Stock trader resentenced to 5 years for deadly bunker fire

Mar 29, 2022, 1:26 PM | Updated: 9:21 pm

ROCKVILLE, Md. (AP) — A wealthy stock trader was resentenced on Tuesday to five years in prison for his role in the fiery death of a man who was helping him secretly dig tunnels for a nuclear bunker under a home in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C.

Daniel Beckwitt already has been incarcerated for nearly three years and is statutorily eligible for parole because he has served more than a quarter of his sentence. Noting that Beckwitt could be released soon, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Margaret Schweitzer also sentenced him to five years of supervised probation after his release and ordered him to perform 250 hours of community service.

“I hope this is your opportunity to give back to our community,” she said. “I hope you do what you can do, which is use your intelligence for good.”

Beckwitt, 30, initially was sentenced in 2019 to nine years in prison after a jury convicted him of second-degree “depraved heart” murder and involuntary manslaughter in the September 2017 death of 21-year-old Askia Khafra.

But a state appeals court overturned Beckwitt’s murder conviction in January 2021, saying his conduct did not demonstrate “an extreme disregard for human life reasonably likely to cause death.” Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals also upheld his conviction for involuntary manslaughter.

The Maryland Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, subsequently upheld Beckwitt’s involuntary manslaughter conviction. The court concluded that Beckwitt’s failure to provide Khafra with a reasonably safe workplace in the tunnels constituted gross negligence.

Beckwitt has been imprisoned since his April 2019 trial conviction. He didn’t testify at his trial, but he apologized to Khafra’s parents before Schweitzer sentenced him in June 2019. On Tuesday, Beckwitt described Khafra as a good friend and said he still mourns him “to this day.”

“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about all the great things Askia should have gone on to do,” he said. “The world needs more people like Askia Khafra, not fewer.”

Dia Khafra, Askia’s father, expressed frustration with Beckwitt’s “light” sentence and said he feels as if his family has been “stabbed with the knife of victimization all over again.”

“I feel that as a victim, all that mattered to the system were rules, procedures, legalese — not the overarching fact that my son, my dear son’s life, had been deliberately terminated,” he told the judge before she handed down Beckwitt’s new sentence.

Firefighters found Khara’s naked, charred body in the basement after a fire erupted in Beckwitt’s home in Bethesda, Maryland.

Prosecutors said the extreme hoarding conditions in the home prevented him from escaping. At trial, Montgomery County prosecutor Marybeth Ayres said Beckwitt sacrificed safety for secrecy and created “death trap” conditions in the house.

“The behavior was grossly negligent on so many levels,” Ayres said Tuesday. “It wasn’t just one thing.”

Defense attorney Robert Bonsib told jurors that Beckwitt screamed for help from neighbors and risked his own safety in a failed attempt to rescue his friend.

“This was an accidental death, pure and simple, and it wasn’t intended,” Bonsib told the judge on Tuesday.

Khafra met Beckwitt online. Beckwitt had invested money in a company Khafra was trying to launch as he helped Beckwitt dig the network of tunnels. A prosecutor described Beckwitt as a skilled computer hacker who had a paranoid fixation on a possible nuclear attack by North Korea.

Beckwitt went to elaborate lengths to keep the project a secret, prosecutors said. He tried to trick Khafra into thinking they were digging the tunnels in Virginia instead of Maryland by having him don “blackout glasses” before taking him on a long drive. Beckwitt also used internet “spoofing” to make it appear they were digging in Virginia, according to prosecutors.

Khafra worked in the tunnels for days at a time, eating and sleeping there and urinating and defecating into a bucket that Beckwitt lowered down to him. The tunnels had lights, an air circulation system and a heater.

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. Investigators concluded the blaze was ignited by a defective electrical outlet in the basement.

The judge said she believes that Beckwitt’s “intellectual arrogance” misled him to believe that everything would go as he planned at the house. She expressed sympathy for Khafra’s family and said she understood why his father is frustrated.

“Please do not equate the number of years (in prison) to the value of the victim’s life in this case,” Schweitzer said. “It just can’t happen.”

Bonsib, the defense attorney, said he expects Beckwitt to be released from prison within a couple of months “at most.”

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Stock trader resentenced to 5 years for deadly bunker fire