The Maryland man charged with a murder related to an extensive network of tunnels under his home dug the tunnels because he feared a bombing by North Korea, his lawyer said Thursday.
Daniel Beckwitt was indicted Thursday on a murder charge in the death of 21-year-old Askia Khafra, and a judge was set to release him on $100,000 cash bond. Prosecutors had argued Beckwitt, 27, was a danger to the community and a flight risk.
Beckwitt is a conspiracy theorist and millionaire who amassed at least $3.7 million through day trading, prosecutors said about the mysterious case.
Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Sharon V. Burrell ordered Beckwitt to wear a GPS monitor and stay away from Khafra's family.
Beckwitt's lawyer, Robert Bonsib, argued Beckwitt is not dangerous but is only an unusual man. He attends computer hacking conventions under an alias, wearing a full-body fire suit and a hood covering his face, Bonsib said.
Beckwitt and Khafra met online, prosecutors said. Beckwitt promised to invest in a startup Khafra ran, and in exchange, Khafra dug the tunnels.
As Khafra dug on Sept. 10, 2017, a fire broke out and he was trapped. First responders later found his naked body. Beckwitt escaped with minor injuries.
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Last week, Beckwitt was charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in Khafra's death.
Montgomery County State's Attorney John McCarthy said Beckwitt knew Khafra was in danger in the tunnels.
"You were essentially acting in a way that you were disregarding human life and taking a high degree of risk that someone could be severely injured or killed," McCarthy said outside court.
Prosecutors said Thursday that Khafra texted Beckwitt and told him he smelled smoke, but that Beckwitt did not get him out of the tunnels.
Beckwitt's lawyer argued Beckwitt did try to get Khafra out.
"He went back [into the house] repeatedly, and he ended up in the hospital as a result of his efforts to try to save his friend," Bonsib said.
Prosecutors say Khafra slept and ate at the house, and went to the bathroom in a bucket. He tolerated the poor conditions because Beckwitt promised to invest in the company he was trying to launch, a website for investors.
Beckwitt's attorney says Khafra wasn't forced to work against his will. Rather, he seemed excited to take part in the bizarre project, Bonsib argued. The attorney pointed to photos on Facebook and Twitter pages in Khafra's name. Bonsib entered those photos into court evidence. One appears to show Khafra inside a tunnel, wearing a breathing mask.
"This is a tragic accident involving the death of a young man who was a full participant in these activities, fully aware of what was going on, fully aware of what happened. And the state's case, frankly, is a lot of hyperbole," Bonsib said.
"When you get down to the facts at this hearing this afternoon, the facts were sparse to nonexistent. So, this case has a lot of fight in it, and we look forward to that fight," Bonsib continued.
Khafra's father attended his son's court appearance Thursday.
"I have a lot of mixed feelings. I can't express them," he said.
Court documents released Wednesday revealed for the first time the extent of the tunnels under the house on Danbury Road. A hole in the basement's concrete floor dropped down about 20 feet and led to "an underground tunnel complex" that branched out about 200 feet in length, a police affidavit says. That's more than half the length of a football field.
On the day of the fire, the house on the 5200 block of Danbury Road had "immense piles of garbage and discarded items" in the house and basement, the affidavit says. Only "narrow, maze-like pathways" let someone move through the house.
A "haphazard daisy-chain" of extension cords was being used to meet the "substantial electrical needs" of the tunnels. Investigators found power tools, a heater, an air compressor and lights.
Police say they interviewed Beckwitt and that he said that on multiple occasions he rented a car and picked up Khafra from his home in Silver Spring. Then, Beckwitt said he drove Khafra to Manassas, Virginia, more than an hour's drive southwest.
"Once there, Beckwitt had Khafra put on darkened, black-out glasses that prevented Khafra from seeing where they were going," the police document says.
Beckwitt told Khafra he was taking him to an undisclosed location in Virginia, according to police. But, instead, he drove him to the house in Bethesda. There, Beckwitt guided Khafra — who was still unable to see — out of the car and into the basement of the house. Once they were in the basement, Beckwitt let Khafra take off the glasses so he could "work digging the tunnels for punctuated periods of days at a time."
First responders received a call about the fire about 4 p.m. Sept. 10.
Beckwitt suffered minor injuries and was able to escape, but Khafra was trapped. He died of smoke inhalation and burns, a medical examiner determined.
Khafra dreamed of success in the business world, his mother told News4 on a brief phone call.
"He had a lot of people that cared about him," said Brandon Cobb, who described himself as Khafra's best friend. The two grew up together.
Cobb said he had never met Beckwitt, but said it was his understanding that Khafra was working for him.
"The only thing he mentioned is he was doing some sort of renovation," Cobb said.
Beckwitt was arrested Friday evening in Burke, Virginia, and charged in Khafra's death.
Montgomery County sued Beckwitt and the property’s owner, David Beckwitt, in March, saying the property was a “public nuisance” that was “unfit for human habitation.” David Beckwitt is Daniel Beckwitt's father, a source with knowledge of the case told WTOP.
The lawsuit says that after the fire, investigators found hoarding conditions, hazardous materials, tunnels and excavations that extended to the street and “likely beyond at least one property line.”
In October, the county condemned the building and posted orders on the property calling for the repair or removal of the house by December. Officials did not get a response from the Beckwitts until later.
In a response filed with the court in May, the Beckwitts said they were unaware of orders against them until December. In their response, they denied that the property was uninhabitable or a public nuisance.
On Wednesday, the house was surrounded by a fence. The yard was full of garbage and bins full of water, attracting rats and mosquitoes.
Remediation of the property by the county is on hold, county spokesman Patrick Lacefield said Thursday.
"With filing of criminal charges, this is a crime scene," he said.
The county's Department of Permitting Services is monitoring the property on a weekly basis.
On Friday, Beckwitt's attorney posted $100,000 cash bond but did not meet the deadline for getting Beckwitt out of jail the same day. He is expected to be released Monday.
Beckwitt is due in court June 8.
Chris Cioffi contributed to this report.