Wealthy Stock Trader Convicted in Man's Death in Bunker Fire - NBC 6 South Florida
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Wealthy Stock Trader Convicted in Man's Death in Bunker Fire

Jury Deliberates in Tunnel House Murder Trial

The jury deliberating in the Bethesda tunnel house murder trial told the judge they agreed to a verdict on one charge but were at an impasse on a second charge. Chris Gordon reports the judge told them to continue deliberating and try to reach a unanimous decision. (Published Wednesday, April 24, 2019)

A jury found a wealthy stock trader guilty of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the death of a man trapped in a fire at a Maryland house where the victim was helping dig tunnels for an underground nuclear bunker.

The defendant, 27-year-old Daniel Beckwitt, put his head down when he heard the verdict.

Prosecutors argued Beckwitt engaged in "extreme risk-taking behavior" before the fatal fire broke out in his Bethesda home. Montgomery County prosecutor Marybeth Ayres said Beckett didn't cause the fire that killed Askia Khafra but created the conditions that prevented Khafra from escaping the house, which was filled with piles of garbage.

A lawyer for Beckwitt described him as a "very strange young man," yet urged jurors to acquit him of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter charges over the deadly fire. In closing arguments Tuesday, defense attorney Robert Bonsib said the September 2017 death of the 21-year-old Khafra is a "mystery without an answer."

Khafra's charred, naked body was not far from a hole in the floor that Khafra used to enter a shaft that dropped some 20 feet underground into a series of tunnels, Beckwitt claims were to protect him from North Korean missiles.

Dia Khafra, father of Askia Khafra, holds a photo of his son in his Silver Spring home on Sept. 5, 2018.
Photo credit: Michael Kunzelman/AP

Prosecutors called it a death trap and also said Beckwitt went to great lengths to conceal the whereabouts of his home from Khafra, accusing him of putting blackout goggles on Khafra as he drove him to the Bethesda home.

Beckwitt told police he was surprised Khafra was able to find the secret location of the home, saying, "That's kind of scary; that's what I was trying to avoid."

Beckwitt’s attorneys argued their client’s secrecy did not result in a lack of safety.

The defense painted Khafra as a smart and mature 21-year-old man who willingly went into the tunnels on multiple occasions to dig for several days at a time. They said photos of Khafra in the tunnels show he was proud of the work that he was doing. They showed a Google message to Beckwitt in which Khafra asked, "Dude can I please work."

In a note to the judge Wednesday afternoon, jurors said they reached an agreement on one of the counts but were at an impasse on the other charge. The note didn't indicate which charge they can't agree on.

The judge instructed the jurors to keep deliberating.

They reached a verdict after about 12 hours of deliberations.