A millionaire day trader who was having a secret bomb shelter and tunnels built under his home in Bethesda, Md., was found guilty of murder Wednesday for creating work conditions that prosecutors called a “death trap.”
Daniel Beckwitt, 27, faces up to 30 years in prison after a jury in Montgomery County concluded he’d committed “depraved heart” second-degree murder in the death of Askia Khafra, 21, whom Beckwitt had hired for excavation work. In reaching the verdict, jurors determined Beckwitt had acted in “extreme disregard for human life.”
The tunnel system dropped 20 feet from Beckwitt’s basement and extended up to 200 feet in at least three directions.
Khafra had been working in the tunnels on the afternoon of Sept. 10, 2017, when an accidental electrical fire broke out in the home’s basement.
Khafra smelled smoke, climbed out of the tunnels and tried to escape through the basement. But he was slowed before he could reach a doorway by hoarding-like clutter and perished from smoke inhalation and thermal injuries, according to prosecutors.
“He was stuck in a death trap,” Assistant State’s Attorney Marybeth Ayres had told jurors during the two-week trial. “He could not get out.”
“This case is about an accident — an accident, pure and simple,” countered Beckwitt’s attorney, Robert Bonsib. “An accident that involved the death of a fine young man. An accident that occurred under circumstances that were completely unintended and unexpected by another fine young man.”
The jury deliberated for two hours Tuesday and all day Wednesday.
As the jury sent word it had reached a decision shortly before 7 p.m., Beckwitt filed into the seventh-floor courtroom and sat next to his two attorneys.
Beckwitt gasped and lowered his head onto his clasped hands as the verdict was read. He then drew deep breaths for nearly a minute and then wept.
One of his attorneys placed a hand on Beckwitt’s back while another walked around and whispered in his ear.
“I just told him there’s a lot more fight left in the case,” Bonsib, the defense attorney, said later, adding there “will be no question” the verdict will be appealed.
Khafra’s father, Dia Khafra, said outside the courtroom that the outcome had restored his faith in the criminal justice system. “I’m very happy with the verdict,” he said.
Beckwitt had gone to extreme measures to keep his bunker a secret, starting the project several years ago without his neighbors being aware of it.
He did not hire professional excavators, but over time enlisted at least three acquaintances to dig. One of them, Khafra, had started working in early 2017. Beckwitt had met him online and invested $5,000 in a start-up financial venture Khafra was trying to launch that would line up budding entrepreneurs with backers interested in funding their concepts.
Beckwitt tried to keep the location of his home secret from Khafra. He would pick Khafra up at his home in Silver Spring and have him wear blacked-out glasses, according to trial testimony.
Beckwitt maintained to Khafra that his bunker was in rural Virginia, according to trial testimony. To keep up the ruse, Beckwitt would drive the younger man around for an hour before pulling up to his home along Danbury Road, several blocks north of the National Institutes of Health.
In recent interviews, Beckwitt’s neighbors said they knew nothing about the tunnels before they came to light after the fire.
After the verdict, Bonsib said he believed the jury was unduly influenced by photos prosecutors showed in court that depicted hoarding conditions throughout the house.
During the trial, Bonsib had tried to focus attention to a portion of the basement that Khafra would have needed to pass through during the fire to make it to a doorway to exit.
While cluttered, that area had a pathway that Khafra had negotiated at least 10 times while working for Beckwitt, Bonsib told jurors.
But Montgomery County’s top prosecutor, John McCarthy, said after the verdict that Khafra could not make it out of the home once the fire hit.
“This young man was placed in a position where there was no reasonable escape,” McCarthy said. “He died a horrible death.”