Editor’s note: This story has been changed to reflect an additional statement from police regarding the safety of the house.
WASHINGTON — Police in Montgomery County say they are still investigating the circumstances surrounding the death of a 21-year-old man last fall who was killed in an “unusual” fire in a Bethesda house that had an extensive network of tunnels dug underneath it.
Askia Khafra, 21, of Silver Spring was doing work in the house last September when the blaze broke out, said Montgomery County Police Capt. Darren Francke, the director of the department’s major crimes division. Earlier, police had said only Khafra was in basement when fire started. The home’s owner, Daniel Beckwitt, was able to escape the burning house.
A medical examiner has now concluded that Khafra died from smoke inhalation and thermal injuries, according to Francke.
But the manner of Khafra’s death has not yet been determined, because police are still working on their investigation, Francke said. Khafra’s death could be ruled a homicide and lead to criminal charges, he said. The cause of death could also be ruled an accident or remain undetermined.
“We just want to make sure that we do right by the victim. If there’s charges to be brought, we want to make sure that we have a very solid case,” Francke said. “And if there’s not charges, we certainly don’t want to victimize Mr. Beckwitt in any manner as far as that goes. But the tragic part is this young man was down there doing work and — at the end of the day — he needlessly lost his life. So, it’s just a shame.”
Francke said police are still examining the tunnels under the house.
“We’re continuing to look at where the tunnels go and working with (the Department of Permitting Services) to figure that out and best address it and how to mitigate it.”
DPS is responsible for enforcing residential construction rules.
Francke stressed that the tunnels discovered in the aftermath of the fire do not pose any danger to any neighbors. However, Captain Paul Starks with the Montgomery County Police department corrected that statement. “We don’t know that at this time. We haven’t inspected the tunnels fully and they need to be,” Starks said.
At the time of the Sept. 10 fire, officials described “hoarding conditions” in the house. Later, police said they pulled chemicals, wiring and other equipment out of the house.
“I don’t want to talk about the items that we have found during the search warrant and during the investigation,” Francke told WTOP.