“I can’t imagine what you could have done if you considered altruistic needs,” Montgomery County Circuit Judge Margaret Schweitzer said, ticking off how Beckwitt could have used his advanced computer skills to help disabled people communicate or help the nation ward off hacking attacks.
A onetime university electrical engineering student, Beckwitt several years ago became obsessed by the threat of North Korea and missile strikes, his attorney, Robert Bonsib, said in court. To build his bunker, Beckwitt didn’t want to hire professional contractors, according to earlier trial testimony, because he wanted to keep the project secret.
So he hired people including Askia Khafra, 21, whom Beckwitt met when he invested money in Khafra’s start-up venture. Khafra worked for long stretches and slept in the tunnels, according to testimony.
In September 2017, Khafra was working in the tunnels when an accidental electrical fire broke out in the basement above him. Khafra smelled smoke, climbed up and tried to escape from the basement. But he was overcome by smoke, had trouble making it through hoarding-type clutter and burned to death, according to testimony at trial in April, when Beckwitt was convicted of “depraved heart” second-degree murder.
In reaching the verdict, jurors determined Beckwitt had acted with “extreme disregard for human life.”
“The acts and omissions that led to (Khafra’s) death were criminal, to be sure,” Schweitzer told Beckwitt at sentencing, “but not intentional.”
Khafra’s parents, relatives and friends spoke emotionally Monday about his kindness and warm nature. Schweitzer picked up on that.
“By all accounts, Askia Khafra was one of our community’s bright lights,” the judge said. “Loving, giving, genuine, smart, loyal. He was also a dreamer.”
At sentencing, Askia Khafra’s father, Dia Khafra,
recalled the afternoon nearly two years ago when three police officers arrived at his Silver Spring home. He ushered them into the living room. One eventually said, as gently as she could, “Mr. Khafra, we have reason to believe that your son Askia was burned to death in a fire at a house in Bethesda,” according to Dia Khafra’s recollection.
He said he retreated to be alone in his kitchen. As he told Schweitzer, a phrase he’d often used in times of stress — “And this too shall pass” — was no match for the sudden and overwhelming pain inside.
“This time, the persuasive thought within the fabric of my mind was, ‘So this is how it had to end. This is how it had to end.’ ”
His wife, Claudia, called by chance, unaware of what happened. He told her to come home urgently. A detective, Michelle Smith, held her hands while telling her what happened.
Claudia Khafra also spoke in court.
One of her more vivid memories was how Askia would greet her at the end of the day.
“Hi, Mom. I love you, Mom,” he’d say with a smile, she said. “Or ask, ‘How was your day, Mom?’ ”
Beckwitt also spoke, directing some remarks to Khafra’s parents to say their son “was truly an exceptional young man. . . . He was smart, and he was selfless.”
Beckwitt said he tried to save Khafra. “I truly did try to rescue Askia,” he said. “The smoke simply became too thick for me to find him before my vision faded. I became dizzy, weak and too lightheaded to continue.”
And Beckwitt said he was sorry, while acknowledging the word was terribly insufficient in response to their grief.
“One simply cannot put into words,” Beckwitt said, “the magnitude of loss suffered here.”