Hacker charged with murder after a worker dies building his underground tunnel system

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

In September, 21-year-old Askia Khafra was found dead after a house fire in a suburban Bethesda home belonging to security researcher Daniel Beckwitt. Now, Beckwitt has been charged with murder in connection with Khafra’s death. Prosecutors say Khafra had been hired to construct an intricate network of tunnels below Beckwitt’s home, and that his death resulted from unsafe working conditions.

According to court documents, the tunnels were dug 20 feet below the basement of the home, spanning as far as 200 feet. The tunnels were constructed under extreme secrecy, with local permitting agencies unaware of the full extent of the construction. Khafra arrived at the work site wearing black-out glasses to prevent him from knowing its location; throughout the construction, he believed the house was in Virginia.

It’s still unclear how Beckwitt planned to use the underground structure, although his lawyer told a local news station that he planned to “create a secure bunker because of his concern for international threats, including from North Korea.” After the fire, the city cited the project for a number of code violations, believing that the tunnels likely extend beyond the house’s property line.

Beckwitt had found significant success as a hacker, presenting research at security conferences like DefCon and SchmooCon. In 2013, he was arrested in connection with a series of pranks at the University of Illinois — known as the ECE Hacker campaign — but prosecutors ultimately declined to press charges.

Prosecutors claim the fire was the result of an unconventional construction setup, which included a so-called “daisy chain” of extension cords to provide power for the equipment. Significant amounts of trash had also accumulated in the home, making escape more difficult. Taken together, prosecutors argue the conditions amounted to a reckless disregard for human life. Beckwitt was inside the home when the fire broke out, but escaped to tell responders that Khafra was still inside.


No one has ever been injured making a tinfoil hat . . .

My thought too.
You can argue what is the right crime to charge him with, fine.

But what interests me is the unsane mental state of a hacker full of paranoid fantasies probably from talking to similarly crazy people online. It’s almost a cliche.

uh huh. an underground bunker for his captive sex slaves! otherwise, why the secrecy? hi 10 cloverfield lane.

Overcharged, the American way of Justice.

My conspiracy theory is that he wanted no witnesses (why else blindfold the guy), and towards the end of construction he started getting paranoided that the guy might have figured it out, so he concocted a plan to murder the guy and make it look like an accident, not realizing how guilty the whole scene made him look, and things got out of hand from there. Or maybe he started having second thoughts, but the fire got out of control.

/removes tin foil hat

Why then did he tell authorities that the guy was still inside?

Isn’t that negligent homicide / involuntary manslaughter, not murder? He has to be deliberately trying to kill him for murder, which seems unlikely till the tunnels are done.

Okay, actually looked it up before hitting Save: Apparently it’s ‘depraved-heart murder’, which is negligent homicide with a crazy-ass Puritan name. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Depraved-heart_murder

Not to split hairs, but negligent homicide is technically a lesser charge, as it implies that the defendant was not aware that the situation he was sending others into was very likely to result in death. Constructing a scale-model re-creation of Củ Chi underneath a garbage-filled house probably ranks rather high on "things to which a reasonable person would probably say ‘Yep, that’s likely to kill someone’ ".

If he was in a tunnel 20 feet below the basement it seems unlikely that a fire in the house above would kill him, so near as can tell the tunnels themselves had no direct link to the house fire or Khafra’s death.

According to the third story linked in this article, the victim messaged the defendant via an underground WiFi network that he smelled smoke in the tunnels (the defendant replied by flipping the circuit breakers on and off). That, with the fact that the prosecutors are blaming the electrical supply into the tunnel as the cause of the fire, makes it seem likely that the fire did not start aboveground.

If they are judging building the tunnels as a dangerous crime, then the death of someone involved could be counted as murder. It does seem a bit of a stretch though.

It’s still unclear how Beckwitt planned to use the underground structure, although his lawyer told a local news station that he planned to "create a secure bunker because of his concern for international threats, including from North Korea."

It’s a series of tubes!

People have to start making better choices. Did the tunnel digger ever think that this wasn’t a good idea?

He was 21 and maybe the money was well worth it at the time?

Risk assessment is not the greatest asset of the human race, especially once you allow for factors like youth, inexperience, and monetary incentives.

So the waver of rights burned up the fire?

It’s ShmooCon not SchmooCon.

"which included a so-called "daisy chain" of extension cords to provide power for the equipment"

Concerned about unspecified North Korean threat: check
Concerned about basic fricking electrical safety: …

Pretty commonplace. After 9/11 millions of Americans took to the roads for their long distance travel, costing the lives of another 1,500 people, according to estimates. Millions of Americans buy guns to protect their family oblivious to the fact that they are increasing the chances of women and children in the home being shot. 30% of all households with young children in the house do not even bother to lock them up. A few more negligent homicide charges in the case of the latter would not go amiss.

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