Man guilty of murder, manslaughter in Bethesda tunnel house death


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A stock trader was found guilty Wednesday in the 2017 fire death of a 21-year-old who had been digging tunnels underneath the man’s Bethesda, Maryland, house.

Daniel Beckwitt, 27, was found guilty of both second-degree depraved heart murder and involuntary manslaughter in the death of Askia Khafra, 21, in September 2017. Khafra had been digging tunnels under Beckwitt’s house for an underground bunker — intended for surviving a nuclear attack — when a fire broke out. Khafra was unable to escape.

The jury began deliberating Tuesday. Earlier on Wednesday afternoon, they told the judge they had reached a verdict on one of the counts and were at an impasse on another; they didn’t say which count was which.

In closing arguments Tuesday, Montgomery County prosecutor Marybeth Ayres said Beckwitt created the “death trap” that prevented Khafra from escaping the fire. Prosecutors said the tunnels were 20 feet deep and branched out for 200 feet and were powered by a “daisy chain” of extension cords, and that the house was under hoarding conditions.

Defense lawyer Robert Bonsib described Beckwitt as a “very strange young man,” but contended, “Being different, living in a different circumstance, is not a crime.”

Here is a look at the Bethesda house where a man died digging tunnels. (Courtesy Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office) (Courtesy Montgomery County State's Attorney's Office)
Here is a look at the Bethesda house where a man died digging tunnels. (Courtesy Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office) (Courtesy Montgomery County State's Attorney's Office)
Here is a look at the Bethesda house where a man died digging tunnels. (Courtesy Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office) (Courtesy Montgomery County State's Attorney's Office)
Here is a look at the Bethesda house where a man died digging tunnels. (Courtesy Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office) (Courtesy Montgomery County State's Attorney's Office)
Here is a look at the Bethesda house where a man died digging tunnels. (Courtesy Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office) (Courtesy Montgomery County State's Attorney's Office)
Courtesy Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service
Askia Khafra, 21, died in the basement of this Bethesda house in September 2017. County officials have since condemned it. (Courtesy Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service) (Courtesy Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service)
Dia Khafra
In this Sept. 5, 2018 file photo, Dia Khafra, father of Askia Khafra, holds a photo of his son in his Silver Spring house. Jurors are set to hear closing arguments Tuesday, April 23, 2019, in the trial of Daniel Beckwitt, a 27-year-old millionaire. Beckwitt is charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the September 2017 death of 21-year-old Askia Khafra. A fire erupted and killed Khafra, who was helping Beckwitt dig tunnels for an underground nuclear bunker. (AP Photo/Michael Kunzelman, File) (AP/Michael Kunzelman)
Daniel Beckwitt addresses a 2016 hacker conference in a flame-retardant suit. (Courtesy Michail S. via YouTube)
Daniel Beckwitt addresses a 2016 hacker conference in a flame-retardant suit. (Courtesy Michail S. via YouTube) (Courtesy Michail S. via YouTube)
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Courtesy Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service
Dia Khafra
Daniel Beckwitt addresses a 2016 hacker conference in a flame-retardant suit. (Courtesy Michail S. via YouTube)

In order to keep the project secret, Beckwitt would rent a car to pick Khafra up from his Silver Spring home. Then they’d drive to Manassas, Virginia, where Khafra would put on “darkened, black-out glasses” so he wouldn’t know where they were headed. Beckwitt would then tell him they were headed to a house in Virginia, when in fact he looped back and went to Bethesda.

Hours before the fire broke out, Khafra texted Beckwitt to warn him it smelled like smoke in the tunnels. Ayres said Beckwitt didn’t respond for more than six hours before telling Khafra that there had been a “major electrical failure.” Instead of getting Khafra out of the tunnels, Beckwitt told him that he “just switched it all over to another circuit,” according to the prosecutor.

Beckwitt survived the fire, a fact which both sides used in closing arguments Tuesday. Bonsib said Beckwitt screamed for help from neighbors after the fire broke out and risked his own safety in a failed attempt to rescue his friend from the blaze.

Ayres said, “This was a survivable fire, and we know that because the defendant survived,” adding that conditions Beckwitt created made the blaze fatal.

The defense attorney said there is no evidence, only speculation, to explain why Khafra died in the fire that day.

Beckwitt could face 30 years maximum. His sentencing is scheduled for Monday, June 17.

The Associated Press and WTOP’s Jack Moore and John Aaron contributed to this report.

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