After seven days in the tunnels, Askia Khafra tapped out a message to his boss.
“I def’ smell smoke down here,” the 21-year-old wrote.
Down here was an ever-expanding, do-it-yourself bomb shelter carved out beneath a two-story home with white siding and burgundy shutters smack in the middle of a Maryland suburb less than 10 miles from downtown Washington, D.C.
The bunker and the secrecy around it were the obsession of Daniel Beckwitt, a then-26-year-old day trader and computer hacker who lived alone upstairs, worried North Korean missiles could soon be on the way.
He was going to be ready.
Beckwitt opened the first hole in the basement of the Bethesda, Maryland, house left to him along with a sizable inheritance by his parents, smashing through the concrete floor in 2014 to bore an entry and the beginning of a shaft.
He studied enough geotechnical and structural engineering concepts to declare his plans were safe and then over three years hired a series of workers to help with the dig. Khafra was the final one.
None had excavation experience but all agreed to keep Beckwitt’s secret.
For $150 a day, they agreed to hollow out tunnels and sleep in the bunker. The living quarters included a shower, fridge, microwave, Internet, video games and a Home Depot bucket for a toilet.
As the complex grew, tunnels branched in three directions and extended toward the property lines of unsuspecting neighbors, all living in a friendly community of teachers, lawyers, and scientists from the nearby National Institutes of Health.
Khafra worked with loyalty and tenacity, wielding a rotary hammer, jackhammer and pickax. But that smell of smoke on the afternoon of Sept. 10, 2017, convinced him he had to get out.
The former high-school wrestler scrambled 15 feet up a shaft and into a basement that, like most of Beckwitt’s house, was choked by clutter.
It was there that Khafra spotted a fire, there that he was overcome by carbon monoxide, there that he died, burned beyond immediate recognition in what a Montgomery County, Maryland, jury would determine was an act of “depraved heart” second-degree murder.
The perilous conditions Beckwitt created made him responsible for Khafra’s death, the jury found.
“You have what we call intellectual arrogance, OK?” Montgomery County [Maryland] Circuit Judge Margaret Schweitzer told him in court on June 17, only minutes before she handed him a nine-year prison sentence. “You thought: ‘I’ve created this, everything will be fine.’ “
Left in the wake of trial are hundreds of pages of court documents, Beckwitt’s own words and more than a dozen people who talked about the man and his obsession.
And some answers to how something so bizarre and horrible could happen.
An isolated childhood
Linda Beckwitt, a Securities and Exchange Commission attorney who had gone to Columbia Law School, and David Beckwitt, an opera performer with a PhD who gave voice lessons, had their only child, Daniel, in 1991.
Linda became Daniel’s full-time, home-schooling teacher.
By age 5, he was plowing through Hardy Boys mysteries, according to court records, and by 11, reprogramming his PlayStation. He went to NIH science programs and built robots at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. But in his recounting of his childhood, and by the accounts of some neighbors and his attorneys, he had come home from camps to a lonely house with loving but aging parents whose hoarding was growing worse.
The isolation seemed it might fade in the fall of 2010 when his parents took Beckwitt to the Rockville, Maryland, train station, where he boarded an Amtrak and headed toward the University of Illinois and its elite programs in electrical engineering and computer science. It was a moment he remembered vividly in a recent letter to the court, likening it to being set free.
“I was manumitted into the world at large,” he wrote.
Searching for a hacker
The University of Illinois Police Department, serving a college with 47,000 students, staffs a full-service investigations bureau and in late 2013, it was on the hunt for a hacker.
Someone was targeting students, teaching assistants and professors, allegedly swiping 2,800 Social Security numbers in one incident.
Interviews on campus yielded a possible suspect: Daniel Beckwitt. He had spoken at hackers conventions, including one where he wore sunglasses and played a video showing how he had ignited thermite to destroy a hard drive. “I do a lot – well, an insane amount – of my own R&D outside of school in my basement in suburban Maryland,” he told the hackers. “I’m just a tinkerer. I love building stuff.”
While other students may have focused on making fake IDs for bar-hopping, he seemed keen on making electronic key cards to enable undetected access into buildings.
Looking to talk with Beckwitt, court files later showed, a detective paid an informal call at his apartment building, got no answer, but took note of a package at the door addressed to “S. Loomis Detweiller.”
The police team, Illinois case records state, suspected the name was an alias used by Beckwitt. They linked that the name to an online persona, “skunkworks,” who two months earlier had posted a thread extolling the side benefits of his studies: “They include hacking TAs [teaching assistants] for the hell of it to deface 100 and 200 level course’s websites, and urban exploring my university’s steam tunnel system weekly thanks to [poor] eLock implementations.” Skunkworks, as the investigators learned, also was the pseudonym of the convention speaker who played the thermite video.
Investigators went back to the apartment building, with a computer specialist, a search warrant and a key to Beckwitt’s unit.
“Beckwitt’s room was devoid of any clothing,” detectives wrote in their reports. “His floor was completely covered in computer equipment, cables, power tools, and garbage. His bed was on the floor in the center of the room without any bedding.”
Atop a mini fridge, they found an open laptop, plugged in with no password prompt. The team used a thumb drive and cloned Beckwitt’s hard drive.
“Really smart kid who clearly felt he was too smart for us to catch him,” Lt. Tom Geis, who was on the search said recently.
Investigators seized Beckwitt’s gold Honda minivan, where they found lockpicks, a bulletproof vest and equipment to produce key cards, Illinois records show. Beckwitt was arrested and ordered to stay off campus property. After posting bond, he hired a top-shelf local attorney who eventually negotiated a plea deal to felony computer fraud with no jail time, so long as Beckwitt paid $23,000 in restitution and served two years of probation.
Five days before the deal was official, Beckwitt went to reddit.com to take questions on the case. “My attacks went on for months,” he claimed, according to online postings and prosecutors, “and only stopped when I got bored.”
He got his plea deal, paid the $23,000 and on while on probation, took EMT classes and flight lessons at a community college before returning to his childhood home in Maryland.
“The whole thing has been bizarre,” said Anne-Marie Kleinman, a longtime neighbor of the Beckwitts who has known Daniel Beckwitt since he was a boy. “There was no logic to the bunker – and he’d always struck me as very logical.”
Like some others in the neighborhood, Kleinman believes his recent tunnel obsession is linked not only to Beckwitt’s isolated childhood, but a jarring year that followed. At age 19, his mother died and his father’s Parkinson’s disease left Beckwitt moving him to a nursing facility before his death in 2018.
“He wasn’t just a kid who grew up without many friends. Now, he didn’t have any family,” Kleinman said. “I don’t know how that prepares you for a regular life.”
After graduating from high school, Askia Khafra figured college could wait in favor of his start-up venture: Equity Shark, a smartphone app to allow small investors to pool money into promising new companies.
Ambitious, bright and naive, he prospected for seed money online and in time began communicating with a possible backer who went by the moniker “3alarmlampscooter,” a reference to a character in one of science-fiction author Neal Stephenson’s novels.
A meeting was set up at a hookah bar in Rockville, Maryland, where “3alarm,” as he introduced himself, arrived in Oakley wraparound sunglasses that he never took off.
But Khafra noticed more than the glasses: “Dude, you’re wearing a bulletproof vest,” he said, according to Tavon Giaquinta, Khafra’s partner in the start-up venture who also went to the meeting and eventually testified in Beckwitt’s trial.
“Yeah, got to stay safe out here,” 3alarm said, as recounted by Giaquinta.
The investor appeared wealthy, intelligent and keen on their idea. The first meeting led to another where 3alarm handed over $5,000 in cash for a deal that gave him a small stake in Equity Shark. He signed the agreement with his real name: Daniel Beckwitt.
Using part of Beckwitt’s $5,000, Khafra and Giaquinta traveled to San Francisco for a pitch for a grant offered to young entrepreneurs. They didn’t get it.
Beckwitt started talking to them about his side project, where he could use a hand building a fallout shelter on land he described as being in rural Virginia.
Khafra was intrigued. Equity Shark wasn’t catching on and money wasn’t coming in. He spoke more with Beckwitt about the project’s safety and amenities.
“Will I have wifi?” Khafra asked over Gmail chat to Beckwitt, trial evidence showed. “Cuz I gotta do Equity Shark [work] too.”
“Should be wifi and ethernet,” Beckwitt wrote back.
“I trust you,” Khafra replied.
He soon started his first shift.
An investigation begins
Montgomery County Detective Michele Smith walked into a hospital room late on Sept. 10, 2017, unsure what kind of investigation she had on her hands.
A fire at a home in Bethesda hours earlier had killed a man in the basement. The house’s other occupant, the man she had been sent to interview, had escaped the flames but suffered smoke inhalation.
The detective got to Beckitt’s room and as they talked, he told her, “I was just yelling, ‘Askia! Askia! There’s a fire. We got to get out.’ “
Beckwitt said he heard Khafra say ” ‘Yo, dude!’ ” but Beckwitt said he couldn’t reach Khafra because “there was like too much smoke to get through,” according to testimony.
Beckwitt ran outside and yelled to gathering neighbors to call 911 because he couldn’t. He didn’t use a cellphone, according to court proceedings, because he thought the devices were too vulnerable to hacking.
Over an hour, the detective tried to piece together where the victim had been, why he was in the house and what Beckwitt had seen.
Beckwitt protected his secret, never mentioning the tunnels even as he spun nonsensical explanations of how Khafra came to be in his cellar: Askia was a friend, who sometimes hung out there, sitting on bags of concrete mix and working on his laptop.
While the detective was at the hospital, fire investigator Dan Maxwell was picking through the jumble in the basement of the Bethesda house, trying to find the origin of the blaze.
“Hey Maxwell,” a colleague called from a corner under a staircase. “Get a load of this. I’m not sure what this is.”
Maxwell aimed his flashlight down a vertical passage, lighting up a winch system, ventilation shaft, and ladder that reached down toward horizontal pathways.
The pair of investigators in the basement pondered a descent.
“That’s a bad idea,” Maxwell finally said, but relayed what they were looking at to other investigators on the scene including one who texted Smith at the hospital.
She stepped out of Beckwitt’s room to return the call.
Ask him about the tunnels, Smith was told.
Unraveling the secret
Beckwitt slowly began explaining, dropping bits of information at the hospital and more two days later at police headquarters.
He acknowledged he had hired Khafra and told detectives, in an interview videotaped and played in court, about the clandestine measures he had taken with his employee: picking Khafra up at Khafra’s home, giving him blackout glasses to wear in the car and then driving circuitous routes to Bethesda, Maryland, to try to dupe Khafra into believing they had driven to the supposed bunker site in distant Virginia.
When they arrived at Beckwitt’s home, he would extend the end of a foot-long lanyard to Khafra to guide him to the side door of a basement. He could take off the glasses once inside. Beckwitt couldn’t reveal the location of his bunker, he told detectives, because in the event of missile strikes, he might be overrun.
“Overrun?” a detective asked. As in people trying to crowd into his bunker if word got out?
“Exactly, exactly,” Beckwitt said.
For months, Khafra had been discussing the excavation with his parents, who questioned its safety and the secrecy measures. But their son insisted everything was fine, and he spoke highly of Beckwitt and his business acumen.
As Smith and her colleagues investigated, it became clear the fire hadn’t been intentionally set, but their suspicions over Khafra’s work conditions, and whether they constituted a crime, grew.
Their case turned on several factors.
The considerable electricity needed for Beckwitt’s excavating tools was routed into the tunnels by extension cords, which detectives speculated had heightened the fire risk. Beckwitt’s obsessive secrecy meant anyone working there couldn’t be sure of their location, even if they needed that detail to aid a 911 call. And the hoarding in the basement constrained any quick exit in an emergency.
In May 2018, eight months after the fire, Beckwitt was charged with “depraved heart murder,” punishable by up to 30 years in prison under the theory a person acted with “extreme disregard” for human life.
“This case boils down to secrecy over safety,” Montgomery prosecutor Marybeth Ayres said at his trial.
Beckwitt’s attorney Robert Bonsib argued that the fire had nothing to do with the tunnels. It started because of a latent defect in a basement outlet near a workbench that had no clear connection to the tunnel project, he said. And for all the talk of hoarding, the attorney told jurors, police or prosecutors could not show photographs of the basement as it appeared before the fire.
Bonsib also told jurors Khafra was not held against his will and noted that on his next-to-last trip, Khafra, despite the dark glasses, had been able to make enough quick observations to use Google to figure out where the house was.
“This was an accident,” Bonsib said in court. “An accident in a house occupied by a very strange young man who had a friend who worked with him in a very strange situation.”
But the jury wasn’t persuaded.
At his June 17 sentencing, Beckwitt said he had to respect what 12 fellow citizens had concluded. Turning to Khafra’s parents in the courtroom’s front row, he praised their son as “truly an exceptional young man,” saying, “he was smart and he was selfless.”
“We all wish Askia was still with us,” Beckwitt said. “But the best way we can honor his memory is by striving to live life to the fullest and never taking a moment for granted.”
To Dia Khafra, the words were galling in their arrogance – who was Beckwitt to offer up guidance? “Something is wrong with him,” Khafra’s father remembers thinking. “He’s not wired right.”
A house uninhabitable
The Beckwitt house, with its boarded-up windows and overgrown yard, still stands in Bethesda, Maryland, surrounded now by chain-link fencing and condemned by the county as uninhabitable.
To this day, county officials don’t know how far the tunnels extend, how deep they go.
Fire investigators got only so far into the warren before the space became too cramped and dangerous to continue and the tunnels’ uneven flooring made sending in a robot unfeasible.
“The entire site is a concern,” says Diane Schwartz Jones, the recently retired director of the Montgomery County Department of Permitting Services. In letters to Beckwitt, officials have ordered him to pay for a complete remediation of the property and turned to litigation to enforce it, legal action that was put on hold during his trial and would likely remain on hold during any appeal of his conviction.
Beckwitt is in a state prison in Hagerstown, Maryland, state records show, and appealing his conviction. If his conviction stands, he could accumulate credits for good behavior and taking part in prison programs that could curb his sentence to about six years and, separately, could be eligible for parole consideration after serving about half of the nine-year term.
Khafra’s parents try to hold on to buoyant memories of their son: him on fourth-grade safety patrol, proudly walking younger kids to buses; swimming with cousins at the beach during trips to Trinidad; his belief and optimism that he was one great app away from making millions.
But those moments are fleeting.
In the living room of their Silver Spring, Maryland, home, they keep the unopened box that holds their son’s beige urn and ashes. It sits near his guitar on its stand and a photo of him in his Junior ROTC uniform. Neither can bear to open the box, so it sits exactly as it was handed to them after the memorial service.
One room away, in their dining room, they often lay out their son’s table setting before dinner. His favorite square white plate, the knife and fork and spoon, and the tall, clear drinking glass he liked.
“Where is my son?” his father will ask himself. “We are waiting for him.”