A wealthy US stock trader has been sentenced to nine years in prison over the death in a fire of a man who was helping him secretly dig tunnels for a nuclear bunker beneath a home.
Daniel Beckwitt, 28, had faced a maximum of 30 years when Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Margaret Schweitzer sentenced him.
In total, Beckwitt was sentenced to 21 years but the judge suspended all but nine.
In April, a jury convicted Beckwitt of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter over the September 2017 death of 21-year-old Askia Khafra.
Beckwitt repeatedly nodded as the judge explained why she settled on a sentence that slightly departed from the guidelines. Judge Schweitzer told him his “intellectual arrogance” led to the tragedy.
“You thought that everything would be fine because you were very smart,” she said. “You thought you could fix everything.”
She told Mr Khafra’s parents the length of Beckwitt’s prison sentence does not equate with their loss: “My sentence will not and cannot give you justice.”
Beckwitt wiped away tears as Dia and Claudia Khafra, Askia’s parents, said their son’s death had left indelible scars on their lives.
“Askia’s death has left me broken,” Ms Khafra said. “I am constantly plagued by feelings of emptiness.”
During the trial, Montgomery County prosecutor Marybeth Ayres accused Beckwitt of recklessly endangering Mr Khafra’s life.
Beckwitt ignored obvious signs of danger and sacrificed safety for secrecy while they dug a network of tunnels beneath a home in Bethesda, a suburb of Washington DC, the prosecutor said.
Defence lawyer Robert Bonsib told jurors the fire was an accident, not a crime.
Firefighters found Mr Khafra’s naked, charred body in the basement of Beckwitt’s trash-filled house, only a few steps from an exit. Prosecutors said extreme hoarding conditions in the home prevented him from escaping.
Hours before the fire broke out in the basement, Mr Khafra texted Beckwitt to warn him it smelled like smoke in the tunnels. Ms Ayres said Beckwitt did not respond for more than six hours before telling Ms Khafra there had been a “major electrical failure”.
Instead of getting Mr hafra out of the tunnels, Beckwitt told him he “just switched it all over to another circuit”, according to the prosecutor.
Mr Bonsib said Beckwitt screamed for help from neighbours after the fire broke out and tried to rescue his friend before heavy smoke and flames forced him to retreat.
Beckwitt did not give evidence at his trial, which lasted nearly two weeks. He has been in custody since the jury’s verdict.
He met Mr Khafra online, and had invested money in a company Mr Khafra was trying to launch as he helped Beckwitt dig the tunnels.
Beckwitt went to elaborate lengths to keep the project a secret. He tried to trick Mr Khafra into thinking they were digging the tunnels in Virginia instead of Maryland by having him don “blackout glasses” before taking him on a long drive.
Mr Khafra had a mobile phone with him in the tunnels, but Beckwitt used internet “spoofing” to make it appear they were digging in Virginia.
The victim worked in the tunnels for days at a time, eating and sleeping in there and using a bucket as a toilet. The tunnels had lights, an air circulation system and a heater.
A hole in the concrete basement floor led to a shaft that dropped 20ft into tunnels that branched out roughly 200ft in length. Investigators concluded the blaze was ignited by a defective electrical outlet in the basement.
A prosecutor described Beckwitt as a skilled computer hacker who had a paranoid fixation on a possible nuclear attack by North Korea.
In 2016, he spoke at a hacker convention using the alias 3AlarmLampscooter and wearing a fire-resistant suit and visor that obscured his face.
Mr Bonsib has said Beckwitt’s use of a pseudonym and disguise was harmless, typical of the “weird things” people do on the internet.
Mr Khafra’s parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Beckwitt on the anniversary of the fire. His father said in an interview last year that he and his wife tried to persuade their son to stay away from Beckwitt’s tunnels.