke out.

The Navy is now naming the suspect in what they say is arson. Documents unsealed this week include possible motives for the fire. Twenty-year-old seaman apprentice Ryan Sawyer Mays tried to become a Navy SEAL, but he quit five days after entering the SEAL basic training here in San Diego. An Instagram post shows him saying, I love the smell of napalm in the morning.

One of Mays's fellow sailors on board the USS Bonhomme Richard told investigators last year that Mays hated the Navy. After reviewing the documents, Bob Schaaf, who is a spokesperson for the International Association of Arson Investigators, says...

BOB SCHAAF: It's all circumstantial. Now, you get a lot of circumstantial case, sooner or later, you're able to prove it.

WALSH: Mays was eventually assigned to the USS Bonhomme Richard. His former girlfriend described him as volatile. The Navy estimates the fire caused 4 billion dollars' damage and decided to scrap the ship. The documents unsealed this week were originally filed in August 2020 as investigators sought Mays's email and search history. The 33 pages provided details into the early stages of the investigation. Three of the four fire stations aboard the ship closest to the fire had been disabled. In one case, a hose had been cut. During the investigation, a bottle that had been tagged as evidence was missing at the scene. Here's Schaaf again.

SCHAAF: It seems like somebody intentionally tampered with it because the flagging tape was around the bottle, and it was put on something. They found the flagging tape, but the bottle was gone.

WALSH: The Navy has charged Mays with two counts, including aggravated arson. At the moment, he remains on duty in San Diego, where he is eventually expected to stand trial in military court. For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.