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San Diego sailor faces charges in connection with Navy ship fire

A fire burns on the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard
A fire burns on the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego on July 12, 2020.
(Getty Images)

A San Diego-based sailor suspected of setting the devastating fire on the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard last year is facing criminal charges in the case, the Navy said Thursday.

“On July 29, charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice were brought forth against a Navy sailor in response to evidence found during the criminal investigation into the fire started on USS Bonhomme Richard ... on July 12, 2020,” said Cmdr. Sean Robertson, a spokesperson for the San Diego-based 3rd Fleet.

“The sailor was a member of Bonhomme Richard’s crew at the time and is accused of starting the fire,” Robertson said.

The sailor, whose name the Navy did not release, is not confined to the brig at this time, Robertson said.

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In August 2020, the Navy announced that it suspected arson. That same month, Navy investigators searched the home and property of a sailor based on the ship.

The sailor was detained at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar brig for a short time last year. But the sailor’s lawyer said he was released in November and he hasn’t heard from the Navy since.

The attorney for the sailor held in the brig, San Diego-based military lawyer Gary Barthel, could not be immediately reached for comment Thursday. It is unknown whether the sailor charged is the same one previously held in the brig.

Under the military justice system, sailors accused of crimes equivalent to felonies face general courts-martial. Before that, they will face what’s called an Article 32 hearing, which is essentially an arraignment. A hearing officer will hear testimony and review evidence before making a recommendation on formally pressing charges.

A date for the hearing has not been set, Robertson said.

Months after the fire was extinguished, the Navy announced it would send the ship to the scrap heap, saying it would be too expensive to repair and retrofit the 22-year-old vessel.

The fire was one of the largest peacetime losses ever by the Navy.

The 844-foot Bonhomme Richard was near the end of a two-year, $250-million upgrade to accommodate the F-35B fighter at the time of the fire.

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The blaze began about 8:30 a.m. on July 12 last year. The fire is believed to have begun in the ship’s lower vehicle-storage area, which is directly below a large well deck. Once the fire reached the cavernous, oxygen-rich well deck, it spread rapidly, eventually consuming every interior space on board above the waterline.

Dyer writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Updates

2:50 p.m. July 29, 2021: This story was updated with background information on the fire and what is known about one suspect in the blaze.


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