A New York man who was hired to dig tunnels under a Bethesda house testified Wednesday that he quit the job after six months because he was concerned for his dog and had grown tired of the work.
Douglas Hart, 23, was the first witness called by the defense in the trial of Daniel Beckwitt, 27, who is charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the death of Askia Khafra in September 2017.
Khafra, who also was hired for the excavation work, was killed when he was unable to escape a fire that erupted in the basement of the Danbury Road house where Beckwitt, a millionaire stock trader, was building a secret bunker, fearing an attack from North Korea.
Prosecutors contend conditions in the tunnel were unsafe and the basement was dangerously cluttered.
The basement leading into the tunnels “wasn’t pristine and clean,” Hart testified, but there was a clear path to a bunker that had a small refrigerator, microwave, television, Xbox gaming system and WiFi.
“I didn’t really want that type of environment for my dog all the time, she was very old,” Hart said of the 10-pound Pomeranian that accompanied him.
After Hart was hired by Beckwitt, the two would occasionally work together and go out for food.
“I thought he was really smart and interesting,” Hart said. “I really thought he was one of the smartest people I had ever spoken to. … I had an interest in being his friend.”
They stayed in a Washington hotel to celebrate Hart’s 21st birthday, he testified during his 90 minutes on the stand.
“We were friends,” Hart said. “But I was also a worker. It was both.”
In cross-examination by prosecutor Marybeth Ayres, Hart denied that claustrophobic conditions or depression forced him to quit.
The defense, which lost a procedural move to have the case dismissed earlier Wednesday, said in opening statements last week that Khafra’s death was an accident.
Circuit Court Judge Margaret Schweitzer cited potential evidence that Khafra was working under unsafe circumstances in her decision to continue the jury trial, now in its second week.
The criminal case could go to the jury next week.
In a separate case, Khafra’s parents have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Beckwitt in Montgomery County Circuit Court.