SAN DIEGO – An electrical engineer who examined the USS Bonhomme Richard after it was destroyed by fire last year testified Wednesday that it might have started with a faulty cable, while a former federal fire investigator said he also found no data to back the government's finding that it was arson.
Andrew Thoresen was hired by the defense attorneys representing the junior sailor accused of setting the fire aboard the amphibious assault ship. He told a military court during a preliminary hearing that he found highly combustible lithium ion batteries with their caps blown off and a copper cable with a melted end in the engine of a forklift, indicating it may have sparked the fire.
“They cannot be eliminated” as a source of the fire, said Thoresen, who has examined 3,000 fire scenes as a forensic electrical engineer.
Phil Fouts, a former federal fire investigator also hired by defense attorneys, told the court he agreed after inspecting the ship.
“For me the cause of the fire is undetermined at this point," said Fouts, a former fire investigator with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, adding later: “I have not eliminated the forklift and batteries (as potential causes) and I don't have any data to support an intentionally set fire."
Both the batteries and forklift were inside the lower vehicle storage area of the warship where the lead federal fire investigator for the government determined the July 12, 2020, fire was started by someone who ignited carboard boxes stored there.
The testimony came in a preliminary hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence for Ryan Sawyer Mays to face a military trial.
Mays is charged with aggravated arson and the willful hazarding of a vessel. The Navy judge, who listened to three days of testimonies, will be reviewing thousands of pages of material and hours of video. A decision is not expected for weeks.
Mays, 20, has denied igniting the blaze that burned for nearly five days on the USS Bonhomme Richard, injuring dozens of personnel aboard and sending acrid smoke wafting over San Diego. The ship was damaged so badly that it had to be scuttled. The blaze was one of the worst noncombat warship disasters in recent memory.
Prosecutors disputed that the government's investigation overlooked other causes. They said Fouts inspected the charred vessel four months after the fire and spent only 15 hours on board compared to the government's team of 10 certified fire investigators who spent days aboard the ship shortly after the blaze was extinguished.
Fouts acknowledged he did not closely examine the forklift and based his conclusion on the engineer's report. The engineer also inspected the ship months after the fire.
Defense attorneys have argued there is no physical evidence tying Mays to the crime. Much of the case relies on sailors’ accounts of that morning.
One sailor, Edwin Kongo, testified Wednesday that he thanked Mays for saving his life after he alerted him there was a fire on board. Kongo said he had woken up minutes before Mays told him to get off the ship.
About 160 sailors and officers were on board when the fire started on the 840-foot (256-meter) vessel, which had been docked at Naval Base San Diego while undergoing a two-year, $250 million upgrade.
A key witness for the Navy testified Tuesday that he is certain he saw Mays in the area where the flames ignited and another sailor said the suspect mumbled “I’m guilty” on the way to the brig after being taken into custody.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Kenji Velasco said Mays was wearing blue work coveralls; other sailors said they saw him in a green camouflage uniform that day.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew Betz testified Wednesday that Velasco initially told him he did not recognize the person he saw go down below before the fire. But Betz told the court he considered Velasco to be “really" truthful and found Mays would lie.
Betz said Mays told him he had to drop out of SEAL training because he got injured during the program's “Hell Week," which is the most grueling part that comes at the end of the weeks-long training. Mays actually dropped out voluntarily after five days.
One thing that the sailors have been consistent about in their testimonies is that Mays was not liked by many on the ship and did not want to be there.
Betz told investigators Mays was “selfish, whiney and mad because he dropped out of the SEALs.”
Navy prosecutors have argued Mays set the ship on fire because he was angry about being assigned to the ship.
On Tuesday Carissa Tubman, a sailor who was assigned to escorting Mays to the brig on Aug. 20, 2020, testified that she heard a stunned Mays mumble to himself: “I’m guilty, I guess. I did it.” Then she said he mumbled some more before she heard him say: “It had to be done.”
Defense attorneys said he was joking and speaking sarcastically after being surprised that he was being locked up.