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Family defends their Bethesda tunnel house, call county orders ‘unconstitutional’

Askia Khafra, 21, died in the basement of this Bethesda home in September. County officials have since condemned it. (Courtesy Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service)

Editor’s note: This story has been changed to reflect the relationship between the plaintiffs.

WASHINGTON — Months after the fatal Sept. 10 Bethesda house fire and the subsequent discovery of both hazardous materials and a network of tunnels, the homeowner, and his son have broken their silence, disputing claims made by the county.

Court documents from David Beckwitt — who is listed as the owner of the home — and Daniel Beckwitt reject most of Montgomery County officials’ contentions about the since-condemned property in the 5000 block of Danbury Road. Neighbors say that Daniel lived in the home, and a source with knowledge of the case says his father owns the property.

A civil complaint filed in March by the county is seeking injunctions to, among other things, “restore the property to a safe, buildable site; “remove or remedy all dangerous conditions”; “remove and properly and safely dispose of all hazardous conditions or materials”; and “remove all encroachments … from the right of way.” 

Officials fear that the tunnels might actually extend underneath Danbury itself.

In response, the Beckwitts “deny the residential building and tunnels are unsafe and/or require corrective action.” They also deny the county’s contention of hoarding conditions and its assertion that the “tunneling, excavations and cavities go into the public right-of-way, namely Danbury Road, and likely go beyond at least one property line.”

The Beckwitts also claim that orders from the county’s Department of Permitting Services to remedy the situation are unconstitutional and that the department is preventing them “from accessing the property for the purposes of inspecting and/or repairing the property.”

Asking that the county cover their legal costs, the family members also asked they be awarded “further relief.”

It’s the latest chapter in a bizarre story that began with a fatal house fire Sept. 10. Responding firefighters found the body of Askia Khafra, 21, in the basement, dead from smoke inhalation and thermal injuries. Daniel Beckwitt safely escaped.

Authorities later said Khafra had been hired to dig the tunnels.

What has since followed has been a back-and-forth between the Beckwitts and Montgomery County officials. Underscoring all of this is both uncertainty about the extent of these tunnels — county officials cannot legally access the property to assess the risk — and, as a result, neighborhood safety.

Other questions that remain unanswered are the length, width and purpose of those tunnels. David Beckwitt’s property sits about 15 feet back from Danbury and a mile away from the National Institutes of Health and the Walter Reed campus. It’s bordered by other homes on three sides.

While the Beckwitts have indicated that they are open to a settlement, the county is not, and anticipates it going to court.

WTOP has reached out to the Beckwitts’ attorney, George A. Bealefeld III.

In an email to WTOP, county spokesperson Patrick Lacefield said “we are grinding away in court to get resolution.”

 


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