Witness says sailor was in area where fire started on US warship


SAN DIEGO (AP) – A key witness in the Navy case against a young sailor accused of setting the fire that destroyed a US warship last year said on Tuesday he was certain he had saw the suspect in the area where the flames ignited, but admitted changing the account he initially told investigators.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Kenji Velasco blamed his nervousness for changes to his story and told a military tribunal during a preliminary hearing that he was now “100%” sure he had seen the suspect, Ryan. Sawyer Mays, descend into the ship’s lower warehouse. area on the day of the fire. Mays, 20, was an apprentice seaman at the time and has since been promoted to a seaman.

Another sailor, Carissa Tubman, who was assigned to escort Mays to the brig on August 20, 2020, testified to hearing a stunned Mays mutter, “I’m guilty, I guess. I did. “Then she said he was mumbling again before hearing her say,” It had to be done. “

Defense attorneys said he joked and spoke sarcastically after being surprised he was locked up.

Mays has denied starting the fire that burned for nearly five days on the USS Bonhomme Richard in July 2020, injuring dozens of people on board and sending acrid smoke floating above San Diego. It was one of the worst non-combatant warship disasters in recent memory. The amphibious assault ship was so damaged that it had to be scuttled.

Mays is charged with aggravated arson and willfully endangering a ship. The hearing which began on Monday is expected to end on Wednesday when the defense is expected to call its witnesses to the stand. The hearing will determine whether there is sufficient evidence for the case to go to a military trial.

Defense lawyers questioned several government witnesses about their reports to investigators a year ago, after several of them recalled the details differently or not at all during the hearing.

About 160 sailors and officers were on board when the fire broke out on the 840-foot (256-meter) vessel, which had been docked at Naval Station San Diego as it underwent a 250 million upgrade. dollars over two years.

Investigators concluded that cartons in the lower storage of the vehicles were on fire and the fire quickly spread to the area crowded with forklifts, pipes, pallets and other equipment used by contractors.

Officials assessing the damage to the ship found that three of the ship’s four fire stations had evidence of tampering: fire hoses had been disconnected and one was cut, according to court documents.

Defense attorney Gary Barthel said thousands of contractors were coming and going from the ship at the time. Some were caught smoking on board in violation of the rules, and there was an issue with the theft of brass parts and contractors cutting pipes.

Barthel said there was a list of 12,000 contractors but “there was no way to monitor who got on and off the ship.”

Navy prosecutors alleged Mays did so because he was “unhappy” after dropping out of Navy SEAL training on day five and being assigned to the ship’s deck service, which largely involved the clean-up. of the ship.

Velasco and two other sailors, including his supervisor, said on Tuesday that Mays was combative, disrespectful and had a bad attitude.

Mays’ attorneys grilled Velasco for not naming Mays as the person he saw until more than a week after the fire. Initially, Velasco told investigators he did not recognize the person he saw this morning and said the one who did was not on his bridge service, which Mays did.

Velasco also contradicted himself as to whether he saw Mays directly or from the side and what time he saw Mays descend into the area.

He agreed with a defense attorney that investigators told him at one point “you keep turning around” so they wouldn’t know what happened.

But Velasco said things became clearer in his mind after giving it more thought.

“I just wanted to make sure that was him I was seeing,” Velasco said.

Mays insisted he was in the ship’s hangar when the fire broke out. Mays’ attorneys said there was no physical evidence linking Mays to the crime, and they said at least one other sailor saw another person come out of the lower area that morning.

Investigators said they examined him and were able to verify that he left the base before the fire started. They said they also did background checks and interviewed dozens of contractors.

Federal investigator Al Porter said Mays stood out for his hatred of the fleet and his desire to resume SEAL training.

“I was a little shocked at how much he described his contempt for it (the Navy),” he said.

Porter, a former SEAL, said he caught Mays lying during his interview on August 20, including exaggerating his SEAL training experience.

Mays told him the ramp was the only way out of the lower area, but later, when he visited the charred vessel with Porter and another investigator, he admitted he had used a ladder in a well to exit the area. Investigators had discovered that the well hatch was left open after the fire, indicating someone had passed by to escape unnoticed.

After Mays was questioned by investigators, the command ordered him to surrender to the brig.

More than 60 sailors and civilians were treated for minor injuries, heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation.

Dozens of Navy officials, including several admirals, face disciplinary action for systematic failures that investigators say prevented the blaze from being put out sooner, investigators say.