It was late afternoon on September 10, 2017, and Bruce Leshan was at home repairing a crack in his car’s windshield, in the placid Maplewood section of Bethesda, when he heard a scream. “Get out!” the voice cried. “Get out!”
Leshan looked up and noticed smoke coming from the house up the hill. He called 911 and began to run toward it, trying to see what was going on. As he rounded the corner, racing up Danbury Road, the home came into view: a modest white Cape Cod, its back yard jungle-dense with brambles and bamboo, its eaves exhaling brown volcanic plumes.
Leshan went to the front door and tried to push it open, but it wouldn’t budge—something was blocking it from within. A frantic, shirtless young man appeared, his torso covered in dirt. Leshan recognized him as the home’s occupant, Daniel Beckwitt.
“Daniel, are you okay?”
Daniel shouted back: “He’s in the basement!”
Leshan found the exterior door to the basement. But when he opened it, he could see flames lapping at the ceiling. Almost as soon as he backed out, firefighters arrived. They rushed in and doused the flames within 60 seconds.
The medics put Daniel on a stretcher and wheeled him away. He didn’t want to go. Struggling against the restraints, he moaned, “He’s still in there! He’s still in there!”
Word began to spread that someone had died. Finally, after dark, a mortician arrived and took the deceased away: a young man, naked, charred from scalp to toe. Nobody knew who it was.
The road was taped off, and lights from emergency vehicles lit the block. Investigators working in the home eventually began hauling out buckets, food containers, gasoline cans, and bags of cement. “It was like the house itself spewed out all this stuff,” Jane Legg, who lives two doors down, recalls.
As neighbors watched the house from their lawns and windows, a county fire investigator made a startling discovery. Squeezing past the furnace amid a tower of junk in the basement, he was headed to shut off the gas meter when something caught his eye: A few feet ahead, there was a hole in the concrete floor. Below it, investigators soon learned, stretched an extensive network of tunnels and bunkers—long, twisting hallways of bare rock that would end up revealing the bizarrest of internet-era fables, and one with a ghastly ending.
By the time of the fire, Daniel Beckwitt had lived all but a handful of his 26 years at 5212 Danbury Road, the only son in a family whose eccentricities stood out on the suburban block.
His father, David, a singer, had trained under the famed French composer Darius Milhaud, performed in musicals and operas, and sung at the White House. His mother, Linda, had studied at Columbia Law School and worked briefly as a government attorney, but she’d come to see the field as “a scummy profession on all sides,” as Daniel once put it, and become an amateur vocalist instead. In 2000, David was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, so Linda chauffeured her husband and son everywhere in their gold Honda Odyssey, which she obsessively guarded. When neighborhood children veered too close to her property line, she shouted at them until they ran away. Few outsiders ventured into the house, but one who did described it as chaotic—papers, books, and food cartons on every available surface.
Linda protected her home and family fiercely—Daniel most of all. “She felt he was a genius,” one neighbor recalls. Daniel learned to read as a toddler, and Linda took this as a sign of unusual brilliance. She saw the local schools as a threat to his intellectual development and homeschooled him from kindergarten through 12th grade. He almost never went out to play with the neighborhood kids, and when he did leave the house, his parents often followed. Well into Daniel’s teenage years, the Beckwitts trick-or-treated as a trio; one neighbor remembers a young Daniel and his parents showing up in matching fuzzy outfits—a family of hamsters, they explained.
Cut off from real-world peers, Daniel found community online. He claimed to have finished most of high school at 15, at which point he followed his own curriculum of sorts—testing his AP chemistry knowledge by “blowing shit up in my back yard,” as he wrote on 4chan, and conducting experiments in electrolysis in a home “lab.” (He declined to be interviewed for this article, but posts he made on message boards over the past decade offer an extensive catalog of his thoughts.) His interests often dovetailed with his anxieties, none more than his fear of death. He grew particularly curious about the possibility of head transplants—and talked on 4chan about watching gory videos showing real beheadings.
In 2010, Daniel enrolled at the University of Illinois. As his train left Rockville’s station, he watched his parents on the platform and was overwhelmed—for the first time, he was setting out on his own. The magnitude of the moment didn’t escape his neighbors, either. “He was finally doing something that seemed like it could put him on a normal track in life,” Legg says, describing the “enormous relief” the community felt for him.
But tragedy quickly befell the family. One evening just after Thanksgiving, an ambulance arrived at the Beckwitts’ home and a jaundiced, emaciated Linda was carried out on a stretcher. According to neighbors, she had found a lump on her breast but had chosen not to see a doctor. Even more stark, she had hidden her illness from her son. So it came as an especially painful shock when, after just two weeks in the hospital, Daniel’s mother died.
At her funeral two days later, Daniel looked dazed. He wore black clothes, but his shirt was sloppy, his pants too short. Only three people attended. “It was the saddest occasion I’ve ever experienced,” says Legg. Daniel gave a eulogy, Legg recalls, “and I remember him standing there and saying, ‘I’m only 19. How am I supposed to deal with this?’ ” David immediately began a severe decline. “It was clear no one was there for Daniel.”
Within a few months, David moved into assisted living. Back at school, Daniel was overcome with grief. According to a post he made online, he tried therapy and an anti-anxiety medication, but neither brought the relief he was looking for. He continued to puzzle over his mental health. “I am fairly narcissistic,” he wrote in a self-assessment around this time, and “certainly above average in psychopathy, although not to levels diagnosable.”
Death had brushed alongside him—a brush so close that he now began pursuing what he called “a more defensive position.” Knowing that car accidents were a leading killer of people his age, he reinforced Linda’s minivan with Kevlar plates and wore an armored vest whenever he drove, to protect against blunt-force trauma. Wary of skin cancer, he had every mole on his body larger than two millimeters removed. He took a concoction of caffeine and the stimulant pramiracetam to increase his energy level, according to a police report, and considered making his own hyperbaric chamber.
The sort of demise he feared most, though, was far less mundane. Living in the shadow of Walter Reed and NIH, Daniel felt particularly vulnerable to global political volatility, especially the threat of a nuclear attack on Washington.
Survival, Daniel believed, was possible with the proper accommodations. “One simply needs something along the lines of a greenhouse with good air filtration to grow plants,” he wrote on 4chan, “and a fallout shelter.” Thanks to his mother’s death, he had the means to build one: She’d left him a trust worth $2.6 million.
So with North Korea’s nuclear arsenal under the direction of a new, fanatical leader, Daniel had the freedom to undertake his most ambitious experiment yet. Alone in the house, he chose a spot in his basement and began to dig.
While Daniel Beckwitt lurked in the dark recesses of the web, across town in Silver Spring, Askia Khafra was plotting to become the next god of tech.
He came from a middle-class home, the son of immigrants from Trinidad. His mother, Claudia, taught fifth grade; his father, Dia, had trained as an architect and fancied himself an inventor, with dozens of designs he always wanted to patent. From a young age, Askia had dreamed of living large, like the Silicon Valley titans he admired. At 18, he got his first taste of the high life when he received funds from a $100,000 lead-poisoning settlement. Friends remember how he liked to lavish the money on a girl he was dating, taking her out for fancy dinners in rented Mercedes and BMWs.
The cash dried up in just a year or two—but by then Askia had a plan to make it back many times over. He was developing an app.
It was called Equity Shark, a crowd-funding platform on which average people could invest small sums in promising startups. One day, he’d tell people, the business would dwarf even the largest investment banks—including Goldman Sachs. In this vision, Askia would have all the accoutrements of wealth and power: a security detail like Jeff Bezos’s, maybe a yacht like Oracle founder Larry Ellison’s. Friends recall that he used to drive to the row of mansions on River Road in Bethesda and gawk at the glittering homes for inspiration. In a moment of self-confidence, he set up a Google Alert for his name so he’d receive an e-mail anytime he made the news.
The app wasn’t a total pipe dream. He and his business partner, Tavon Giaquinta, had a polished pitch detailing their growth strategy and in 2016 were preparing to apply for a $100,000 grant funded by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel. The program was only for 22-year-old-and-under entrepreneurs willing to drop out of college—which Askia had just done.
Although hard-working and self-reliant, Askia might not have seemed like the most obvious bet for $100,000. In many ways, he was still figuring out how to grow up. Immediately upon turning 21, he bought a gun to show off he’d fully entered adulthood. He was five-foot-nine, but he “aspired”—as his father once put it—to be six feet, so that was what his driver’s license said. Zealous for fame and fortune, he was also naive with others. Once, looking for a job online after quitting school, he gave out his personal information to a stranger and nearly fell for a check-cashing scam.
Daniel had returned to college after Linda’s death, but he soon got in trouble with the law. In 2012, an instructor arrived one morning to find his door super-glued shut. When police came to investigate, they discovered that dozens of exterior locks and card swipes on a computer-science laboratory were filled with a similar “goo substance.” The university had to spend more than $22,000 to re-key the entire building. Another professor had to move offices after his carpet was repeatedly vandalized with a “smoothie” made of durian, the notoriously putrid fruit.
Engineering students, meanwhile, were receiving long, nonsensical e-mails, all of which appeared to come from professors. The hacker seemed to be connected to the vandalism. Under the name of the teacher whose door had been tampered with, the hacker complained, for instance, that the glue “prevented me from going about my daily routine of masturbating to bondage porn in my office while eating cupcakes made of monkey excrement.”
In early 2013, police executed a search warrant on Daniel’s bedroom and found it in a “deplorable” state. “The room was riddled with trash, electrical wires, partially eaten food, computer equipment, and dirty clothes,” an officer wrote in his report. A bare mattress lay on the floor, surrounded by lock picks, a Ruger .22 rifle, and the hood of a fire-protection suit. Elsewhere, investigators found something even more damning: keys to the lab building that had been serially vandalized.
“My whole life is hanging on this. We could and will all become billionaires from this.”
Although Daniel had recently given a speech at a hacker conference on how to destroy hard drives remotely to thwart a law-enforcement search, his laptop sat atop a mini-fridge, open and unencrypted. Police, according to their investigatory files, soon uncovered a trove of offending material: racist messages he’d written, a cache of Social Security numbers, and documents that unequivocally connected him to the hacked e-mails.
Daniel was arrested beside his minivan and charged with multiple felonies, including computer fraud. He took a plea deal because, as he wrote on Reddit, “I would have been f—ed going to trial . . . there were literally reams of evidence.”
Still, he didn’t feel his record would haunt him. “I’m expecting a gubernatorial pardon within a few years,” he wrote. “The fact that I have enough money to make the maximum campaign contribution to said governor also helps a lot.”
The pardon never came, but the punishment—two years’ probation—was light. Daniel began traveling home to Bethesda, where he made steady progress on the tunnels, using a shovel and a rotary hammer and reinforcing the walls with makeshift shoring. His ultimate plan was grand, encompassing a survival bunker, a blast-resistant cavern, an air-filtration system, and a storage room for months’ worth of provisions.
By 2015, he was off probation and back in Maryland full-time. He hauled his computer down to the bunker and used it for a dramatic reinvention: On a new video-chat site called Blab, he began broadcasting to a small but avid public following, calling himself “3AlarmLampscooter” and holding himself up as a prophetic investor and bitcoin millionaire.
Askia was on Blab one night when he came across Daniel streaming alongside Martin Shkreli, the “pharma bro” notorious for raising the price of an anti-HIV drug by more than 5,000 percent. Shkreli and “3Alarm,” as Daniel’s followers called him, were said to be friends, although exactly how they’d come to know each other remained mysterious.
On Blab, 3Alarm was known for his genius and generosity—he spent hours doling out advice and answering questions about myriad topics, including cryptocurrencies and investing. He never showed his face, instead appearing in a bulky fire-protection suit that looked like a Space Race relic. He told his audience he was broadcasting from a fortified compound in the countryside. He disguised his voice with a modulator and spoke in what one person describes as “trailer-park Ebonics,” ending sentences with “yeee-uh,” referring constantly to all his “diggin’,” and affectionately calling his viewers “boo boo.”
Far from giving Askia pause, 3Alarm’s idiosyncrasies and apparent intelligence served as proof that he truly was wealthy—it was intoxicating to have access to him. Askia knew that 3Alarm was open to new investments, so one day he touted his business idea. Sounding interested, 3Alarm replied: “pitch me, boo boo.”
On a Sunday in June 2016, Askia and Giaquinta settled into a smoky hookah bar in Rockville. When Daniel entered, they saw that he was hardly older than they were. He had a doughy face, but other than that, his features were hard to make out because he never removed his cap or the welding goggles that hid his eyes. Askia noted that his camo shirt was bulging cartoonishly, and Daniel admitted to wearing a bulletproof vest. “Gotta stay safe on these streets,” Giaquinta remembers him saying, and they laughed.
Askia and Giaquinta described the Thiel Fellowship as the key to Equity Shark’s success. They projected confidence, having labored for months over their application and recently found a regulatory adviser. Daniel said he’d need to do his due diligence before investing, but he was impressed. As he pulled out of the parking lot in his pickup truck, Askia and Giaquinta saw that its bed was filled with shovels and buckets of dirt—proof of the “compound,” they thought. Elated, the two friends drove straight to River Road. Rolling past the mansions, Giaquinta recalls, “we actually turned to each other and said, ‘This meeting is going to change our lives.’ ”
More meetings followed. A contract was signed. One night that fall, Daniel slipped his new partners $5,000 in cash with the understanding that he’d be paid back out of the Thiel funds. If the fellowship didn’t work out, Giaquinta recalls Daniel saying, they’d have to repay him some other way. Askia assured Daniel there was no doubt they would make the cut—in fact, the fellowship’s manager had recently invited them to present their idea at headquarters in California.
Buzzed at the sight of the cash, Askia and Giaquinta spread it out on a table and took a trophy shot. The trip to California, though, was a disaster. The first problem: Askia and Giaquinta booked their flight for LAX, not realizing that San Francisco, the site of their meeting, was 400 miles away. Next, they were too young to rent a car—their only option was a U-Haul truck. In San Francisco, they screwed up again, plugging the wrong address into the GPS and driving in the opposite direction of the foundation headquarters. They eventually turned around, speeding up and down the hills of the city in the empty U-Haul, but the fellowship manager turned them away: They were too late. They’d have to talk by phone the following week.
Back home after the botched trip, Askia sent Daniel messages almost daily in search of cash, his desperation palpable. To win over Thiel, he said, they’d need to show some progress on the app’s user interface, which would mean spending money to hire a developer. “My whole life is hanging on this,” Askia wrote to Daniel one day. “We could and will all become billionaires from this,” but “we need you to move forward.”
Daniel ghosted for weeks. Distraught, Askia began to concoct new schemes to obtain the money, including taking Daniel’s investment as a debt that he might have to pay back out of his own pocket. He sent Daniel the idea:
I knowww that this will be successful. There’s no doubt in my head. . . . I’d even take this investment as debt [because] that’s how much I believe in this. Even though obviously I don’t currently have the money to be able to pay you back. I’d literally work a minimum wage job for a few years if I had to. Or just finish school and get a boring ass job somewhere. Or just work it off at the compound.
A few weeks after Askia’s offer, Daniel surfaced. According to Giaquinta, Daniel pledged to put in additional money, and Askia, captivated by Daniel and attempting to curry favor for future investments, agreed to help dig in the bunker. Daniel offered to pay $150 a day.
As it turned out, Askia wasn’t Daniel’s only hire. The first was a middle-aged space technologist from Cape Canaveral, Richard Michael David, who went by the name Dick Rocket. (On social media, he often added in the middle name “F’n.”) According to a statement Daniel later gave to investigators, Rocket came to the tunnels only once. Daniel’s second hire—a 21-year-old former construction worker from Long Island named Doug Hart—made the trip repeatedly and stayed underground for weeks at a time. Like Askia, Rocket and Hart were followers from Blab.
Work in the tunnels came with a few restrictions. Daniel would pick up Askia and blindfold him on the drive to the property, which he said was in outstate Virginia. No one could know its exact location—Daniel was terrified that outsiders might storm the place seeking food and shelter if they heard an attack was imminent.
Askia accepted the blindfold as a necessary precaution of Daniel’s, but the rural setting worried him. “This isn’t in klan territory or anything right?” Askia asked.
“Well I mean they won’t be on patrol or anything,” Daniel wrote back.
Askia went ahead nonetheless, and on January 28, 2017, sometime after 2 am, Daniel retrieved him from the Khafras’ house. They drove to Manassas, where Daniel made Askia put on a pair of bulbous blackout goggles. Daniel then got on the Beltway and drove in loops for about an hour, to give the impression they were headed deeper into Virginia. In reality, they’d made their way to Bethesda.
At the house, Daniel guided Askia to the basement, where he could finally take the goggles off. Askia put on a hardhat and the two descended the hole, some 15 feet down. Standing at the bottom, he was amazed: The tunnels were enormous, branching off in opposite directions and reaching about 100 feet at their deepest point. Beyond that, they were furnished surprisingly well: Daniel had run power down from the basement. On the job, Askia would have access to a microwave, a mini-fridge, a ceiling fan, and wi-fi. But his “bedroom” was just a single mattress wedged against the cinder-block foundation of the house, with a ceiling so low he had to crouch.
As daylight began creeping into the upper windows of the house, Askia climbed into his dusty bed. Looking around in the dark, he felt strangely excited, but also apprehensive. He decided to sleep with his hardhat on. Just in case.
Askia returned to the tunnels throughout the winter and spring, hacking at rock with a pickax and shovel, filling buckets with the dirt, and hauling them up to the basement so Daniel could dispose of them. It was grueling labor, but he needed the money.
The tradeoff was that it left him utterly dependent. Once Askia or Doug Hart had descended into the tunnels, each relied on Daniel for everything. Daniel spent most of the day on his computer upstairs and didn’t own a cell phone, so they communicated through Google chats. The diggers urinated and defecated in a five-gallon bucket, the stench kept at bay with wiper fluid. When the bucket grew full, they attached it to a pulley and messaged Daniel, who winched it up and poured the contents into an upstairs toilet. When they got hungry, they sent requests for food, which Daniel dropped down the hole. There was a shower head, but it made mud of the floors, so they washed themselves with wet wipes. They never ascended into the house anywhere past the basement.
The internet connection was poor, and from time to time it was lost entirely. On these occasions, Hart had to climb out of the tunnels and bang on the wall near the basement door to get Daniel’s attention.
Sometimes they overloaded a circuit and the power went out.
In April 2017, Daniel tasked Askia with chiseling in an unusual area: a “chamber” that led to the outside. It was enormous—tall enough for Askia to stand in. But to reach it, he had to squeeze through a coffin-like space.
“Such a long slither and then I start to feel uneasy after like 20 mins,” he texted Baileigh Tolar, a former girlfriend, one afternoon. “I can only crawl out backward and my hands have to be over my head and pointed straight like I’m doing a [breaststroke].” He couldn’t pull his arms back to his sides until he’d emerged in the chamber. “I almost freaked out,” he texted. “This is so claustrophobic.”
“Don’t keep doing it if it makes you uncomfortable,” Tolar wrote back.
Outside, a pile of wood covered the hole in the chamber ceiling. Askia figured that if he could convince Daniel to move the wood, on the pretense of needing to “toss dirt” up through the hole, the opening to the outside would resolve his claustrophobia. But Daniel vetoed the idea: “I kinda don’t want to go through the trouble of moving the wood.”
Askia updated Tolar: “Omg so he convinced me to try again.”
“He shouldn’t be pushing you to do it 🙄😒,” she wrote.
“You make me sound so fragile,” Askia responded. “I just feel like I need an exit strategy in case there’s an earthquake or something.” He added, “There’s no getting out fast enough the long way.”
Claudia and Dia Khafra knew the basic details of Askia’s job, that their 21-year-old son was helping carry out a peculiar side project for an elusive but supposedly accomplished millionaire. They often saw proof when Askia came home and ran straight to the shower, his skin caked in dirt.
In his own way, Dia also sensed opportunity in 3Alarm. Once, when Daniel pulled into the driveway, Dia presented him with his business card. But more than anything, Dia hoped that Askia’s angel investor would be a good influence on his son and that, as Dia puts it, a “symbiotic relationship” would develop.
Over time, though, the Khafras noticed Askia’s interests shifting worryingly in Daniel’s direction: Askia started monitoring North Korea’s nuclear program, buying armored vests, and talking about weird science, such as the “human-pig hybrid embryo” a team of Korean scientists had reportedly created. As the digging wore on, Dia worried that the tunnels would cave in. Claudia repeatedly asked Askia to quit. Askia refused, accusing his parents of infantilizing him.
“Dude can I please work soon”
That spring, after learning that Askia had promised a concerned family friend that he wouldn’t return to the house, the couple felt a surge of relief. But just a few weeks later, the Thiel Fellowship passed on Equity Shark. Giaquinta recalls the pressure they felt: They were both suddenly on the hook for the cash. Giaquinta decided to repay his half with work at a gym, but Askia had a different plan. The promise was no more. (Daniel later said in an interview with police that he didn’t expect to be reimbursed until after the company went public. Daniel’s attorney declined to comment for this story.)
All summer, Askia tried to wrangle other investors. By August, concerned that deals would fall through if Daniel wouldn’t lend even more money to keep the app afloat, Askia wrote to him, practically begging to come back to the tunnels. He reminded Daniel that he still owed him more digging anyway. “Dude can I please work soon,” he asked.
Daniel had gone silent again, but after another plea from Askia, he responded. “Got some minor flooding and moderate insect issues to take care of,” Daniel wrote. He later followed up: “How many days were you thinking this week?”
“I can do a good 2 weeks,” Askia said, as long as he could “go home for a night once or twice between then.”
Daniel agreed, and by 3 am on September 3, he was outside the Khafras’ house as Askia woke his parents to hug them goodbye.
Daniel joined Askia in some digging that week, “mucking” in a lower part of the tunnels that was prone to flooding. By the evening of September 9, Askia had reason to feel confident. He’d secured a top app developer and lined up a meeting with a real-estate CEO who seemed interested in investing. Around 6 o’clock that night, Daniel threw a bag of chips down the hole for Askia and went back up to his room, where he posted on Reddit until 1:40 am. Less than an hour later, Askia sent Daniel a series of urgent messages:
2:32 a.m: Holy shit bro there’s no power down here
2:37 a.m.: And smoke in the basement
The bunker was “pitch black,” Askia wrote, and had lost all air flow. He tried calling Daniel but got no answer. Daniel had fallen asleep.
Six hours later, Daniel woke and saw the messages. He reorganized some power strips. “Pretty major electrical failure,” he replied, “just switched it all over to a different circuit.”
“Still nothing down here,” Askia wrote. “It’s a whole nother level of darkness.”
Daniel made another adjustment, and the power returned.
The day dragged on. At 4 o’clock, Daniel heard a beeping noise—a power failure on the carbon-monoxide detector. He sat on his computer another 20 minutes. Finally, he decided to go flip the circuit breaker in the basement.
As soon as he did, he heard a “buzzing” sound in the kitchen. He went up to investigate, and now he, too, smelled smoke—then saw it rising from the kitchen floor. He ran back downstairs, near where the tunnel hole was located. The basement had already grown hazy, and although he could hardly see, he sensed Askia’s presence nearby.
“Askia,” he said. “There’s a fire, you gotta get out.”
All Askia said in response was “Yo, dude.”
The smoke was overwhelming, so Daniel escaped through the exterior door. Outside, he caught his breath, then ventured in once more. This time, he could see flames rising in the middle of the basement.
“Get out! Get out!” he shouted, but he couldn’t see or hear Askia.
“Window’s over there!” Daniel cried.
Daniel was overcome again and climbed back to daylight. Out in the back yard, he began clawing at the dirt, hoping to open one of the tunnels. He paced in frenzied circles in the yard, his hair standing straight up in a greasy shock.
By now, Bruce Leshan was standing on the lawn talking to 911 as Daniel screamed a distinctive three-syllable name.
Dia Khafra was upstairs when police knocked at the door. He came down and mustered his most cordial tone: “And what, may I ask, brings me the pleasure of your presence today?” The detectives asked to sit down and broke the news: Askia was dead.
The firefighters found him in the basement, his muscles burned and tightened, his jaw stretched open and his tongue pushed out, his face frozen in a silent scream. His fists were clenched; his arms had retracted and curled in on themselves obscenely, like those of a praying mantis. The fire charred almost every part of his body, save for portions of his scalp, and dwarfed him: The boy who had once aspired to be six feet tall had shrunk seven inches.
At that point, Montgomery County officials knew little else. It would take more than two weeks to clean out the house, the pace hindered because potentially combustible chemicals lay on each floor. Scattered amid the mess, meanwhile, were numerous items of value. “Every time you picked something up,” an investigator later explained, “you’d find a $5 bill or a $20 bill.” Buckets soon overflowed with more than $10,000 in cash and traveler’s checks.
The local TV news covered the story at each sensational twist—the revelation of the tunnels, the identity of the homeowner, and then the victim, never failing to note the pleasant Bethesda setting. On September 28, 2017, the Google Alert that Askia had set up for his name returned its first result.
By this point, homicide detectives were on the case—and Daniel’s reaction to the fire troubled them. He told them he was grateful the flames hadn’t reached his mom’s old bedroom. “It could’ve been a lot worse,” he said. When they questioned him about Askia, he first claimed that Askia was in the basement because he used it as a “bachelor pad.” Again and again, they asked about the home, trying to get Daniel to explain exactly what had been going on inside.
The question they lingered on most seemed simple: Why hadn’t Askia managed to escape?
After an eight-month investigation, prosecutors charged Daniel with involuntary manslaughter and second-degree, “depraved heart” murder, which alleged a disregard for human life so extreme that it amounted to willful killing.
By then, Dia Khafra was working on his own quest to reconstruct exactly what had gone wrong. He approached the former DC medical examiner after church and begged for help in interpreting the autopsy findings. He visited Danbury Road repeatedly, looking to interview witnesses himself. When he received a sketch of the basement layout—a map showing Askia’s body as a macabre, contorted stick figure—he measured bricks trying to recreate the map to scale. He studied the autopsy report, looking up medical terms and scribbling definitions in the margins. Beside a line about his son’s mouth, he wrote: Tongue protruding. Was Askia bawling at the time?
In his son’s phone records, Khafra found that in his final panicked minutes, Askia used 0.00146 gigabytes of data—likely trying to send Daniel one last plea for help.
It was hard to fathom how Daniel had made it out while Askia had not: The two had stood just feet apart in the smoke.
“One life has already been destroyed. Now another one will be.”
When Daniel’s trial began this past April, prosecutors unveiled crime-scene photographs—a gruesome gallery that summoned the ghost of Linda Beckwitt, the mother who had raised and educated her son amid piles of hoarded clutter. Presented to the jury, the pictures seemed to explain everything.
The basement was clogged with junk—a mess that reached the ceiling at points and left only a single narrow path between the bunker hole and the door to the yard. The diggers had to wend through a small laundry room in the center of the basement, over to a furnace on the far side. There, the path doubled back on itself, curving around a four-foot-high mound of bikes, buckets, and sharp chicken wire. It hugged the wall for several feet and ended at the ladder descending into the hole.
This gauntlet was the only viable means of egress: All the windows in the basement were either too small to fit through or blocked with plywood or metal grates.
As best as investigators could determine, when Askia emerged from the tunnels, the fire was already under way. He squeezed past the furnace and made it only to the laundry area, still close to the tunnel hole. There, prosecutors contended, he stepped onto a rolling office chair. He may have reached for a fire extinguisher above the washing machine or tried to break through the window Daniel had directed him to. But the barred window offered no hope. Standing on the chair, Askia, his blood now saturated with carbon monoxide, became disoriented. He tumbled back, landed atop a blue Chicago Electric welding machine, and lost consciousness.
The fire’s exact cause was never determined. But the lead investigator, Dan Maxwell, was clear in his testimony: Askia was no more than two steps from almost certain safety when he died, and the cluttered condition of the house very likely slowed him just long enough for him to succumb to carbon monoxide.
On April 24, after a seven-day trial, The verdict came down. Daniel entered the courtroom looking nervous. When the judge asked for the jury’s decision on the count of depraved-heart murder and the foreman announced, “Guilty,” Daniel gasped and bolted upright in his chair, then collapsed against the table. As the judge confirmed the verdict with each juror, the only other sound in the courtroom was that of Daniel loudly hyperventilating.
He had been free on bail, but now it was revoked, and the bailiff told him to stand. His jaw hung agape and his blue eyes darted around the room, as if he were looking for someone—anyone—to step forward and save him. Instead, he was handcuffed and guided behind a large gray door. Through a crack, I saw his head and shoulders sink. Then the door shut and he disappeared.
I went by the Khafras’ house not long afterward, on a miserable, rainy afternoon. Dia had recently told the press that his sense of faith in the justice system had been “restored.” But the initial high had evaporated, and his feelings had grown more complicated. “I don’t feel a sense of elation,” he told me as we sat on his living-room couch. He thought of Daniel’s brilliance and all he could have offered to the world. “If only he had walked a straight and narrow path,” he said. “One life has already been destroyed, and now another will be.”
When Askia was seven and already fantasizing about money, he made his mother a promise. “He said, ‘One day I’ll be rich, and when you die, your casket will have rubies and diamonds on it,’ ” Claudia told me. Now all that remained of Askia—the son who “did everything his way,” as Dia put it at the funeral—sat a few feet away from us on the floor: an urn holding his ashes, hidden in a cardboard box.
Claudia recalled that on the day Askia died, she spent hours singing Spiritual Baptist hymns in the kitchen, African-influenced songs filled with “drumming and chanting and dirges,” she said. “I usually cut it off by 12. . . . That Sunday, the 10th of September, was the first Sunday I did not cut the dirges off. And I was singing those dirges all day, all evening, all day, until 6 or 7, and I was so emotional and I felt all this pain in my stomach. I did not even know what had happened.”
Sometimes when his mind is clear, Dia suddenly thinks of what the mortician said—how he opened the body bag a crack only to lay eyes upon Askia’s charred, screaming face and zip it shut in horror. “Askia was cooked,” Dia told me, “cooked,” and for the first time in the many months I’d known him, he cried.
This article appears in the September 2019 issue of Washingtonian.