Having a brilliant mind opened up a lot of doors for Daniel Beckwitt.
The computer expert made millions of dollars as a stockbroker.
He also fuelled his thirst for knowledge by spending a great deal of time on the internet – Daniel was a skilled hacker and often got into trouble accessing information he wasn’t supposed to.
It had won him a fanbase.
In 2016, he spoke at a hacker convention using the alias ‘3AlarmLampscooter’, wearing a fire-resistant suit and visor that obscured his face.
Daniel talked about conspiracies and went to great lengths to hide his identity – he believed he knew more than most people and it was making him mistrustful of everyone.
With a great mind, came extreme paranoia.
Daniel would shut himself away in his upmarket home in Bethesda, Maryland.
Money had never been a problem for him because of his job, and a sizeable inheritance from his parents.
Inside the house, he lived like a hoarder.
There were huge piles of clutter, including rubbish, in every room.
You could only navigate through the home via maze-like sets of pathways that cut through the toppling stacks of belongings.
It was a sign of just how preoccupied Daniel had got with his thoughts.
He had become obsessed with what he believed was increasing international tensions between the US and North Korea and was fearful of an attack.
He’d convinced himself the risk of nuclear war was so high that he needed to prepare somewhere safe and secure in the event of missile attacks.
Daniel came up with an elaborate plan to build a series of tunnels underneath his house and, in doing so, he’d create a secret nuclear bunker.
He managed to bore a hole in the concrete basement of his two-storey home to access underneath.
After hiring a few people to start the project, he needed someone he could trust to see it through to the end.
Daniel had met a man online called Askia Khafra, 21, and thought he would be perfect.
Askia was young and keen to make something of his life, and Daniel offered to invest money to get his online business off the ground – but he wanted something in return.
Daniel said he’d help with an investment in exchange for Askia carving out hundreds of feet of tunnels.
He believed it was the best way to get the cash he needed to make his dream happen.
But paranoid Daniel didn’t make it easy for him.
From the summer of 2017, Daniel would pick Askia up from where he lived with his parents in Silver Spring, then make him wear blackout glasses so he couldn’t see where he was going.
Daniel would take an extra long route to his house, so Askia would think he was working on a house in Virginia.
Daniel even used internet ‘spoofing’ to make Askia’s mobile believe it was in Virginia.
It was gruelling work, and Askia’s parents tried to persuade him not to do it, but their son was determined to be a success.
Askia would post pictures of himself on social media wearing a helmet, breathing apparatus and ear protection, toiling away in the toughest of environments.
Askia would work in the tunnels for days at a time, eating and sleeping down there as he carved out deeper pathways.
They were accessed by a hole in the floor of the house and then, after a drop of around 20ft, the tunnels would lead out in several directions, spanning roughly 200ft.
There were lights, an air circulation system and a heater, but it was far from high-tech.
Askia used a bucket for a toilet, a pickaxe for digging and there was a basic pully system to get the excavated dirt out of the tunnels.
In order to supply the electricity needed, there was a ‘haphazard daisy chain’ of extension cords and plug extenders.
The neighbours hadn’t a clue what was going on at the house – it’s unknown how much Askia knew either.
But as testament to his dedication, he continued the relentless work, driven by the desire for a better life.
Died trying to escape
On September 10, Askia had been working for seven days on the digging.
He messaged Daniel to say he thought there was a problem. ‘I def smell smoke down here,’ he texted from the tunnels.
It would take Daniel several hours to respond.
Daniel tried flipping a circuit breaker then admitted to Askia there had been an electrical failure.
He said he’d switched it all over to another circuit and Askia carried on working, reassured that the problem had been fixed.
Later that day, Daniel’s neighbours called 911 to report a fire.
Smoke was pouring out of the windows of his home where it had crept up from the secret lair.
When firefighters and police arrived, they found Daniel shirtless, covered in dirt, stumbling from the house.
He had inhaled smoke, but was otherwise unharmed.
It took a while for firefighters to figure out what was going on, especially with the jumble of items in the home.
They were stunned to come across the hole in the floor, and the series of tunnels.
They were even more shocked to find Askia’s naked and charred body just steps away from the exit.
He’d died trying to escape.
An autopsy revealed that the cause of death was smoke inhalation and thermal injuries.
Daniel insisted he’d tried to reach him but was beaten back by the fire.
Investigators concluded the blaze started from a defective electrical outlet in the basement.
Daniel’s secret was out – and a man was dead.
Investigators knew there was negligence at the scene.
Askia was working in terrible conditions and the piles of rubbish in the home made any escape route incredibly difficult.
The messages showed that Askia had alerted Daniel to the smell of smoke hours before the blaze had broken out and, despite knowing it was dangerous, Daniel hadn’t stopped him working.
Home was a death trap
In May 2018, Daniel was charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter.
It was deemed he’d put Askia at risk and that was negligent.
On the year anniversary of their son’s death, Askia’s parents also filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Daniel.
They wanted justice and were haunted by thoughts of their son’s final desperate moments.
At the trial this year, the prosecution said Daniel’s home was a ‘death trap’.
Daniel’s quest for secrecy had overridden any thought of safety protocols.
Askia had been a few steps from an exit but couldn’t make it because of the piles of rubbish.
‘This was a survivable fire, and we know that because the defendant survived,’ the prosecution said in the closing arguments.
The defence said it was an accident, not a crime.
They described Daniel as a ‘very strange young man’ but urged jurors to look past that.
‘Being different, living in a different circumstance, is not a crime,’ they said.
Daniel didn’t testify.
In April this year, Daniel was found guilty of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter.
In June, he was sentenced and Daniel finally apologised to Askia’s parents.
‘I’m sorry for what happened but sorry doesn’t scratch the surface,’ he said.
‘Sorry is what you say when you bump into someone.
‘If there was something I could do to bring Askia back, I would jump at it.
‘I truly tried to rescue Askia.
‘I had no reason to wish for Askia’s demise.’
But Daniel asked to be viewed as ‘an imperfect human being’ rather than a ‘wicked monster’.
Askia’s mum, Claudia Khafra, said that the death of her son had left her broken.
‘I am constantly plagued by feelings of emptiness,’ she told the court.
The judge said Daniel’s ‘intellectual arrogance’ had led to the tragedy.
She accused Daniel of believing that because he was smart, everything would be fine.
Daniel was sentenced to nine years in prison.
The full sentence was 21 years.
All but nine years were suspended.
Daniel slumped over a table and wept.
His lawyers say they have appealed but that won’t change the fact that a young man paid the ultimate price for Daniel’s mindless mission.