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Trial Set to Begin for Md. Man With Secret Bunker

Jury will decide if deadly blaze was a crime
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Apr 8, 2019 3:54 AM CDT
In this Aug. 18, 2018, photo, police tape surrounds the house where Askia Khafra died in a fire while digging underground tunnels for a secretive campaign to build a nuclear bunker in Bethesda, Md.   (AP Photo/Michael Kunzelman)
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(Newser) – Firefighters found a 21-year-old man's charred, naked body when they entered a burning home littered with mounds of trash. A hole in the basement floor led them to a network of tunnels under the house. Fire investigators swiftly concluded that the Maryland home was a crime scene, a deadly end to a wealthy stock trader's campaign to build an underground bunker for protection from a nuclear attack. Daniel Beckwitt, a 27-year-old millionaire who grew up in the house, was charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the Sept. 2017 death of Askia Khafra. When Beckwitt's trial starts this week, his attorneys likely will try to persuade jurors that Khafra's death was a tragic accident. Beckwitt risked his own safety in a failed attempt to rescue his friend from the blaze, his lawyers have said.

Jury selection for Beckwitt's trial is scheduled to start Monday in a Montgomery County courtroom, the AP reports. And a judge recently ruled that jurors can hear testimony about evidence that investigators found in the fire-gutted house in Bethesda, a suburb of Washington, DC. Prosecutors said investigators properly obtained and executed the search warrant under difficult circumstances, including the extreme hoarding conditions inside the home. Montgomery County prosecutor Douglas Wink, who accuses Beckwitt of ignoring "obvious signs" of danger, said during a hearing last year that the tunnels had lights, an air circulation system, and a heater powered by a "haphazard daisy chain" of power strips that created a fire risk. Hours before the fire, Khafra, who agreed to help dig the tunnels in exchange for investment in a business venture, texted Beckwitt to warn him it smelled like smoke in the tunnels. (Khafra's parents say they told him to stay away from the tunnels.)

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