200-foot tunnels under Bethesda home detailed in court docs

WASHINGTON — The sprawling tunnels under a Bethesda, Maryland, house where a 21-year-old man died in a fire last year reached 20 feet underground, branched out 200 feet in length and were powered by a “daisy chain” of extension cords, according to court documents which reveal the first glimpse inside the bizarre network of tunnels.

Askia Khafra, of Silver Spring, died Sept. 10 when a fire broke out in the home at 5212 Danbury Road. Daniel Beckwitt, 27, who lived at the home, was charged last week with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the man’s death.

Police said Beckwitt had hired Khafra to dig the tunnels.

In the charging documents, filed May 25, Montgomery County police cited dangerous, hoarding conditions inside the home and said Beckwitt was “specifically aware of the increased likelihood of a fire breaking out” but that he didn’t take any steps to remove Khafra from the home.

Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy told WTOP earlier this week his office is charging “depraved heart second-degree murder” because he said Beckwitt acted with wanton disregard for human life.

When the fire broke out last year, Beckwitt was able to escape the flames and told firefighters there was someone else in the basement.

It was there that fire investigators discovered Khafra’s “naked, charred” body. Nearby, investigators found a hole in the basement’s concrete floor, which led to the underground network of tunnels.

Snaking down into the tunnels was a “haphazard daisy chain of extension cords and plug extenders,” which were apparently powering “substantial electrical needs inside the tunnels,” according to the documents. The setup created a “substantial risk of fire,” the documents stated.

In the floors above, police described the hoarding conditions, including “immense piles of garbage and discarded items strewn throughout the entire home” and “narrow maze-like pathways,” which made it difficult to both move within the home and to exit.

The documents do not explain why the tunnels were dug, but investigators said Beckwitt apparently engaged in a strange ruse to disguise the home’s location form Khafra.

According to the documents, Beckwitt told police he would rent a car, pick up Khafra up from his house in Silver Spring and then drive to Manassas.

“Once there, Beckwitt had Khafra put on darkened, black-out glasses that prevented Khafra from seeing where they were going,” the document stated. “Beckwitt then told Khafra he was taking him to an undisclosed location in Virginia, but instead drove Khafra for an hour in the opposite direction to Beckwitt’s home” in Bethesda.

Police said Beckwitt only allowed Khafra to remove the glasses once he was in the house’s basement. Khafra would work digging the tunnels for days at a time, according to the documents.

Details about the unusual conditions inside the home in the quiet Maplewood neighborhood of Bethesda have been trickling out in the eight months since the fatal fire.

Officials at first described hoarding conditions, the presence of chemicals, wiring and an excavation underneath the home.

But for months after the fire, the county and Daniel Beckwitt and his father, David Beckwitt, who owns the family home, were involved in a back-and-forth dispute over the conditions of the home. The county eventually filed a civil complaint. In documents, county officials stated the tunnels likely extended past the property line and into the right of way.

The Beckwitts denied those claims and said the county had prevented them from accessing or repairing the property.

WTOP’s Megan Cloherty contributed to this report. 

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined WTOP.com as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at Nextgov.com, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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