ROCKVILLE, Md. (FOX 5 DC) - Was it an accident or “depraved heart” murder?
That’s what a jury is trying to decide in the case of the death of a man whose body was found after a fire in a Bethesda home riddled with secret tunnels.
In opening statements on Wednesday, the jury learned that Daniel Beckwitt had been digging the tunnels underneath his father’s house on Danbury Road for years.
And the man who was killed there in 2017 – Askia Khafra – was not the first person hired to dig them.
In opening statements to the jury, prosecutor Marybeth Ayres said that when he died in September of 2017, Khafra was stuck in a death trap that he could not escape – a trap that was created and controlled by the defendant, Daniel Beckwitt.
Ayres said the house was filled with garbage, and the extreme hoarding conditions blocked the exits and created safety issues.
Khafra, 21, would stay inside the tunnels for days at a time - working while sleeping on a bed set up in a bunker.
On the day of the fire, at 2:32 a.m. – Khafra sent a message to Beckwitt telling him there was no power. Five minutes later, he said he smelled smoke, but Beckwitt never responded until 9 a.m. when he said there had been no power failure.
Hours later, at 4:17 p.m., Khafra sent another message saying he definitely smelled smoke.
He was found dead in the basement – completely naked – apparently trying to escape.
But defense attorney Robert Bonsib told the jury that Askia Khafra died under very unusual circumstances – a tragic event triggered by an electrical fire.
According to Bonsib, saying he was under the thumb of Daniel Beckwitt does not match the facts. He said Khafra was a willing participant who was heading for an exit in the house when he breathed in the fumes and died in the fire.