Bethesda murder trial: Tunnels under house a ‘death trap,’ prosecutors say

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. (AP Photo/Michael Kunzelman)
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) (AP/Michael Kunzelman)
In this Sept. 5, 2018 photo, Dia Khafra, father of Askia Khafra, stands in his Silver Springs, Md., home. Askia Khafra who died last year when a fire broke out at the Bethesda, Md., home where he and a millionaire day trader were digging tunnels for a nuclear bunker. (AP Photo/Michael Kunzelman)
In this Sept. 5, 2018 photo, Dia Khafra, father of Askia Khafra, stands in his Silver Springs, Md., home. Askia Khafra who died last year when a fire broke out at the Bethesda, Md., home where he and a millionaire day trader were digging tunnels for a nuclear bunker. (AP Photo/Michael Kunzelman) (AP/Michael Kunzelman)
Courtesy Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service
Firefighters responded to the fire at the Danbury Road house in Bethesda on Sept. 10, 2017. Once the flames were extinguished, firefighters discovered the charred, naked body of 21-year-old Askia Khafra inside the home’s basement — and then a sprawling network of tunnels underneath the house. (Courtesy Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service) (Courtesy Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service)
One man was able to escape from the house and indicated that his friend was still in the house. (Courtesy Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service)
Court documents later revealed the extent of the secret tunnels underneath the Bethesda house, where 27-year-old Daniel Beckwitt lived. Investigators said the tunnels reached 20 feet underground, branched out 200 feet in length and had been powered by a “daisy chain” of extension cords.” (Courtesy Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service) (Courtesy Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service)
Firefighters were able to extinguish the fire rapidly, said Montgomery County Fire Battalion Chief Dan Ogren. (Courtesy Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service)
For months after the fire, Montgomery County officials had been in a dispute with the 27-year-old Daniel Beckwitt, who lived in the house and who had paid Khafra to dig tunnels underneath it. The county, which filed a civil complaint, said the tunnel network probably extended outside property lines and could be hazardous. Beckwitt and his family denied those claims. (Courtesy Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service) (Courtesy Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service)
Daniel Beckwitt addresses a 2016 hacker conference in a flame-retardant suit. (Courtesy Michail S. via YouTube)
Beckwitt’s attorney, Robert Bonsib has characterized the tunnels as a do-it-yourself version of Cold War-era bomb shelters, saying Beckwitt was concerned about the nuclear threat from North Korea. Bonsib has also called his client an “unusual individual.” Beckwitt addressed a 2016 hacker conference wearing a flame-retardant suit in which he gave a presentation on destroying electronics. (Michail S. via YouTube) (Courtesy Michail S. via YouTube)
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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. (AP Photo/Michael Kunzelman)
In this Sept. 5, 2018 photo, Dia Khafra, father of Askia Khafra, stands in his Silver Springs, Md., home. Askia Khafra who died last year when a fire broke out at the Bethesda, Md., home where he and a millionaire day trader were digging tunnels for a nuclear bunker. (AP Photo/Michael Kunzelman)
Courtesy Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service
One man was able to escape from the house and indicated that his friend was still in the house. (Courtesy Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service)
Firefighters were able to extinguish the fire rapidly, said Montgomery County Fire Battalion Chief Dan Ogren. (Courtesy Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service)
Daniel Beckwitt addresses a 2016 hacker conference in a flame-retardant suit. (Courtesy Michail S. via YouTube)

Prosecutors said the man behind a secret tunnel project in Bethesda that turned deadly should be convicted of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter because he disregarded public safety.

Daniel Beckwitt, 27, is on trial regarding the tunnels created below the home where he lived.

In opening statements Wednesday, prosecutor Marybeth Ayres said 21-year-old Askia Khafra perished in an electrical fire in September 2017 “because he was stuck in a death trap … created by this defendant.” She repeatedly said that Beckwitt valued “secrecy over safety” for the tunnel project.

Khafra, of Silver Spring, would be blindfolded and driven to what he was told was a site near Lake Anna in Virginia, prosecutors said. He would go into the tunnels for several days at a time, where he had a television, a bed and food. Prosecutors said he was found naked because he used wet wipes for showering, and was in the middle of cleaning himself when he felt he needed to escape.

They said extreme hoarding conditions in the home blocked possible exit routes.

Khafra was the most recent of several people to work on the tunnel project. The prosecution painted him as an aspiring entrepreneur and an idealistic dreamer who relied on Beckwitt for funding of his startup company. The prosecution also described Beckwitt as a multimillionaire who made his fortune in bitcoin.

The defense said Khafra was a mature, willing participant in an admittedly bizarre plan to build tunnels as protection from a possible nuclear attack.

“This case is an accident,” said defense attorney Robert Bonsib, “an accident plain and simple.” He added that Beckwitt was very concerned at the scene of the fire and directed first responders to the basement in an attempt to save Khafra.

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