They say ambition can kill. Well, so can criminal negligence. And so can the limitless potential of a young man whose criminality goes unpunished.
This story begins with a paranoid cryptocoin millionaire who was fully convinced that North Korea was about to nuke the U.S. — sooner rather than later. Although he lived in Bethesda, Maryland, the paranoid millionaire felt compelled to be ready for what he believed to be an imminent nuclear holocaust. Thus, he needed to construct an impenetrable lair. The 27-year old hacker and day trader, Daniel Beckwitt, was and remains a brilliant young man. His mind, however, couldn’t contain his unchecked paranoia from consuming his genius. In particular, Beckwitt suffered from tunnel vision due to his unique intellect. This created huge blind spots in his thinking and planning, which ultimately led to an irrevocable tragedy — snuffing out the life of an equally promising young black man.
Askia Khafra, the 21-year old son of immigrants, was a man with a firm grasp on the American dream. In fact, his dreams were so big that Khafra eagerly made a deal to fund them by working punishing hours digging tunnels under Beckwitt’s home. The day trader promised to be an angel investor in Khafra’s startup idea if he helped construct his secret subterranean lair. But on Sept. 10, 2017, Khafra burned to death in Beckwitt’s DIY fallout shelter. After their months-long investigation, Maryland detectives pushed for Beckwitt not to be charged with manslaughter, but with the state’s rarely applied charge of “depraved heart” murder.
This wasn’t the first time Daniel Beckwitt made national headlines. The FBI already busted him once before. When Beckwitt was in school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he was arrested and charged with conducting a hacking operation against his college. On Jan. 18, 2013, simultaneous search warrants were executed by the Urbana PD, the campus PD and the FBI. They swooped in together, and Beckwitt was accused of aggravated computer tampering. The operation was the single-largest hack in the school’s history. It went on for months, and Beckwitt reportedly rescheduled exams, sent mass emails from university accounts and defaced university websites.
After he was arrested, he spent two days in jail. Then he posted $1,000 in bail and was released. Roughly six months later, Beckwitt pled guilty in federal court to the lone charge of computer fraud. As part of a plea deal, the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of Illinois declined to press federal charges, allowing Beckwitt to avoid certain jail time in a federal prison. It would have been a shame for such a talented young man to lose his life for his youthful indiscretion — one can almost hear the judge offer this rationale.
After spending two years at the University of Illinois, where he’d been a Phi Beta Sigma honor society member, Beckwitt was expelled from school and he retreated to his parents’ home in Bethesda, where he started his new life as a rogue day trader. Brilliant as he is, he quickly amassed a small fortune from his investments in the initial bitcoin bubble. His sudden success with the cryptocoin freed him to pursue whatever interests amused him. And just like that, boom, he was a young millionaire with all the time in the world.
For all his brilliance, the leading edge of Beckwitt’s genius mind was his paranoia. For instance, whenever the secrecy-obsessed millionaire would pick up Askia Khafra from his parents’ home in Silver Spring, Maryland, Beckwitt always rented a car. He’d grab Khafra and then drive them to Manassas, Virginia. It was roughly a 90-minute trip. This was the price (and inconvenience) of guaranteed secrecy.
Once they arrived in Manassas, Beckwitt would hand Khafra a pair of “blackout glasses.” Next, he’d drive them around the Delmarva area for another full hour. He did this to obscure any cell phone record of their travels and ensure that cell towers wouldn’t give him away if anyone checked the record of their data. To be extra sure, Beckwitt employed a system of internet “spoofing” that would reroute his phone data so that, if checked for where it pinged cell towers, his phone would inaccurately report that he was in Virginia, even though he’d be busy driving back home to Maryland.
Beckwitt took deep pride in such elaborate subterfuge and hackery. You could say he was somewhat respected in certain circles for YouTube videos he’d made showing the best practices to irrevocably destroy forensic evidence. In 2016, Beckwitt presented a talk at ShmooCon, a popular hacker convention. It was called “This Message Will Self-Destruct in 10 Seconds: Avoiding Bilateral Enucleation,” and it was his response to the hackers’ challenge — i.e., How can you destroy forensic evidence on a hard drive in 60 seconds or less, without damaging anything else? Somehow, it also included references to Pepe the Frog and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Regarding the latter, Beckwitt used the image of a destroyed compact car to show the dangers of explosions. Not the dangers they pose to human life, mind you, but rather how they’ll fail to uniformly and reliably vaporize forensic evidence. That, in Beckwitt’s mind, was what McVeigh should have avoided. He didn’t judge the bomber for his domestic terrorism, he critiqued the sloppiness of his crime.
As for the hackers’ challenge at hand, Beckwitt’s answer was simple and elegant. He changed the question. He argued that any smart hacker would keep data on a flash drive instead of a hard drive. They’re smaller, portable and more easily destroyed. To destroy the flash drive, Beckwitt recommended fire. But not like in a raging barbecue or a fire pit. Instead, he recommended a DIY version of a military-grade chemical that burns at temperatures so high it “has military applications in cutting through tank armor or other hardened military vehicles or bunkers.” It’s called thermate —which is nearly identical to thermite, the same chemical 9/11 truthers believe was responsible for causing the collapse of the Twin Towers. Beckwitt had invented his own recipe that could be created using five easily-sourced, over-the-counter chemicals found at most local hardware stores.
Over on his Reddit profile, where he’s known as 3AlarmLampscooter, a sly reference to Neal Stephenson novels, Beckwitt consistently posted in medical-themed subreddits, suggesting he read medical journals in his leisure time. Using their jargon, he liked to make inside jokes with doctors. He also liked to ask probing questions one would expect of a hyper-intelligent medical student, not a layman.
That is, when he wasn’t busy posting about the dire, imminent threat posed by North Korea and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
On his Facebook page, Askia Khafra often shared posts about dream cars, memes about money and motivational quotes aimed at young, upwardly mobile businessmen. He was highly interested in new tech inventions, cutting-edge science and hacker news. He plugged charities whose work he supported. He was socially conscious, evidenced by his posts about police violence. (The story of Sandra Bland seemed to hold particular resonance for him.) On LinkedIn, he listed two companies he’d started: Canvas Threads, a streetwear brand “that crowdsources artists/photographers and pays them commission in exchange for their best work,” and Equity Shark, an investment company that’s “the future of private securities trading. In stealth mode.”
To Khafra, his path to success was clear — all he needed to do was hustle. Here, for instance, is how he advertised himself on his LinkedIn profile: “When I’m not working on school, I’m using my time to build a company from the ground up with my co-founder. I’m double majoring in business management and economics, but at the moment, I’m mostly focused on my entrepreneurial endeavors. In terms of education, my end goal is to get an MBA.”
His parents, Dia and Claudia Khafra, had growing suspicions, however, that the path their son was taking to success wasn’t the right one for him. Something about his new business partner was off. Still, their son was gifted with a cunning intelligence, so, they rationalized that this strange day trader must’ve seen something special in him. Perhaps it was the same potential they saw. Plus, Beckwitt had promised to be an angel investor in their son’s new internet company, the one that Askia planned to launch next. Beckwitt could give their son the start and early financial backing they couldn’t.
And so, the immigrant parents didn’t put a stop to the relationship; they made themselves understand that this was why their son was slaving away for days at a time, digging tunnels and excavating earth under some mysterious millionaire’s family home. He’s ambitious, they told themselves.
According to court documents, Askia Khafra typically worked days at a time, swinging a hammer in the makeshift subterranean lair under Beckwitt’s home. The tunnels reportedly stretched for 200 feet in multiple directions, under public roads and across property lines. To give you a proper sense of their scale, here’s a map created by local news station WUSA:
In short, it was a massive project. Certainly nothing Daniel Beckwitt ever did was humble by design. He’s a man motivated by tremendous ego, unshackled from any of the typical restraints of doubt others might have. Thus, he pushed forward on the tunnels without much regard for others — or, in Khafra’s case, without much regard for life.
The fire started on Sept. 10, 2017. Neighbors called the fire department after it crept up out of the tunnels and begun to burn the family home that sat above Beckwitt’s secret underground lair. Smoke poured out of the windows. When the firefighters and police arrived, they found Beckwitt shirtless, covered in fresh dirt, stumbling from the home. He’d suffered from smoke inhalation, but he was alive. The house survived, too, as the firefighters were able to control the flames before they burned it to the ground. Underneath the home, however, firefighters discovered “the naked, charred body of a deceased male.” It was determined that Khafra had likely died from smoke inhalation, or it caused him to lose consciousness in the tunnels, where he burned alive.
Khafra had texted Beckwitt to let him know he smelled smoke. Beckwitt’s response is what likely ultimately doomed Khafra to death. Fearing the smoke was from an electrical fire, Beckwitt turned off the power to the lighting inside the complex of tunnels. Left in absolute darkness, Khafra had to crawl through the maze of tunnels hoping to escape what turned out to be certain death. To make matters even more dangerous, court documents report, “immense piles of garbage and discarded items were strewn throughout the entire home.” And most importantly, “the substantial electrical needs of the underground tunnel complex were served by a daisy-chain of extension cords and plug extenders that created a substantial risk of fire.”
For all his brilliance, Beckwitt had created a death trap any idiot could build.
In the wake of the tragedy that stole his son, Dia Khafra has filed a lawsuit against the Beckwitt family. The elder Khafra has asked the court to ensure that a judge “order David Beckwitt and his son, Daniel Beckwitt, to fill in the tunnels and demolish the home.” In a neighborhood meeting to address the fire and tunnels, Dia said, “It was my son who died in that fire. I’m very emotional because some of the things you all are presenting have been sanitized. I came here because I wanted to let people know how dangerous what was going on is, this thing is far more extensive and complicated than people here believe it.”
In December, Montgomery County seemed to take the Khafra family’s side, filing its own lawsuit demanding that the home be demolished. The Beckwitt family, however, appealed the lawsuit. In February, after they’d disregarded the county’s order, the Beckwitt family countered with an offer of their own plan to fix the burned home and remediate the tunnel complex. The county reportedly responded by informing the Beckwitts that their plans “significantly misses the severity of the situation.”
On the September 10, of this year, the one-year anniversary of his son’s death, Dia Khafra filed a two-part civil suit against Daniel Beckwitt, alleging wrongful death from criminal negligence, and seeking damages. The state of Maryland caps wrongful death damages at $75,000; but a jury could choose to award additional punitive damages.
Meanwhile, Daniel Beckwitt’s criminal trial for second-degree “depraved heart” murder and involuntary manslaughter is expected to begin in April. If he’s found guilty, he faces up to 30 years in prison.
Too often, when a young white man gets in trouble with the law, if he has money, if he’s smart or talented in some uncanny way, if he comes from a good family, if he has the right background, a judge often sees potential in him. After all, he doesn’t want to be responsible for denying the world this young white man’s promise and horizon of possibility. And so, they provide cover and excuses in ways they most certainly wouldn’t for other defendants.
The best recent example, of course, is Brock Turner, the Stanford rapist. But Beckwitt’s story isn’t much different. He faced no consequences for his hack attack of the University of Illinois. All he did was spend two days in jail. Soon afterward, in fact, he was bragging about how he’d gotten one over on the Feds. And four years later, a talented young black man was killed by this same criminal arrogance.
Sadly, though, Askia Khafra is just another reminder of how little justice there is in the American justice system. As Beckwitt awaits his criminal trial, Khafra’s parents are waiting for the strength to be able to open the cardboard box that holds the cremated remains of their son. So far, they don’t have the courage. All they have are their memories of Askia. His father says he’s pained by the sudden absence of his son, “I miss his hugs. He was not afraid to say, ‘I love you.’” But now, “his smiling face is no longer there.”
Let’s hope that the judge and jury find some courage of their own to give the Khafra family a modicum of justice for their son.