Behind the timing of lawsuit filed 1 year after fatal fire in tunnels under Bethesda house

In this Aug. 18, 2018, photo, police tape surrounds the house where Askia Khafra died in a fire while digging underground tunnels for a secretive campaign to build a nuclear bunker in Bethesda, Md. Daniel Beckwitt, a stock trader who lived alone in the house, is charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the Sept. 10, 2017, death of Askia Khafra. (AP Photo/Michael Kunzelman)

WASHINGTON — After their son died in a fire that started in underground tunnels under a Bethesda house, a Silver Spring couple has filed a civil suit against the man who owned the home and who paid their son to dig the tunnels.

The family’s lawyer shared details with WTOP about the lawsuit, including why the family waited exactly one year after their son’s death to file it.

“It’s incredibly tragic and they are devastated,” said Callie Carnemark describing how Claudia and Dia Khafra feel after losing their son Askia.

Montgomery County prosecutors say Khafra was hired to dig the 200-foot long tunnels discovered under a Bethesda man’s home. The 21-year-old’s body was found in the basement during a fire there on Sept. 10, 2017.

It’s not a coincidence that his parents filed a wrongful-death suit against David and Daniel Beckwitt exactly a year later. The civil suit was not a priority for the family, but Carnemark added it happened that the year anniversary was approaching as her firm was finalizing the suit and the family decided to wait to file on the anniversary of Askia’s death.

“I think that it was symbolically important for them,” Carnemark said of filing on the anniversary.

In the complaint, the Khafra family cites evidence of hoarding, dangerous “daisy-chain extension cords” powering the digging equipment and “mazelike pathways” in the Beckwitt’s home which prevented their son from escaping the fire.

Beckwitt’s lawyer has called Khafra’s death a tragic accident, not a crime. Defense attorney Robert Bonsib has conceded Beckwitt is an “unusual guy” but said his client risked his own life in a failed attempt to rescue Khafra.

Beckwitt, a millionaire day trader, was freed after posting $100,000 bond following his May 2018 arrest. His trial is scheduled for April 2019.

The Khafra family’s suit is separate from the criminal case in which Beckwitt faces second-degree murder charges. The Khafra’s are filing a two-part suit, for wrongful death negligence and for survival action, meaning his parents are named as personal representatives of Askia’s estate, or his surviving family.

The Khafra’s are asking for an amount in excess of $75,000. Damages in the state of Maryland have a cap set by statute for a wrongful death and survival action. However, a jury could also award the family punitive damages.

“Under the survival action, there’s the allowance for punitive damages which can be any amount that the jury determines … the defendant’s finances is something the jury can consider,” Carnemark said.

Editor’s note: This story has been changed to reflect where Askia Khafra’s body was found, which was in the basement not in the tunnels themselves.


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