A Maryland man was sentenced Monday to nine years in prison after his secret project — the excavation of a nuclear bunker underneath his home — ended with the death of a worker he had hired to dig the tunnels.
The man, Daniel L. Beckwitt, did not testify during his trial, in which he was convicted in April of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. But he made emotional statements at his sentencing and apologized to the parents of Askia Khafra, the worker who died while digging the tunnels on Sept. 10, 2017.
Mr. Khafra, 21, had been carving out hundreds of feet of passageways under Mr. Beckwitt’s home in Bethesda, Md., northwest of Washington, when a fire broke out.
When firefighters arrived, they discovered Mr. Khafra’s “naked, charred body” in the basement of Mr. Beckwitt’s home, and a hole in the floor that dropped about 20 feet down and fanned out into tunnels spanning about 200 feet, according to court documents.
The state medical examiner determined that the cause of death was smoke inhalation and thermal injuries.
Judge Margaret Schweitzer of Montgomery County Circuit Court sentenced Mr. Beckwitt to 21 years in prison, but she suspended all but the last nine. Sentencing guidelines called for 10 to 21 years in prison, though second-degree murder in Maryland carries a maximum possible penalty of 30 years.
Judge Schweitzer told Mr. Beckwitt, 28, that his “intellectual arrogance” had led to the tragedy, The Associated Press reported. “You thought that everything would be fine because you were very smart,” she said. “You thought you could fix everything.”
Ramon Korionoff, a spokesman for the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office, said in a statement: “Today, defendant Daniel Beckwitt was held accountable in the death of Askia Khafra. While this sentence will not bring back Askia, it does ensure Beckwitt has years to think about the depraved-heart murder of this beloved young man.”
Robert Bonsib, a lawyer for Mr. Beckwitt, has maintained that the death was a tragic accident.
“The judge’s sentence in this matter was fair considering the jury verdict and was below the sentencing guidelines,” he said in an emailed statement on Monday evening. “However, we continue to maintain that the guilty verdicts are not supported by the evidence in this matter, as this was a purely accidental fire — not a criminal act.”
He added that Mr. Beckwitt had already appealed the decision.
During the trial, Mr. Bonsib said that Mr. Beckwitt, who had made profits “in the seven figures” over the years by trading stocks, had been concerned about nuclear weapons and tensions with North Korea when he decided to build a secure location for himself.
Court documents said that Mr. Beckwitt made great efforts to keep his underground bunker secret. On some occasions he gave Mr. Khafra a ride from Silver Spring, Md., to the house in Bethesda but had him wear blackout glasses so he would not know exactly where he was working.
Mr. Khafra posted a photograph of himself, underground and wearing safety gear, on social media while he was doing the work.
Prosecutors said that Mr. Beckwitt’s home was dangerous because it was difficult to escape in case of emergency. Court documents said the house was “maintained in ‘hoarder’ conditions (immense piles of garbage and discarded items strewn throughout the home) with narrow mazelike pathways throughout.”
Prosecutors said that while excavating in September 2017, Mr. Khafra detected a smoky smell and sent a text message about it to Mr. Beckwitt, who eventually tried flipping a circuit breaker. Mr. Bonsib said that after the fire broke out, Mr. Beckwitt tried to rescue Mr. Khafra but could not because he was overcome by the smoke.
During the sentencing on Monday, Mr. Khafra’s mother, Claudia Khafra, said that the death of her son “has left me broken,” The A.P. reported. “I am constantly plagued by feelings of emptiness.”