An attorney for Montgomery County filed a lawsuit Friday against the owners of a Bethesda house where a fire killed a 21-year-old Silver Spring man in September and investigators later discovered tunnels excavated beneath the house.
The lawsuit is asking a judge to order David Beckwitt and his son, Daniel Beckwitt, to fill in the tunnels and demolish the home.
Daniel Beckwitt, who was 26 at the time of the Sept. 10 fire, escaped the blaze that day, but Askia Khafra, 21, was found dead by firefighters who responded to the scene at 5212 Danbury Road. An autopsy later determined Khafra died from smoke inhalation and burns, although the manner of death has not been released.
The lawsuit claims that Daniel Beckwitt created hoarding conditions in the home as well as excavated the tunnels. It says that he also “stored and made use of hazardous materials” on the property and in the tunnels, although the lawsuit doesn’t detail what those hazardous materials may have been or what they were being used for.
The county ordered the Beckwitts to fill in the tunnels and demolish the home in December, but the property owners tried to appeal the order and later sent a letter Feb. 2 to propose a plan to deal with the tunnels and the fire-damaged house. However, the county responded that the proposed plan “significantly misses the severity of the situation.”
County officials previously said there was no information suggesting the tunnels extended past the Beckwitts’ property line.
However, in the lawsuit, the county wrote the tunnels and excavations beneath the house “were more extensive than originally understood.”
The lawsuit says the tunnels extend into the Danbury Road public right of way and “likely go beyond at least one property line.”
Patrick Lacefield, a county spokesman, said Monday officials don’t yet know exactly what the tunnel may look like below the road’s right of way. The road remains open to traffic.
“If we had information to indicate the road was not safe, we would close the road,” Lacefield said.
The county alleges in the lawsuit that the Beckwitts have failed to comply with remediation orders since the more extensive tunneling was found. On March 9, the county’s Department of Permitting Services sent an updated order to the Beckwitts that included a remediation and demolition schedule, which the county says in the lawsuit has not been followed.
The order asks the Beckwitts to hire a structural engineer with expertise in dealing with tunnels who can delineate them and oversee their remediation. This work would include drilling holes into the ground to fully mark the tunnels’ locations. It also asks that a 3-D model be created that shows the tunnels, chambers and other excavations as well as “metals, liquids, boxes or other man-made materials therein.”
The county described the house and the tunnels as “dangerous and hazardous to human life and the public welfare.”
Bethesda Beat’s attempts to contact the Beckwitts have been unsuccessful.
Lacefield said Monday the county has no information about why the tunnels were dug or what activities were happening inside them.
Lacefield said the lawsuit is intended to enforce the order that the Department of Permitting Services sent in March asking the Beckwitts to remediate the property and demolish the house. He said county officials are continuing discussions with the Beckwitts with the intention of reaching a resolution outside of court that would result in the men paying for the required work.
The Beckwitts have 60 days to respond to the lawsuit.
At a community meeting in January, Dia Khafra, the father of the young man who died in the fire at the home, alleged that public officials were presenting a “sanitized” version of information about the circumstances surrounding the fire.
“I came here because I wanted people to know what was going on here,” Dia Khafra said, according to a Fox5 report from the meeting. “This thing is far more extensive and complicated than people here believe.”
Lacefield said Monday fire investigators have not been able to determine a cause of the fire. Pete Piringer, a spokesman for the fire department, later tweeted that the investigation is ongoing:
ICYMI – September 2017 Danbury Rd, Bethesda fatal house …. joint police/MCFRS investigation ongoing, Cause & origin of fire remains ‘under investigation’ https://t.co/6pxg4zxUaM
— Pete Piringer (@mcfrsPIO) March 26, 2018