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A rich Maryland stock trader was found guilty of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter Wednesday in connection with a deadly fire in a network of tunnels he intends to use as an underground nuclear bunker.
Jurors deliberated for about 12 hours before the condemnation of the 27-year-old Daniel Beckwitt in September 2017, death of Askia Khafra, 21. Beckwitt faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted, is set for June 17.
Montgomery County prosecutor Marybeth Ayres said Beckwitt was responsible for the creation of extreme hoarding conditions that caught Khafra in the tunnels under Beckwitt’s Bethesda home when a fire broke out in the basement. She said Beckwitt had sacrificed for security, confidentiality, and placed Khafra’s life is in danger, with mounds of waste, blocking possible escape routes.
Daniel Beckwitt was arrested in May 2018.
(Montgomery County Police Department)
“This was a survivable fire, and we know that because the defendant survived,” Ayres said Tuesday during closing arguments.
Lawyer Robert Bonsib told jurors the fire was an accident, not a crime, and claimed that Khafra had worked in Beckwitt house and tunnels for months and knew his way around the house. Beckwitt not testify at his trial, which lasted nearly two weeks.
Fox 5 DC reported that Beckwitt gasped and began to cry when the verdict was read. He shook his head, as court officers handcuffed him. Judge Margaret Schweitzer agreed to withdraw Beckwitt a $100,000 bond.
Bonsib said afterward that he would appeal, adding that he believed that the members of the jury may have been unfairly influenced by pictures of the conditions on Beckwitt at home.
Askia Khafra’s father, Slide, took a photo of his son in this Sept. 5, 2018 photo. (Associated Press)
“The problem is that the photos of the fence is not reveal what is the way out of the house looked like before the fire,” Bonsib said. “I told him that there is a lot more battle in this case.”
Khafra met Beckwitt online and Beckwitt had invested in a company Khafra tried to launch as he helped Beckwitt digging of the tunnels. Khafra worked in the tunnels, day time, eat, and sleep there. They had lights, an air circulation system and a heater.
A hole in the concrete basement floor led to a shaft that dropped 20 feet in the tunnels that branched out about 200 metres in length. The researchers concluded the fire was ignited by a faulty electrical outlet in the basement.
Beckwitt went to extensive lengths to keep the project a secret. Jurors heard that he tried to seduce Khafra in thinking they were digging the tunnels in Virginia instead of Maryland by him not blackout glasses” before him on a long ride. They were also told Beckwitt used internet “spoofing” to make it appear they were digging in Virginia.
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Bonsib described his client as a “very strange young man”, but urged jurors to look past his quirky personality.
“Otherwise, life in any other circumstance is not a crime,” he said.
Hours before the fire broke out in the basement, Khafra sms Beckwitt to warn him of the smoke there is smoke in the tunnel. Ayres said Beckwitt not respond for more than six hours for the telling of Khafra that there was a “major electrical fault.” Instead of getting Khafra out of the tunnels, Beckwitt told him that he “just switched over to a different circuit,” said the prosecutor.
Bonsib said Beckwitt shouted for help from neighbours after the fire broke out and risked his own safety in a failed attempt to rescue his friend from the fire. Firefighters find Khafra naked, charred body in the basement, just a few steps from an exit.
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The Associated Press contributed to this report.