Neighbors of Bethesda Home With Tunnels Underneath Worry about Possible Hazards
Danbury Road house remains boarded up one year after fatal fire
The Beckwitts' Bethesda house, located at 5212 Danbury Road
Neighbors of a Bethesda home where Askia Khafra of Silver Spring died in a fire in September 2017 continue to worry about the integrity of the property that sits above a network of tunnels dug by Khafra and the man living there.
The house at 5212 Danbury Road remains boarded up and fenced off. This week, a bouquet of flowers adorned the fence, marking the anniversary of Khafra’s death on Sept. 10, 2017.
Daniel Beckwitt, the 27-year-old millionaire who allegedly hired Khafra to help him dig the tunnels under his father’s home out of fear of a North Korean attack, is awaiting trial on charges of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in connection with Khafra’s death. On Monday, Khafra’s parents, Dia and Claudia, filed a wrongful death suit in Montgomery County Circuit Court against Beckwitt and his father, David, who owns the property.
A legal effort by Montgomery County officials to force David Beckwitt to demolish the house and fill in the tunnels is on hold until Daniel Beckwitt’s criminal trial, scheduled for April, is concluded. Until then, the house will sit dormant, frustrating neighbors who worry about rats that have infested the property, the possible runoff of chemicals and a sinkhole that has developed at a rental property next door.
“That wasn’t there before,” Lisa Dunbar, who lives across from the Beckwitt house, said Thursday of the sinkhole.
Another neighbor across the street, who gave only his first name of John, said even more concerning than the rats or the sinkhole is a lack of communication from county officials concerning the seriousness of the tunnels’ impact on adjacent properties.
“We don’t know what the extent of the tunnels are. Do they run all under the street?” he said.
Bruce Leshan, a reporter for WUSA 9, lives in a home behind the Beckwitt house. About five years before the fire, he said Thursday, a large tree on the Beckwitt property fell onto his roof, causing $200,000 in damage. Leshan, who lives at the bottom of a hill separating the two properties, worries the tunnels under Beckwitt’s house may cause more trees to fall.
“There’s now a tree in his backyard that is undermined by a huge hole in the ground below it, so my concern is that that tree could fall on my house too, or my neighbor’s house. I think it’s ridiculous that nobody has forced him to deal with the tree situation at minimum,” he said.
Leshan was at the scene the day of the fire and called 911 while simultaneously trying to enter the house to save whoever might be inside. He said that before entering the home, he had seen Beckwitt, who he described as shirtless and covered with dirt, and asked him whether anyone was in the basement. Beckwitt hesitated before saying yes, Leshan said.
Leshan said that when he opened the basement door, he yelled to see if anyone was inside, but got no response. The situation at that point, he said, was too dangerous for him to enter.
“A lot of smoke was coming out. It wasn’t super hot, but I could see the flames in the center of the basement,” he said.
After county extinguished the fire, Leshan said he heard an “all clear” message over the fire radio, and thought Beckwitt had imagined there was a person in the basement. But he later learned that someone had died in the fire after seeing a tweet from Pete Piringer, the spokesman for Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Service.
County attorneys filed a lawsuit in March against David Beckwitt, citing the hazardous conditions found on the property. The lawsuit came after Daniel and his father appealed the December order from the county’s Department of Permitting Services that they demolish the home and fill in the tunnels.
According to court documents, there is an entrance shaft 20 feet deep in the basement leading to the tunnels, which branch out for about 200 feet.
Leshan said until recently, he had seen rats in his backyard, although a construction crew hired by the county’s Department of Housing and Community Affairs put rat traps in the Beckwitt house, which solved the problem.
Runoff, he said, has also been an issue.
“I’m right downhill from whatever he dumped there and it’s running onto my property. Who knows what’s in that runoff,” he said.
Leshan said he complained to Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy about the situation, but he was told county officials won’t take action in the civil case until the criminal trial has concluded. He said he has also been in touch with County Council member Roger Berliner’s office, which has been more responsive to his concerns.
Leshan said he doesn’t understand the county’s unresponsiveness toward what he feels is a “blight on the community.”
Department of Permitting Services Director Diane Schwartz Jones confirmed Thursday that her department’s order has been put on hold due to the pending criminal trial. The order requires the Beckwitts to first determine the exact dimensions and boundaries of the tunnels before they are filled in.
“We want to know exactly where the tunnels are so we know how much soil to put in and to really define it so the proper condition can be achieved,” she said.
Jones said her department sends staff weekly to monitor the condition of the property.
“We are out there every week, and if we see something that shows further deterioration of the site, we will do something if we can,” she said.
Jones said she recognizes the community’s frustration with the process of restoring the property, but her “hands are tied” because of the upcoming criminal trial.
“We’re very concerned on behalf of the community, and recognize the need for the site to be corrected,” she said.