A Maryland man convicted of killing a friend helping him build a network of underground tunnels has had his sentence reduced and could soon be released from prison.
Daniel Beckwitt, 30, was sentenced in 2019 to nine years in prison after a jury found him guilty of ‘depraved heart’ second-degree murder and manslaughter in the September 2017 death of ‘Askia Khafra, 21 years old.
But a state appeals court in 2021 overturned the murder conviction, saying Mr Beckwitt’s conduct did not demonstrate “extreme disregard for human life reasonably likely to cause death”. The Maryland Special Court of Appeals also upheld his manslaughter conviction.
On Tuesday, the eccentric millionaire hacker’s sentence was reduced to five years; he has already served almost three years in prison and is legally eligible for parole because he has served more than a quarter of his sentence.
“I hope this is an opportunity for you to give back to our community,” said Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Margaret Schweitzer. “I hope you will do what you can do, which is to use your intelligence for good.”
The bizarre and tragic case stemmed from the paranoia of Beckwitt, a suburban DC native living in hoarder’s paradise while obsessed with nuclear attacks.
And it ended with the gruesome death of a young man he had befriended in his quest to save himself from the North Korean onslaught he saw as imminent.
Mr Beckwitt’s clashes with law enforcement began when he was just at university.
While attending the University of Illinois, he ended up launching hacker attacks and when caught pleaded guilty to a felony felony computer fraud without jail time, the Washington Post reported.
Khafra, also bright, ambitious and tech-savvy, grew up not far from Beckwitt – the son of middle-class immigrants from Trinidad. But he died in 2017 after a fire broke out while he worked for $150 a day in totally unsafe conditions that a court ruled should have been clearly unsafe for an “ordinarily careful” person.
The whole tragic saga hinges on the bizarre online and in-person relationships forged by a ‘strange’ man who his lawyers say had no malicious intent – but whose actions constituted the pursuit of the ‘depraved heart’, it has been argued. state attorneys. It means “extreme disregard” for human life.
Khafra was not the first person Beckwitt hired to build a maze of tunnels emanating from his suburban DC residential tunnels so unstable that authorities have still been unable to determine their extent. The eccentric only child “took elaborate steps to keep the project secret,” AP reported.
He had first met Khafra, using a pseudonym online, when the young man from Maryland was looking for seed money for an app startup. Beckwitt gave the young entrepreneur $5,000, but the business did not work out. it is then that he asks for her help for his makeshift bunker.
“He tried to trick Khafra into thinking they were digging tunnels in Virginia instead of Maryland by having him wear ‘blackout goggles’ before taking him on a long drive. Khafra had a cell phone with him in the tunnels, but Beckwitt used internet spoofing to make it look like they were digging in Virginia,” AP reported.
Despite ongoing construction in a quiet suburb about 10 miles from DC – populated by tons of government workers – neighbors were unaware of the grid extending in three directions below them.
Armed with a rotary hammer, jackhammer and pickaxe, Khafra did the job diligently for days, eating and sleeping underground and relieving himself in a bucket brought down by Beckwitt.
The tunnels were equipped with lights, an air circulation system and a heater – but they weren’t up to code, especially when it came to electricity. This reality was proven on the afternoon of September 10, 2017, when the smell of smoke alerted Khafra to flee.
He climbed 15 feet down a shaft and into a cluttered basement, where he became trapped and eventually died as flames engulfed the space. Beckwitt reportedly tried to drag him out when a fire broke out, also screaming for help from neighbors – but Khafra’s naked, charred body was eventually found.
The owner would then have given evasive answers about what, exactly, his friend had been doing under the two-story house. But investigators – and eventually a jury – were faced with a disturbing scenario.
They discovered that the basement was clogged with trash except for a narrow, winding path between the bunker hole and the yard door. None of the windows offered a means of escape – some blocked with plywood and metal and some too small for a person to fit through.
Investigators determined that Khafra made it past an oven and through a utility room in the center of the basement. There he stepped on a rolling office chair, hoping perhaps to grab a fire extinguisher from above the washing machine or break through the window.
But by then his blood had become saturated with carbon monoxide, causing disorientation that caused him to fall backwards. He landed on a welding machine and lost consciousness before burning to death.
News of the shocking death – and the mind-blowing scheme that led to it – stunned those who lived in the upscale suburbs and had known Beckwitt, even peripherally, since he was a boy.
“It’s all been weird,” Anne-Marie Kleinman, a longtime neighbor, told The Post. “There was no logic in the bunker – and it had always seemed very logical to me.”
Megan Coleman, one of Beckwitt’s lawyers, said the sentencing guidelines were significantly lower for manslaughter than for a murder conviction.
“Both appeals courts have said there was no malice in this case,” Coleman said. “For us, that would justify a lighter sentence.”
During Beckwitt’s trial, another member of his legal team similarly argued that the tragedy was “an accident”.
“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,” said his lawyer, Robert Bonsib.
Khafra’s father, Dia, said last month that the state’s decision to reprimand was “illustrative of a flawed justice system” and believed Beckwitt’s nine-year prison sentence was already too lenient.
“As a father who lost his son at the tender age of 21 in the most horrific way, I am very, very disappointed,” Dia Khafra said.