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Maryland millionaire gets 9 years in death of man building nuclear bunker tunnels

Dia Khafra, father of Askia Khafra, holds a photo of his son in his Silver Spring home. Maryland millionaire Daniel Beckwitt was sentenced to nine years in Askia Khafra's death.
Dia Khafra, father of Askia Khafra, holds a photo of his son in his Silver Spring home. Maryland millionaire Daniel Beckwitt was sentenced to nine years in Askia Khafra's death. (Michael Kunzelman / AP)

A wealthy stock trader was sentenced Monday to nine years in prison for his conviction in the fiery death of a man who was helping him secretly dig tunnels for a nuclear bunker beneath a Maryland home.

Daniel Beckwitt, 28, had faced a maximum of 30 years in prison when Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Margaret Schweitzer sentenced him. In total, Beckwitt was sentenced to 21 years but the judge suspended all but nine years of the sentence.

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In April, a jury convicted Beckwitt of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the September 2017 death of 21-year-old Askia Khafra.

During the trial, Montgomery County prosecutor Marybeth Ayres accused Beckwitt of recklessly endangering Khafra's life. Beckwitt ignored obvious signs of danger and sacrificed safety for secrecy while they dug a network of tunnels beneath a home in Bethesda, a suburb of Washington, D.C., the prosecutor said.

Defense attorney Robert Bonsib had told jurors the fire was an accident, not a crime.

Firefighters found Khafra's naked, charred body in the basement of Beckwitt's trash-filled house, only a few steps from an exit. Prosecutors said the extreme hoarding conditions in the home prevented Khafra from escaping.

This undated file photo released by the Montgomery County Police Department shows Daniel Beckwitt, who has been sentenced to nine years in the fiery tunnel death of Askia Khafra.
This undated file photo released by the Montgomery County Police Department shows Daniel Beckwitt, who has been sentenced to nine years in the fiery tunnel death of Askia Khafra. (AP)

Hours before the fire broke out in the basement, Khafra texted Beckwitt to warn him it smelled like smoke in the tunnels. Ayres said Beckwitt didn't respond for more than six hours before telling Khafra that there had been a "major electrical failure." Instead of getting Khafra out of the tunnels, Beckwitt told him that he "just switched it all over to another circuit," according to the prosecutor.

Bonsib said Beckwitt screamed for help from neighbors after the fire broke out and tried to rescue his friend from the blaze before heavy smoke and flames forced him to retreat.

Beckwitt did not testify at his trial, which lasted nearly two weeks. He has been in custody since the jury's verdict.

Khafra met Beckwitt online. Beckwitt had invested money in a company Khafra was trying to launch as he helped Beckwitt dig the tunnels.

Beckwitt went to elaborate lengths to keep the project a secret. 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. Khafra had a cellphone with him in the tunnels, but Beckwitt used internet "spoofing" to make it appear they were digging in Virginia.

Khafra worked in the tunnels for days at a time, eating and sleeping in there and urinating and defecating into a bucket 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.

A prosecutor has described Beckwitt as a skilled computer hacker who had a paranoid fixation on a possible nuclear attack by North Korea. In 2016, Beckwitt spoke at a hacker convention using the alias "3AlarmLampscooter" and wearing a fire-resistant suit and visor that obscured his face. Bonsib has said Beckwitt's use of a pseudonym and disguise was harmless, typical of the "weird things" people do on the internet.

Khafra's parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Beckwitt on the anniversary of the Sept. 10, 2017, fire. His father, Dia Khafra, said during an interview last year that he and his wife tried to persuade their son to stay away from Beckwitt's tunnels.

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