My name is William Brennan and I'm a freelance journalist. Yesterday, Washingtonian magazine published an article I spent the past year reporting. It's the true story of a self-styled hacker and bitcoin millionaire named Daniel Beckwitt and a young college dropout and aspiring tech titan named Askia Khafra. (Daniel Beckwitt was an active Redditor and some of you may know him by his handle u/3AlarmLampscooter.) After the two met online, Beckwitt offered to invest in Khafra's start-up—and Khafra agreed to help dig an extensive system of tunnels and bunkers beneath Beckwitt's home in the DC suburbs. The tunnels remained secret until a Sunday afternoon in 2017, when Khafra died in a fire at Beckwitt's home. Beckwitt was later charged with the crime of "depraved heart" murder. My article tells the full story of what happened.

Link to story: https://www.washingtonian.com/2019/09/08/paranoid-tech-bro-homemade-nuclear-bunker-shocking-death-askia-khafra-daniel-beckwitt/

Proof: https://twitter.com/wm_brennan/status/1169266205137485825

https://twitter.com/washingtonian/status/1170838291891007488

I'm always looking for my next project. If there's a story you think needs to be told, send me a tip through my site: https://www.william-brennan.com/contact

Comments: 68 • Responses: 22  • Date: 

cracksilog23 karma

Also a freelance journalist, although not as famous as you lol.

Any plans to make this into a podcast? True crime seems to be the big thing in podcasts right now, and this could probably fit perfectly into that.

wb21822 karma

Hey, nice to meet another freelancer! There's so much detail and information that I couldn't fit in the 6,000 words of my article. There's certainly enough there for a podcast or documentary or some other storytelling form. And I'm interested in continuing to work on it.

cagreene15 karma

What questions do you still have about what happened ?

wb21832 karma

There are so many things I'm still curious about:

- Askia said that Beckwitt had something secret hidden in a "special tunnel," though no one I spoke to ever found out what it was. What was in there? And for that matter, what is the true extent of the tunnels? Firefighters only went so far before backing out, concerned about safety; according to the State's Attorney, the configuration of the tunnels has prevented any person—or robot—from going all the way through them.

- Beckwitt claimed online (and told Askia) that he held some of his wealth in the form of gold, which he said he hid in remote caves. Investigators found bars of gold in the house after the fire. Was there anything to what Beckwitt claimed about the gold?

- What was Daniel Beckwitt's relationship with Martin Shkreli?

- The biggest mystery of all—one we'll never have a definite answer to—is what exactly happened to Askia on the 10th. Prosecutors presented a credible/reasonable theory, but I don't think I'll ever stop wondering about those minutes between the CO detector going off and the firefighters' arrival.

Get-anecdotal11 karma

I’m a little confused about the legal term in this case of “depraved heart.” Is it related in some way to being the employer in this case and not having safe working conditions as well as fire escape? Could you provide some insight into the legal definition that had to be proven by the prosecution?

Reading about it, a wrongful death civil suit seems like a slam dunk against him. Clearly it was unsafe and he made egregious errors in judgment in many ways. But, murder or manslaughter is a bit strange to me. Although, I suppose it would be similar to a manager locking a fire escape door and employees (or anyone) dying because of that. However, in this case it seems it was more difficult to escape but not impossible.

Thank you!

wb21827 karma

I was thrown off by the term the first time I heard it, too. Second-degree "depraved heart" murder is a somewhat archaic legal concept; it doesn't exist in every state. The difference between depraved heart murder and involuntary manslaughter essentially boils down to whether Beckwitt acted with a "reckless" disregard for human life or an "extreme" disregard for human life. Sort of hard to say what the difference is, right? Those of us who followed the court case could sense that the jury struggled over the definitions; they sent one or two questions out, asking the judge to clarify the difference between the two crimes. But there's no clear statute in Maryland defining exactly how depraved heart murder is different from involuntary manslaughter, and the judge didn't (or couldn't) offer them specific guidance.

Ultimately, they found him guilty of both depraved heart murder and involuntary manslaughter. On manslaughter, the prosecutors made the case that he had a worker/employee relationship with Askia and thus a duty to keep him safe. Sitting through the trial, it wasn't hard to see how the jury could get to guilty verdict on that count—Beckwitt clearly did not maintain a safe work environment for Askia.

On depraved heart murder, the prosecutors pointed to the blocked windows, the fact that Beckwitt never cleared the basement (unhelpfully for Beckwitt, the defense's own witness seemed to confirm that the hoarding had gotten worse between Askia's penultimate trip in April 2017 and his last trip that September), and several other points.

At Beckwitt's sentencing in June, the judge explained that her decision on prison time would come down to a question of whether Beckwitt was guilty of "first-degree murder minus some" or "involuntary manslaughter plus a little"—in other words, depraved heart murder sits between the two. She found that it was more the latter.

I think the essential confusion here for any observer of this case is that depraved-heart murder doesn't have a clear legal definition, and the charge itself is somewhat problematic/contested. Here's a great law review comment on the crime, if you want some further reading: https://scholarworks.law.ubalt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=2021&context=ublr

Xychologist10 karma

This also puzzles me. Gross negligence, perhaps. Unsafe working conditions, to be sure. Murder? That seems excessive, under the circumstances.

wb2188 karma

"Murder" definitely seems like a misnomer, from a layman's point of view. I will say that, based on what I already knew going into the trial, I felt the second-degree murder charge was likely an example of the prosecutors overcharging Beckwitt; after sitting through the trial and hearing all the testimony/evidence (and listening to the defense/prosecution's legal arguments), I could understand how a jury might convict him of it.

frogstein9 karma

Has there ever been a professional evaluation of Beckwitt's mental health?

wb2186 karma

Yes, at a hearing in April, toward the end of the trial, the defense discussed a medical/psychiatric report on Daniel written in the aftermath of the fire. The report was never made public, however, and I only caught portions of its contents from the attorneys' discussion of it with the judge.

irnbeau9 karma

What's happened to the tunnels since Khafra's death?

wb21828 karma

The last time anyone went into them was two years ago, when a county fire investigator trained in confined-space rescue dropped down the tunnel hole with a camera, guided by the light at the end of her handgun. She testified at trial that she could only make it so far before she backed out, because some of the tunnels became too narrow and she was worried they could collapse on her. As far as anyone knows, they're still there, intact. The County condemned the house and ordered it demolished, but Beckwitt has been fighting them in court for over a year, trying to keep the house standing.

WiseWordsFromBrett6 karma

Have you ever fantasized about trespassing and investigating the tunnels for yourself?

wb21810 karma

I was very curious early on if there might be some way of eventually seeing the tunnels for myself. It quickly became clear that would be impossible. (Even Beckwitt's lawyers didn't send someone down, in the end.) The prosecution played tunnel walk-through videos at trial, which was the first time I saw the project to scale. Diagrams Beckwitt drew outlining where the tunnels went only raise my curiosity: he drew many of the tunnels as trailing off, heading toward the neighbors' properties and implying they go under the public road. If the County manages to get the house demolished, maybe we'll one day get to see their full extent.

Unbathed5 karma

Were you able to find friends of either party who were willing to share memories?

wb21814 karma

Yes, I spoke to many people close to Askia, and also tracked down some friends/acquaintances of Daniel's.

Many of the people who knew Daniel weren't comfortable putting their names on the record. Much of what I ultimately learned about him came from interviews with neighbors and public records.

moonkingdome5 karma

What was the sentence ? Did he get life? Or how many years?

wb2185 karma

He was sentenced to 9 years (with a credit for 60 days served) and 5 years of supervised probation.

callanbr3 karma

Has Martin Shkreli ever spoke about his relationship with Beckwitt? Great article btw very enjoyable read!

wb2184 karma

I never came across Shkreli publicly talking about his connection to Beckwitt (and unfortunately, the entire archive of Blab videos has been deleted, so I couldn't turn up any recordings of them streaming together). I didn't begin looking into their connection until late in my reporting, and if I'd had more time, I would've liked to try to reach Shkreli in prison.

(Thanks for reading!)

callanbr2 karma

Sad I would of liked to of seen those threads to cover a story like that must of been some ride. What are you working on atm? With out going into to much detail of course

wb2183 karma

threads

At risk of being too cryptic, I'm working on a story about a fascinating, eccentric person who has fascinating, eccentric ideas (and what those ideas might mean for a lot of people's well-being if he were even partially right). It's a very different story from this one, but reporting it has been no less interesting.

bestminipc3 karma

has this been primarily told/reported anywhere else yet? i guess you write for this mag?

wb2183 karma

I gathered all information in the piece firsthand (by seeking out interviews, sitting in on the pre-trial hearings and the trial itself, making public-records requests, etc.) and many of the details are not reported elsewhere.

The local news also consistently covered the fire and court case as new developments broke, so some of what's in my article has been out there for a while.

A note of thanks: I'm grateful to the Washington Post and WUSA—news stories they published on the fire/house in March 2018 were the starting point for me.

SgtToastie3 karma

Was there any other interesting discoveries from the court case that was left out of your article? What was the wood in the chamber, did it open to the outdoors?

I didn't know of the hoarding or upbringing of Daniel before this and it makes some of the details clearer. Such an unbelievable story, thanks for working on this.

wb2183 karma

One thing that immediately comes to mind that didn't quite have a place in the article: Doug Hart, one of Beckwitt's other diggers, testified that Daniel kept the exterior door locked (this is the door that led from the basement directly to the backyard, and through which Askia would've escaped if he'd gotten past the laundry area); Hart said he didn't know where the key was kept. (Worth adding: Daniel told investigators that on the day of the fire, this door wasn't locked. It was also implied in court that Daniel kept the exterior-door key on/near the washer.)

Thanks for reading.

Quigleyer3 karma

How many stories do you usually work on at once? When you say "I spent a year investigating..." were you doing other freelance work at the same time?

I freelance in an unrelated field and I cannot imagine doing one job for a year, but there are probably lots of nuances I don't understand.

wb2185 karma

Hah, yeah! When I say I worked on it that long, I'm counting all the time between when I first got the assignment to when I submitted my draft—I definitely didn't work on it full-time for a year! Though I did think about it constantly over that year. I do a lot of behind-the-scenes freelance work while I'm reporting stories, mostly editing and fact-checking for several different outlets (and some other, competing writing projects, too). Occasionally this story got my full attention for an extended period, but usually I was simultaneously juggling several other things.

thestudlife3 karma

Great article OP! Is there anymore pictures of the tunnels?

wb2186 karma

There are some more pictures out there (and some that haven't made their way to the Internet yet). Here's a video taken from the tunnels by a fire investigator: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y18mjOqzMsI

moonkingdome3 karma

Do you have feelings about this case? I mean i feel for daniel. So much emotoinal torment and suffering from his youth on. Turning him into an involentary outcast. Smart, yet socialy incapable..

Do you have any feeling about him? Or is he just a good story?

wb2189 karma

I think it's hard to hear the story of Daniel's childhood and not feel sympathy for him. On some level, he seemed aware of the deficiencies of his own upbringing and the challenges it placed upon him (and so did his parents: in a letter to the judge, he described watching the movie "Being There" with his parents once and hearing them cry later, realizing that by holding him inside, they may have set him up for a hard life in the outside world). I was struck by what Askia's father told me: "One life has already been destroyed, and now another will be." There's really nothing but tragedy in this story.

moonkingdome1 karma

Are you still following up on him?

wb2182 karma

No, I'm focused on a different project now.

patb20152 karma

Has anyone taken ground penetration radar and swept the site?

wb2182 karma

Good observation. I could be wrong, but I don't believe so; I don't recall seeing mention of that in any of the documents I reviewed.

xFiGGiE2 karma

Great article and really amazing writing - I don’t usually read articles that long but your writing style captivated me.

Question! Did anyone in court mention — or in your personal opinion do you think if he had stayed down in the tunnel (assuming the firefighters put out the fire quickly before things collapsed, hindsight 20/20) he would have survived because fire and smoke rises first before “filling up” the rest of the empty air around the initial burning point? Poorly worded, sorry running off little sleep.

wb2181 karma

Good question. Yes, this did come up at the trial. If I recall correctly, the defense proposed this possibility, and a fire investigator or one of the expert witnesses agreed that staying in the tunnels would've very likely been safer/potentially allowed Askia to survive. (I think the prosecution challenged this assertion on the grounds that it was unknowable what the carbon monoxide concentration down there would've been at the time.) My take is: I can't imagine how terrifying it would've been to stay down there knowing there was a fire above me, blocking my only escape route.

SgtToastie1 karma

I'm now really interested in the chamber covered in wood, if one was in that chamber could they get out through the wood? What was past the wood covering, a shed, the outdoors?

wb2181 karma

If I recall right, there were said to be two tunnels that had openings to the outside. Daniel told police Askia could've escaped through them, but a fire investigator testified at trial that both holes were too small for a person to fit through. (I think he said that the one Daniel had been trying to open up during the fire was 16 inches wide; it's not clear if this or the other one—or maybe a third, unidentified hole—was the "chamber" one Askia referred to in his text messages.) The two holes led to the backyard and were actually pretty close to the house.

patb20151 karma

Could be interesting maybe see if a university team would explore the site

wb2181 karma

Yeah! It seems like the County recently did something like this to explore an archaeological site: https://wtop.com/montgomery-county/2017/02/montgomery-co-planners-order-grounds-examined-burial-site/

nootandcanoodle1 karma

How did you balance working on other stories with working on this one?

How did you get into freelance journalism?

wb2181 karma

Balancing other projects has been hard! It takes me a long time to report stories; if my editors didn't (wisely) force deadlines on me, I'd probably just endlessly dig for information and answers. It often feels like there aren't enough hours in the day, or days in the year...

How I got into freelance journalism: I spent a few years working as a staff fact-checker at the Atlantic magazine and doing some shorter-form writing, which taught me how to do this kind of in-depth reporting. As a checker at a print mag like the Atlantic, you work really closely with writers and get to see exactly how they report these kinds of articles. I made the freelance jump once it felt like I'd learned what I needed to know to do the reporting myself.