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A Maryland jury will soon be asked to decide if it was a crime or an accident when a fire killed a man who was helping a millionaire dig a network of tunnels for an underground nuclear bunker.

Jurors are set to hear closing arguments Tuesday in the trial of 27-year-old Daniel Beckwitt. The wealthy stock trader is charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the September 2017 death of 21-year-old Askia Khafra.

Beckwitt didn’t testify before prosecutors and defense lawyers finished presenting evidence from witnesses last Wednesday.

The fire erupted as Khafra was digging tunnels under Beckwitt’s home in Bethesda, a Washington suburb.

Beckwitt went to elaborate lengths to keep the project a secret. He tried to trick 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. Beckwitt also used internet “spoofing” to make it appear they were digging in Virginia.

During the trial’s opening statements, Montgomery County prosecutor Marybeth Ayres said Beckwitt sacrificed safety for secrecy and created a “death trap” in his family’s home, with mounds of trash blocking Khafra’s escape.

Hours before the fire broke out in the basement, Khafra texted Beckwitt to warn him it smelled like smoke in the tunnels. Ayres said Beckwitt didn’t respond for more than six hours before telling Khfra that there had been a “major electrical failure.” Instead of getting Khafra out of the tunnels, Beckwitt told him that he “just switched it all over to another circuit,” according to the prosecutor.

Defense attorney Robert Bonsib told jurors the fire was an accident, not a crime. Bonsib said Beckwitt screamed for help from neighbors after the fire broke out and risked his own safety in a failed attempt to rescue his friend from the blaze.

Khafra met Beckwitt online. Beckwitt had invested money in a company Khafra was trying to launch as he helped Beckwitt dig the tunnels.

Firefighters found Khafra’s charred, naked body in the basement when they entered the home. A hole in the concrete basement floor led to a shaft that dropped down 20 feet (6 meters) into tunnels that branched out roughly 200 feet (60 meters) in length.

Khafra worked in the tunnels for days at a time, eating and sleeping in there. They had lights, an air circulation system and a heater.

Bonsib said Khafra was a willing participant in the project. He showed jurors a “selfie” photograph that Khafra posted on social media, showing him in the tunnels.

Prosecutors have described Beckwitt as a skilled computer hacker who had a paranoid fixation on a possible nuclear attack by North Korea. In 2016, Beckwitt spoke at a hacker convention using the alias “3AlarmLampscooter” and wearing a fire-resistant suit and visor that obscured his face. Another prosecutor, Doug Wink, has said Beckwitt was teaching his audience how to make thermite bombs to destroy computer data “in order to get away with hacking.”

Source: Fox News National

Tucked away in the foothills of the southern Rockies, the Philmont Scout Ranch has become a holy grail, its stretches of untamed wilderness and challenging backcountry treks drawing more than 1 million Boy Scouts and other adventurers from across the United States over the past 80 years.

For many of those who have spent time at the mountain retreat, they can’t get enough. It gets in the blood, it’s infectious and it’s the reason there was so much heartbreak last year when a wildfire ripped through the heart of the ranch.

Dozens of miles of trails were wiped out along with campsites, leaving behind a scar that will take years and millions of dollars to restore.

The work is necessary, ranch managers and troop leaders say, pointing to Philmont as a crown jewel of the scouting experience.

“There’s just a real sense of loss, kind of a grieving process so to speak,” said Roger Hoyt, a longtime Scout leader and Philmont’s general manager. “But at the end of the day, nature does renew itself and I think from the tragedy and the heartache comes this sense of renewal and opportunity.”

More than a half-million dollars already has been raised and the rebuilding effort is well underway with the installation of 85 new campsites and work to shore up some of the ash-covered hillsides.

Crews were sidelined in January due to snow, but work has resumed in the lower elevations as the clock ticks down for the start of the summer season.

And it will be a banner season with a record number of Scouts — possibly as many as 24,000 — expected to pass through Philmont, Hoyt said. Some of them initially planned to make the trek in 2018 but were derailed due to the fire and the subsequent closure of the backcountry.

With nearly one-fifth of Philmont blackened, the ranch is not alone in its new mission to become more resilient as western land managers face larger and hotter wildfires fueled by overgrown forests and dry conditions.

In 2018, more than 8.7 million acres (13,594 square miles) burned across the U.S., with most of that being in the West, according to the National Interagency Fire Center . Records were broken in California, which marked its deadliest and most destructive blaze in November as the town of Paradise was destroyed and 85 people were killed.

Scientists have said the 2018 season was part of a longer trend of larger and more frequent fires in the western United States.

In New Mexico, more than 382,000 acres (597 square miles) burned in 2018 and the state has seen its largest and most destructive fires on record within the last decade.

Hoyt estimates Philmont Scout Ranch will spend $1 million in the next year on conservation and fire mitigation projects. That includes addressing silt that’s washing down from barren slopes to clearing fuel from the forest floor, thinning trees and creating fuel breaks to keep fires from racing across other parts of the ranch.

While the work is relatively low-cost, it’s labor intensive, Hoyt said.

In March alone, 140 volunteers spent over 6,000 hours on fire mitigation and restoration projects.

Within two years, he hopes pockets of the burned area can be used as an outdoor classroom for visiting Scouts.

On the other side of the country, members of Troop 715 are preparing for this summer’s journey to Philmont. The Richmond, Virginia-based group was gathering over the weekend for a 2-mile (3-kilometer) backpacking trip so they could learn about what gear to take and what to leave behind. They’ll eventually work up to covering 10 miles (16 kilometers) a day.

Then there’s the first aid training and other skills that will help when they’re far from civilization, said Scout Master Steve Tyler, who will be accompanied by his sons, including one who is an Eagle Scout and will have just graduated the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Aside from being immersed in what Tyler calls “big sky country,” he said another highlight is summiting Baldy Mountain — a 12,441-foot (3,793-meter) peak on Philmont’s northern boundary not far from the Colorado border.

“Around here, the horizon is about 100 yards away and you’re looking at a tall oak tree,” Tyler said of his Virginia surroundings. “So it’s very, very different out there. It is a special experience.”

Source: Fox News National

An iconic temple central to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints faith will close for four years for a major renovation to help it withstand earthquakes and be more welcoming to visitors, leaders said Friday.

Authorities said they are also keeping a careful eye on construction plans after a devastating fire this week at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.

The Salt Lake Temple will close Dec. 29 to update the stately granite building and surrounding square, including elements that emphasize the life of Jesus Christ, church President Russell M. Nelson said. “We promise that you will love the results,” he said.

The building and square at the heart of Utah’s capital city is one of the state’s top tourist destinations, though only church members in good standing can go inside the building used for marriages and other religious ceremonies.

When the project is done in 2024, the faith widely known as the Mormon church will host an open house to give outsiders the first glimpse of the temple’s interior in more than a century.

A new visitors’ center and removal of a wall around the square in favor of a fence will also visually open up the flower-lined space to visitors walking by.

“We want to them to think of Salt Lake just as easily as they think of Jerusalem or The Vatican as a place where Christianity really has its heart,” said Bishop Dean M. Davies.

The work that will bring scaffolding, cranes and occasional road closures to downtown Salt Lake City also carries increased fire risk. Authorities are taking extra caution in light of the damage to Norte Dame by crafting a plan that includes a 24-hour fire watch, limiting welding and grinding to certain areas, and plenty of fire extinguishers.

Investigators are still determining the exact cause of the fire at Notre Dame, which was under renovation when the blaze started on Monday.

The Salt Lake Temple’s earthquake-mitigation project will be a major undertaking, and involve excavating underneath the temple to install a base-isolation system that will prevent damage by largely decoupling the building from the earth.

The area sees some seismic activity, including a series of small quakes that have occurred in recent months. Plans for this project, though, stretch back more than a decade.

Much of the square will remain open during the construction, including the building where the faith’s famed Tabernacle Choir sings.

In a nod to the 16-million-member church’s increasingly global membership, the project will also allow the temple to serve people in over 86 languages, rather than only English.

Leaders declined to say how much the project will cost.

Temples aren’t used for regular Sunday services, but thousands of church members visit every year. It is one of the most popular destinations for weddings. While it’s closed, local members will go to a number of other nearby Utah temples.

After it reopens, changes will include a return to a more colorful Victorian-era palette rather than the mostly white style adopted during another extensive renovation in the 1960s.

Republican Gov. Gary Herbert said the project will likely bring more congestion downtown, but he’s hoping tourists will keep visiting during construction.

“People think of The Church of Jesus Latter-day Saints and most people think of this temple,” said Herbert, who is a member of the faith. The renovation “shows the vitality of Salt Lake City. We’re not closing things down, we’re expanding and growing.”

Source: Fox News National

A young bobcat that survived a massive and deadly wildfire in Southern California last year has given birth to four kittens, wildlife officials said Friday.

Biologists recently found the bobcat’s den in dense vegetation in a large residential backyard in Westlake Village just northwest of Los Angeles, according to officials with the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

While their mother was away, the biologists weighed, measured and tagged one male and three female kittens. They also gave them a general health check-up.

The kittens are about four weeks old and each weigh about a 1 pound, or half a kilogram.

Their mother, B-362, was tagged the day before the start of last year’s Woolsey Fire, which destroyed 1,600 structures and left three people dead. She had been captured in an area of Thousand Oaks that was gutted by the blaze.

“This cat first had to deal with her habitat getting completely burned in the fire and then finding a new home in an unburned area,” biologist Joanne Moriarty said in a statement. “She chose a den in thick brush where she could keep her kittens safe.”

Though last year’s fires have made it a stressful time for wildlife, “we’re happy to see her thriving,” Moriarty said.

Another female bobcat being studied by the biologists has remained in the burn area but hasn’t reproduced.

Biologists say that bobcats will keep their kittens in their dens until they’re about three months old, when they’ll begin following her as she hunts and goes about her day. Bobcats generally become independent at nine to 11 months old.

Last month, a male bobcat known as B-361 was killed by a car in Calabasas, the second most common cause of death among the population after mange, according to the National Park Service.

Source: Fox News National

Wildlife officials say a young bobcat captured, collared and released a day before a massive, deadly wildfire has given birth to four kittens.

Officials with the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area said Friday that biologists recently found the bobcat’s den in dense vegetation in a large residential backyard in Thousand Oaks.

While their mother was away, the biologists weighed, measured and tagged one male and three female kittens.

Their mother, B-362, was tagged the day before the start of last year’s Woolsey Fire, which destroyed 1,600 structures and left three people dead.

Biologist Joanne Moriarty says in a statement that it’s been a stressful time for wildlife, “but we’re happy to see her thriving.”

Another female bobcat being studied has remained in the burn area but hasn’t reproduced.

Source: Fox News National

Authorities say a mobile home fire that killed three children and two adults in central Illinois was intentionally set.

Woodford County Coroner Tim Ruestman said Thursday that the deaths will be ruled homicides and a juvenile is being questioned.

He previously ruled that the five died from smoke inhalation in the April 6 fire at the Timberline Mobile Home Park in the village of Goodfield, near Peoria.

Woodford County State’s Attorney Greg Minger says he is awaiting final forensic results before filing charges.

The blaze killed 1-year-old Ariel Wall; 2-year-olds Rose Alwood and Damien Wall; 34-year-old Jason Wall; and 69-year-old Kathryn Murray.

Source: Fox News National

A man was taken into custody in New York after entering St. Patrick’s Cathedral carrying two canisters of gasoline, two bottles of lighter fluid and two butane lighters, authorities said.

The man, whose identity has not been released, was stopped by a security officer as he entered the cathedral, New York police said at an evening press conference. The man was told he could not enter with the gasoline. As he turned around some gasoline spilled onto the floor of the cathedral.

Investigators said it was too early to call the incident terrorism, but have yet to determine a motive for the man’s actions.

Investigators said a “heavy police presence” was in the area of the church, which is located on Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan.

On Monday, two days before the reported incident, the Notre Dame Cathedral was engulfed with flames for hours after a blaze broke out. The flames collapsed the cathedral’s spire, which had been shrouded in scaffolding as part of a $6.8 million renovation project on the spire and its 250 tons of lead.

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Two-thirds of the cathedral burned before the fire was brought under control. The incident is being investigated as an accident.

Source: Fox News National

A social media effort has propelled a GoFundMe campaign toward an ambitious goal to rebuild three historically black churches in Louisiana that suffered devastating fires that investigators have since concluded were hate crimes.

On April 10, the Seventh District Baptist Association set up a GoFundMe campaign to raise $1.8 million for St. Mary Baptist Church, Greater Union Baptist Church and Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church after they were set on fire allegedly by suspect Holden Matthews.

Inspired by the grand fundraising that took place for the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris after the world watched the iconic house of worship burn, journalist Yashar Ali put a spotlight on the Seventh District Baptist Association’s crowdsourcing effort and urged his followers to donate and match his $1,000 pledge.

Throughout the day, Ali kept updating his followers as thousands of donations poured in to the GoFundMe page. Ali noted that when he first urged his followers to donate, the association had raised roughly $159,000. Since then, they’ve raised over $1.5 million. Ali later updated that over $1.3 million was raised in a 31-hour period.

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The campaign caught the attention of big-name donors, including conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, CNN anchor Jake Tapper, “Late Night” host Seth Meyers, former Obama official Valerie Jarrett, and actresses Patricia Arquette, Susan Sarandon, Mandy Moore and Busy Philipps. Former NFL player and Louisiana native Benjamin Watson previously had put a spotlight on the GoFundMe campaign and has renewed his efforts amid the massive social media push.

Matthews, 21, has been charged with arson and hate crimes.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Source: Fox News National

The crowdfunding campaign to raise money for three African American churches gutted by arson in Louisiana began a week ago, but donations surged after flames engulfed the roof of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris and the outcry provoked a conversation about the disparate reactions to the tragedies.

Nearly $1 billion had been pledged to the Notre Dame rebuilding effort within hours of Monday’s blaze. The massive attention focused on the French landmark prompted Megan Romer to take note and tweet: “My heart is broken over the loss of Notre Dame. The Catholic Church is also one of the world’s wealthiest entities. If you are going to donate money to rebuild a church this week, I implore you to make it the black churches in St. Landry Parish.”

GoFundMe spokeswoman Aja Shepherd confirmed in an email that giving to the destroyed Louisiana churches increased Tuesday after Romer’s tweet and a challenge from freelance journalist Yashar Ali to his nearly 400,000 Twitter followers.

Other online reminders of the black churches’ plight followed, including this Tuesday tweet from Hillary Clinton: “As we hold Paris in our hearts today, let’s also send some love to our neighbors in Louisiana.”

Donations that totaled about $300,000 nearly a week into the campaign surged to $1.5 million by Wednesday night. The money is to be distributed equally among the three century-old churches to help them recover from the fires intentionally set from March 26 to April 4. White suspect Holden Matthews, 21, has been charged with arson and hate crimes.

Among the calls for more giving to the black churches, there was concern that they were already being forgotten as flames leapt from the roof of Notre Dame.

“It’s terrible what happened to Notre Dame. … But, 3 black churches in LA were purposely burnt down b/c of hate. Let’s not forget to be even more outraged about that,” Twitter user Joe Boyd wrote.

Native American Terrell Johnson, a 19-year-old Columbia University student and member of the Assiniboine Tribe, wondered: “Why are we not as worried about these sites being hurt that are historic to our minority groups, rather than majority groups?”

“It shows how little we are valued. These black churches, the mosque, Native American sites, they are not as valued as Catholicism or Christianity in that aspect, and it’s frustrating,” Johnson said in a Wednesday interview.

But journalist Thomas Chatterton Williams, in a series of tweets, took issue with the notion that concern about Notre Dame could be boiled down to a matter of race.

“It’s a tragedy when black churches + mosques are bombed, burned or vandalized, but of course the world pays more attention to an 800-year-old architectural masterpiece in the heart of a city everyone visits! That’s not white supremacy, and nonwhites who love Paris aren’t dupes,” he wrote.

The Rev. Roderick Greer of St. John’s Cathedral, an Episcopal place of worship in Denver, acknowledges that Notre Dame has higher visibility as a cultural, artistic and religious landmark than the three rural church buildings in Louisiana’s St. Landry Parish.

Still, in a Wednesday interview, he questioned whether white Americans would pay as much attention even if the fire happened at high-profile black churches, such as Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta or Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church.

“Even if Mother Emmanuel or Ebenezer or 16th Street Baptist Church went up in flames, do white Americans, in particular, have the same emotional and visceral connections that they have to Notre Dame, which is on another continent?” said Greer. “That’s such a telling commentary on the white American imagination that support for black churches lost to arson surged only in the wake of a historic European cathedral fire.”

The Rev. Mason Jack, an officer with the Seventh District Missionary Baptist Association, which includes the burned churches, said Wednesday he was grateful for the surge in donations. He acknowledged that the Notre Dame fire raised consciousness about the Louisiana fires but downplayed any concerns that black churches were being overshadowed or forgotten.

He said publicity surrounding all of the fires helped increase awareness of the need in Louisiana. “Maybe, for some, it was an awakening for them to bring healing and restoration,” he said.

___

Associated Press writer Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona, contributed to this story.

Source: Fox News National

Worldwide pledges of money to restore fire-ravaged Notre Dame cathedral in Paris has prompted a conversation about whether three African American churches recently gutted by arson are being overlooked.

Twitter users took note of the massive attention on the Notre Dame rebuilding effort and urged followers to support the destroyed Louisiana churches.

Some online commenters said the greater focus on Notre Dame was understandable given its history, size and artistic significance. Others said the disparate reactions were examples of traditions and sacred places of racial and religious minorities are undervalued in America.

As concerns were posted on social media, donations to the Louisiana churches surged. A crowdfunding campaign that had totaled about $300,000 soared to $1.5 million by Wednesday night.

Source: Fox News National


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