2022 | Government

Five years after fatal basement fire, no decisions on Bethesda house; tunnels remain

County permitting inspectors have yet to review remediation work at house

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The home of Daniel Beckwitt on Danbury Road in Bethesda remains boarded up with a fence around it, nearly five years after a Silver Spring man died in a basement fire.

Photo by Dan Schere

It’s been nearly five years since a Silver Spring man died in a fire underneath a house in Bethesda, resulting in criminal charges against the house’s owner, Daniel Beckwitt.

After the case went through local and appellate courts, Beckwitt, 30, was ordered last week to serve five years in prison for the death of 21-year-old Askia Khafra in September 2017.

Meanwhile, more than one year after Montgomery County issued an abatement order requiring Beckwitt to make the property safe, county officials remain uncertain of how long the bureaucratic process will last and the ultimate fate of the property.

In February 2021, the county issued an order of abatement, meaning Beckwitt must take steps to make sure the property is safe. According to county officials, the tunnels are still there and the abatement process is ongoing.

Beckwitt, a millionaire stock trader, had started to dig tunnels under his home at 5212 Danbury Road because he worried about a nuclear war with North Korea, authorities have said.

Khafra asked Beckwitt to invest in his smartphone application venture, and Beckwitt invested $10,000 in exchange for a 5% stake, police have said. When Khafra’s venture failed, Beckwitt allegedly hired him to dig the tunnels to repay the $10,000 debt.

On Sept. 10, 2017, there was an explosion, then a fire, after Beckwitt switched the power to a different circuit, police said. Firefighters found Khafra dead later that day.

Beckwitt was charged with second-degree depraved heart murder and involuntary manslaughter.

He was initially convicted of both charges and sentenced to nine years in prison in 2019. But the Court of Special Appeals later overturned the murder charge, a decision affirmed by the Court of Appeals.

When the case returned to Montgomery County Circuit Court, Beckwitt was sentenced to five years in prison last Tuesday and was given credit for nearly three years of time served. He could be released from prison within months, his defense attorney Robert Bonsib said last week.

Beckwitt said in court last week that he plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Scott Peterson, a spokesman for the county executive’s office, wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat last week that an abatement order is a type of injunction that requires Beckwitt to “take certain remedial actions to make the property safe.”

“If he fails to comply with [the] order, the county may remediate and bill Beckwitt for the costs. Beckwitt may also be held in contempt of court if he fails to comply,” Peterson wrote.

In response to questions from Bethesda Beat to the Department of Permitting Services (DPS), Peterson wrote that both DPS and the Department of Housing and Community Affairs have determined that the property is unsafe, meaning no one can access it unless they are “part of the abatement process and it’s been approved by DPS.”

The phase of the abatement order now underway involves inspection and remediation of the “subterranean space,” according to Peterson.

The abatement order, dated Feb. 16, 2021, lays out in detail the steps that Beckwitt must take to address the tunnels. Peterson did not have information about which specific tasks outlined in the order Beckwitt had been completed or whether the deadlines in the order had been met.

The order lays out a series of deadlines. Those include:

  • Draw up a plan that details specifications for the “exploration, investigation and delineation and mapping of the subterranean space,” or tunnels. The plan must be approved by a structural engineer and is subject to review by the county. The plan was supposed to have been submitted 28 days from the date of the order, it states.
  • Have a video inspection of the tunnels by an engineer or other professional within 45 to 60 days of the completion of a previous stage in the order that dealt with above-ground remediation.
  • Submit a map or rendering by an engineer and surveyor to the county within 21 days of the video inspection of the tunnels.
  • Dispose of any possible hazardous materials from the tunnels within 21 days of the video inspection.
  • Have the engineer or surveyor submit a detailed report of the tunnels to the county for review and approval within 60 days of the video inspection.
  • Backfill and seal off the tunnels within 180 days of an order from the county approving a final remedial plan and issuing all required permits.

Steve Oram, an attorney who represents the estate, told Bethesda Beat last week that Beckwitt still owns the property. He said a plan hasn’t been formalized while Beckwitt has been incarcerated.

“We’re under the county’s instruction as to what is to be done,” he said.

Peterson wrote that there is no plan to demolish the house.

“DPS has to finish the phase we are in and analyze that information and come up with a plan through remediation,” he wrote.

Peterson added that permitting inspectors have not yet been to the property to review what work has been done, but workers from the fire marshal’s office were there earlier this year to give access to an engineer and ensure that it was safe.

“The tunnels still exist,” he wrote. “DPS can’t address the questions about the future of the property because [they are] still in the middle of the abatement process. At this time, DPS does not know how long it may take to conclude the abatement process. DPS is working with all parties to resolve the situation.”

Neighborhood waits for action

The windows and doors of the house have been boarded up for years. Flowers have been placed on the metal fence erected around the perimeter, presumably as a memorial to Khafra.

Allen Myers, the president of the Maplewood Citizens Association, said in an interview that one of Beckwitt’s attorneys promised more than two years ago that an inspection of the house would be done and officials would keep the community informed.

Myers said it’s been difficult to get information from the county on the status of the remediation process. 

“[The tunnels] are still there, but nobody knows where they run,” he said.

Myers said some neighbors have come to accept the slow pace of progress.

“Initially, the fire department had made it sound like the house was in imminent danger of collapse. Apparently, it isn’t. And so, I think what the neighbors would like to see is the house fixed up,” he said.

Myers said Beckwitt’s possible release from prison soon could help, if it helps him fix the house and tunnels. He thinks residents simply want the issues surrounding the house resolved.

“I think they were more concerned about the condition of the house and what impact it would have on the homes around it,” he said. “The neighborhood as a whole isn’t really involved with it. It’s the residents who abut it who are really concerned.”

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com