Deadly fire exposes wealthy man’s secret underground tunnels

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)
Updated 09 September 2018
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Deadly fire exposes wealthy man’s secret underground tunnels

  • A year ago, a deadly fire exposed Daniel Beckwitt’s curious campaign to build an underground bunker for protection from a nuclear attack

BETHESDA, Md.: The wealthy stock trader took elaborate steps to conceal the network of tunnels beneath his house in this Washington, D.C., suburb. Even the young man helping him dig them didn’t know where they were.
A year ago, a deadly fire exposed Daniel Beckwitt’s curious campaign to build an underground bunker for protection from a nuclear attack. Neighbors knew nothing about the tunnels before they heard Beckwitt’s screams and saw smoke pouring from the house where 21-year-old Askia Khafra (ASK-ee-uh KA-fruh) died that afternoon.
Maryland prosecutors portray Beckwitt, a 27-year-old millionaire, as a paranoid computer hacker who recklessly endangered Khafra’s life. In May, they secured Beckwitt’s indictment on charges of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter.
Beckwitt’s lawyer calls Khafra’s death a tragic accident, not a crime. Defense attorney Robert Bonsib concedes Beckwitt is an “unusual guy” but says his client risked his own life in a failed attempt to rescue Khafra.
Beckwitt was freed on bond after his May arrest. His trial is scheduled for April 2019.
Monday marks the anniversary of the Sept. 10, 2017, fire. It’s a day that Khafra’s parents are dreading.
During a recent interview at their Silver Spring, Maryland, home, Dia Khafra, 69, said he and his wife, Claudia, tried to persuade Askia to stay away from Beckwitt’s tunnels. Their son met Beckwitt online and agreed to help him dig the tunnels in exchange for Beckwitt’s investments in an Internet company Askia was launching.
“I always feared something dangerous would happen to him,” the elder Khafra said.
Investigators found the younger Khafra’s charred body in the basement of Beckwitt’s Bethesda home. A hole in the concrete basement floor led to a shaft that dropped down 20 feet (6 meters) into tunnels that branched out roughly 200 feet (60 meters) in length.
A police report says Beckwitt told investigators how he tried to preserve his project’s secrecy when he brought Khafra there. Beckwitt said he would rent a car, pick Khafra up and drive him to Manassas, Virginia, where he had the younger man don “blackout glasses” before driving him around for about an hour. Khafra spent days at a time working, eating and sleeping in the tunnels. He had his cellphone with him, but Beckwitt used Internet “spoofing” to make it appear he was in Virginia, according to Montgomery County prosecutor Douglas Wink.
“These are the lengths the defendant went through in order to hide the truth from Askia Khafra as to where he was and to maintain the secrecy of these tunnels,” Wink said during a May 31 hearing.
Beckwitt lived alone in “extreme hoarder conditions,” forcing the men to navigate a maze of junk and trash, Wink said. The tunnels had lights, an air circulation system and a heater powered by a “haphazard daisy chain” of power strips that created a fire risk, the prosecutor said.
Hours before the fire, Khafra texted Beckwitt to warn him it smelled like smoke in the tunnels. Beckwitt flipped a breaker that turned off lights in the tunnels but turned the power back on after Khafra said he couldn’t see, Wink said.
Beckwitt ignored those “obvious signs” of danger, the prosecutor told a judge.
Wink said Beckwitt had a “paranoid fixation” on a possible nuclear attack by North Korea. Beckwitt’s lawyer compared his client’s concern to “the days of the Cuban missile crisis.”
Bonsib said Khafra posted photos of himself in the tunnels on social media, suggesting he was proud of the work.
“He kept coming back,” Bonsib said.
Beckwitt’s lawyer described him as a successful “day trader” who has made millions trading stocks. Dia Khafra said his son was impressed by Beckwitt’s wealth.
“I think Askia was very trusting,” he said. “He believed in the guy.”
Dia Khafra said he only met Beckwitt once, when he dropped off his son at their home. He seemed shy.
“He said he made his money off bitcoins,” Khafra recalled.
Beckwitt lived with his parents at the Bethesda house until college. He enrolled at the University of Illinois, where campus police arrested him in 2013 on charges including computer fraud. He was suspected of installing keystroke logging devices on the Urbana school’s computers. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years of probation, according to online court records.
The conviction didn’t steer Beckwitt away from computers after he moved back to Maryland. In 2016, he spoke at a hacker convention using the alias “3AlarmLampscooter” and wearing a fire-resistant suit and visor that obscured his face.
Wink said Beckwitt was teaching his audience how to make thermite bombs to destroy computer data “in order to get away with hacking.”
Bonsib said his client’s use of a pseudonym and disguise was harmless, typical of the “weird things” people do on the Internet.
County officials sued Beckwitt over his property’s condition, calling it unsafe and a “public nuisance.” Wooden boards now cover the doors and windows of the house, which is surrounded by a chain-link fence and police tape.
Meanwhile, Khafra’s parents haven’t touched their son’s bedroom. The urn holding his ashes remains inside a cardboard box.
“We haven’t had the courage to open that box,” Dia Khafra said.


‘Benny the Beluga’ facing Christmas in the Thames far from home

Updated 13 December 2018
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‘Benny the Beluga’ facing Christmas in the Thames far from home

  • A beluga whale that was first spotted nearly three months ago in the River Thames is still feeding healthily

LONDON: A beluga whale that was first spotted nearly three months ago in the River Thames is still feeding healthily east of the British capital and facing a lone Christmas hundreds of miles from its normal Arctic habitat.
The white cetacean, which feeds on fish, squid and crabs, was first spotted in September and surfaced near Gravesend, Kent on the southern side of the estuary.
The last spotting of the whale, dubbed Benny the Beluga by the British media, was on Dec. 12 east of Gravesend, said a spokesman for the Port of London Authority which oversees the river.
“The whale pops up, and I am not exaggerating, for literally three to four seconds and then he disappears for 10 or 15 minutes and he moves in a wide, dark river, so you see how hard it is to track his precise location,” the spokesman said.
“This whale in its natural environment in the Arctic is a diverse feeder – so it is not a fussy eater,” the spokesman said. “The Thames is much cleaner now so there are more fish stocks.”
The beluga appears to be healthy, he added.
The last sighting of beluga whales in UK waters was in 2015 when they were spotted off northeastern England near the Northumberland coastline, but they left shortly afterwards.
Belugas, which can grow up to 5.5 meters (18 feet) long, spend most of their time off the coasts of Alaska, Canada and Russia, though they often travel great distances in search of food.