Breaking: Sources say arson suspect in Navy ship fire is a U.S. Navy sailor

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SAN DIEGO, CA – Investigation into the fire aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard on July 12, has led officials to the probability of arson as the cause.  Sources tell Law Enforcement Today that the main suspect is a sailor.

KGTV News in San Diego also cited unnamed sources with close ties to NCIS (the Naval Criminal Investigative Service) in breaking the story that a U.S. Navy sailor is a suspect. 

Damaged vessel USS Bonhomme Richard from the perspective of a helicopter on a water drop to help combat fire.
Damaged vessel USS Bonhomme Richard from the perspective of a helicopter on a water drop to help combat fire. From Twitter.

The Navy Times reports that the sailor has not been detained, but has been questioned, according to a senior naval official.  The sailor’s home has also been searched by warrant.

A full investigation is being conducted with the assistance of the ATF (the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives).  Along with the criminal investigation, a safety investigation is also being conducted by U.S. Pacific Fleet Command, to ascertain whether all safety procedures were followed.

A lower level cargo hold aboard the amphibious assault vessel, known as the “Deep V” hold burst into flames early in the morning on Sunday, July 12. 

The blaze started while the vessel was docked at the San Diego Naval Base. 

At the fire’s highest level of intensity, the temperature of the ship interior is estimated to have reached 1200 degrees.  The Deep V hold mainly stored U.S. Marine Corps supplies and miscellaneous equipment. 

Only about 160 commissioned and enlisted crew members were onboard the ship at the time, due to weekend liberty.  Over 1000 crew members are normally assigned to the ship. 

Members of the crew were also overseeing the work of some maintenance contractors.  Approximately 60 crew members and civilians were treated for injuries and smoke inhalation.  There were fortunately no fatalities.

The gigantic plume of black smoke that rose from the smoke stakes and elevator shafts quickly affected air quality over San Diego.  KGTV passed along advisories from the Air Pollution Control District, for which people with certain health risks should remain indoors while the ship burned.

The fire was fully extinguished four days after it started, but not before doing extensive damage to the structural integrity, electrical systems, and mechanics to the ship.  11 of the ship’s 14 decks suffered catastrophic damage.

The Bonhomme Richard had undergone a two year, $250 million upgrade project, and was nearing the end of the process.  Admiral Michael Gilday, Chief of Naval Operations, estimates that a full repair may cost another $275 million.  

He is not yet certain if the vessel, a month shy of its 22nd birthday, can be repaired and made sea ready again.  If not, he projects that it will cost $4 billion to replace.

The photos of the extensive damage to the vessel have been released on twitter.  Here is a collection of photos.

The upgrade work was being done by San Diego based shipbuilder, General Dynamics NASSCO.  Maintenance workers from NASSCO were performing maintenance on the ship when the fire started. 

The fire suppression system onboard the vessel had also been deactivated, due to the maintenance being performed.

The U.S. Naval Institute online news outlet reported an announcement from the Pentagon, that NASSCO was awarded a $10 million contract to perform cleanup and assessment a week after the fires had been put out.  It is likely that they would be in the best position to be awarded the repair contract, should that decision be made in light of the final assessment.

NCIS has not yet released an official statement about the ongoing arson case, or made any information related to the case public. 

A spokesman for the U.S. Navy, Lieutenant Tim Pietrack, stated:

“The Navy will not comment on an ongoing investigation to protect the integrity of the investigative process and all those involved.  We have nothing to announce at this time”

Another Navy official told USNI News, under the condition of anonymity:

“We want to preserve the integrity of the investigation and we haven’t charged anyone, We don’t want anyone to jump to conclusions. We are going to be thorough and methodical.”

The Military Times has also uploaded a youtube video of the surveyed damage.

The 844 foot long, 105 foot tall, 41,000 ton assault vessel was built in 1998 by Ingalls Shipbuilding.  They were awarded the contract in 1992.  The ship was commissioned on August 15, 1998.  A ship’s commissioned date is celebrated annually as its, “birthday.”

The ship is designed to transport and support ground forces on enemy territory via amphibious assault.  It is also capable of serving as a mini aircraft carrier.  The main focus of the two year upgrade project for the USS Bonhomme Richard, was to upfit the vessel for next generation fighter jet deployment. 

Specifically, the ability to facilitate the deployment of Lockheed Martin’s F-35B fighter (also known as the F-35 Lightning II) from the ship, was the U.S. Navy’s top priority.

Defense News reported on the Bonhomme Richard being one of four large deck amphibious assault vessels receiving the upfit for F-35B integration.  This makes each ship capable of facilitating 15 to 20 F-35B fighters on it’s top deck. 

The loss of the Bonhomme Richard impacts the Navy’s ability to deploy as many fighters in the Pacific, and is a cause for concern, while another ship is identified and designated for upgrade.

Donations are being taken up to provide relief to sailors and marines displaced by the fire.

The San Diego chapter of the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society has put out a disaster appeal, and is accepting donations on it’s official page.  The donation drive is intended to assist with the essential needs of crew members- such as replacing lost uniforms, gear, and personal items.

In the meantime in Salt Lake City, another service member is facing arson charges.

SALT LAKE CITY, UT- In May, video surveillance showed a man wearing a government-issued gas mask setting fire to a Salt Lake City patrol car. 

On Wednesday, August 19th, Airman First Class Larry Raynold Williams Jr., 22, who was home at the time, was arrested by the FBI and JTTF, and charged with destroying government property. 

According to Air Force Times, Williams entered into active duty on May 7, 2019, and is a security forces gate guard with the 75th Security Forces Squadron. He was stationed at Hill Air Force Base.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Utah said in a press release on Wednesday that Williams is seen in the video wearing an M50 Joint Service General Protective Mask that the airman had been issued in March for training purposes.

In order to identify Williams, investigators used several photographs and a lot number written on the gas canister.

The attorney’s office wrote:

“The lot number for one of the gas canisters assigned to Williams was identical to the number observed on the gas mask as depicted in pictures taken at the riot,” 

According to Military.com, the airman was arrested by members of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, two months after Attorney General William Barr pledged to use regional JTTFs to track down ‘violent radical elements’ participating in nationwide protests such as the one Williams participated in. 

A press release stated that protestors surrounded a Salt Lake City police officer driving in her patrol car, forcing her to stop. The officer fled the car, in fear of being harmed, at which time protestors flipped the car over, vandalized it, looted it, and set it on fire.

Military.com states that according to the criminal complaint, video footage from the protest shows a white male, later identified as Christopher Isidro Rojas, 28, standing next to a Black male, later identified as Williams. The airman was dressed in a black Nike hoodie, black Nike sweatpants, black shoes, and a black gas mask as he held up a white fabric material for Rojas to light up with a cigarette lighter, the attorney’s office said.

The attorney’s office said:

“Once the fabric began to burn, the complaint alleges Williams threw the material into the window of the overturned patrol car,” 

They continued:

“The burning material landed partially within the interior of the patrol car and partially on the street.”

Williams was scheduled to make his initial court appearance on the arson charge on August 20th at 3 p.m.

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LET Unity

Here is the original story Law Enforcement Today brought you on the chaos of that day.

SALT LAKE CITY, UT – Like many other cities that are at the risk of literally burning to the ground Saturday night, Mayor Erin Mendenhall has issued a curfew in Salt Lake City.

We have dozens of reports coming in of people being attacked, cars being flipped over, fires being lit and officers being assaulted.

SLCPD Chief Mike Brown said that officers will be on patrol to enforce the curfew and that they will place even more restrictions on the city should it become necessary.

Shortly before Mayor Mendenhall announced the curfew, Governor Gary Herbert has activated the National Guard to the SLC area in response to massive riots having occured.

The governor said:

“We are in close contact with our department of public safety and receiving regular updates. Our hearts break for the family of George Floyd.

We are grateful for the swift actions taken by the state of Minnesota to hold those responsible for his death accountable. We can not, however, condone violence, defacement of public buildings, and destruction of property.

We call upon the good people of Utah to engage civilly and to act peaceably as they seek to exercise their first amendment rights.”

https://twitter.com/Raider_Nation_0/status/1266897672079720449

Saturday evening things had already gotten out of hand as rioters broke windows of the Library Square Trax station and began looting a 7-Eleven.

Public transportation was forced to shut down as protesters made the area too unsafe for travel.

Sources on the ground tell us that police have arrived and are issuing dispersal orders complimented with tear gas to clear the crowds away from SLCPD headquarters.

Earlier in the day, a police car was set on fire and completely destroyed. Other vehicles could be seen pushed over on their sides. Several buildings were spray-painted with graffiti.

State Patrol formed a line in front of the capitol building to prevent rioters from entering and destroying it.

 

The protests of course are in response to George Floyd having died Monday while in police custody, but Utah has its own incident that they feel the need to riot against.

Last Saturday, SLC police were dispatched to a call of threats with a firearm. Apparently several witnesses felt threatened by a man with a gun.

Sergeant Keith Horrocks said:

“[Officers] actually made contact with one of those suspects that was involved in that. That suspect fled from officers and a short distance later officers confronted the suspect, and shots were fired.”

Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal, 22 years old, was the suspect in the incident and he was shot and killed by police. He was Hispanic, not black.

Law Enforcement Today continues to track the riots across the country.

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