Navy sailor accused of setting fire to billion-dollar warship denies allegations: lawyer


The sailor charged by the U.S. Navy in connection to a fire that destroyed the USS Bonhomme Richard warship in 2020 has "absolutely" denied any allegation of wrongdoing in the matter, his attorney told Fox News.

The unidentified sailor, a member of the ship's crew at the time, has been accused of starting the July 12, 2020 blaze. The charges are based on evidence collected during an investigation, Navy spokesperson Cmdr. Sean Robertson, said in a statement.

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Lt. Col. Gary S. Barthel, with the Military Law Center, is representing the sailor and he told Fox News he has not seen any evidence against his client. 

"It’s been an obviously difficult time for my client," Barthel said, stressing that his client is "presumed innocent." The sailor was just charged Thursday, meaning Barthel is still early in the process of planning a defense. 

Navy sailor accused of setting fire to billion-dollar warship denies allegations: lawyer

A fire burns on the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego on July 12, 2020 in San Diego, California. There was an explosion on board the ship with multiple injuries reported. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

"They charged him, but we have not received discovery yet," Barthel told Fox News. He will receive evidence and review it sometime in the next two weeks, during which he’ll be able to determine how best to defend his client, who has served for only two years in the Navy, according to Barthel. Task & Purpose first reported that Barthel's client denies the allegations.

Arson was suspected of causing the fire and a sailor was questioned, a senior defense official said weeks after the blaze. 

Barthel was retained in September 2020 to represent the sailor, whom both Barthel and Robertson have refused to name or identify. 

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Vice Adm. Steve Koehler, commander of the U.S. Third Fleet, is considering court-martial charges. He has ordered a preliminary hearing at which an impartial hearing officer will make determinations and recommendations required by the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or UCMJ, including "whether or not there is probable cause to believe an offense has been committed and to offer a recommendation as to the disposition of the case," the Navy statement said. 

The amount of discovery will determine how quickly the process goes forward, but a preliminary hearing has not yet been scheduled, which indicates that Barthel is still some weeks away from even stepping foot in a courtroom. 

Barthel expects that, as this is an arson case, the government will call a number of experts to testify regarding evidence. 

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The fire on the amphibious assault ship caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage. It raged over four days and was the Navy's worst U.S. warship fire outside of combat in recent memory. 

The ship was eventually decommissioned. Repairing it would have cost $2.5 to $3 billion and taken five to seven years, Rear Adm. Eric H. Ver Hage of the Navy Regional Maintenance Center said at the time.

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"We did not come to this decision lightly," then-Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwaite said last year. "Following an extensive material assessment in which various courses of action were considered and evaluated, we came to the conclusion that it is not fiscally responsible to restore her."

Fox News’ Louis Casiano contributed to this report.