The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Diplomat’s daughter gets 35 years in killing of ‘wonderful young man’

The trial turned on whether Sophia Negroponte purposely tried to kill her friend by stabbing him in the neck with a kitchen knife or whether he was accidentally cut during a drunken fight

6 min

The dog barked at 3:25 a.m. Zeba Rasmussen ran down her stairs and saw three men, including the police, through the windowpane. “Is this the home of Yousuf Rasmussen?” one of them asked.

That moment started three years of heartbreak and horror for the Maryland physician, her family and the many friends of her 24-year-old son — a new life that played out in private even as the way he was killed in 2020 played out in public. He had been stabbed in the neck, police charged, by Sophia Negroponte, the daughter of former U.S. director of national intelligence John Negroponte.

The case against her ended Friday, when Montgomery County Court Circuit Judge Terrence McGann sentenced Sophia Negroponte to 35 years prison for second-degree murder during a two-hour hearing that, for the first time in the case, shined more attention on the victim than the defendant.

McGann himself, who had presided over a nearly month-long trial, made reference to the distinction in court Friday. “The spotlight was on her," McGann said. "We never really got to know Yousuf. He was but a reference and a picture hanging from an easel.”

Jurors had to weigh whether Sophia Negroponte, 27 at the time, at the purposely tried to stab her friend inside the Airbnb where she lived and where Yousuf Rasmussen and another friend had come to hang out, as prosecutors argued, or whether Rasmussen was accidentally struck by the knife during a drunken fight. After nearly two days of deliberations, on Jan. 3, they sided with prosecutors.

Negroponte was ordered held in jail and, as her sentencing approached, McGann received numerous letters from Rasmussen’s friends and family. Eleven of them spoke to him in court Friday.

“What a wonderful young man he was,” McGann said from the bench. “Yousuf touched the lives of many, many people. He was kind, considerate, loyal, funny and very upbeat.”

Moments earlier, as Negroponte had spoken to the judge, she said so as well.

“Everything that his friends and family have said about him is very true,” she said. “He was a very beautiful, loving and caring person.”

It was May 1995 when Zeba Rasmussen and her husband, Stephen, were living in the remote mountains of northeastern Pakistan, providing primary health care and support programs for poor villagers. They wanted very much to have a child of their own, and by then had turned to adoption, with Yousuf arriving to them suddenly two days after he came into the world.

“I just couldn’t believe this miracle that God had done for us,” she said in court Friday.

He was tiny, malnourished and sick. But not for long. “He survived and he thrived,” she said.

An uncle who grew close to Yousuf recalled Friday how he left for a trip and how the 2-year-old reacted upon his return. “The most beautiful two words I have ever heard,” the uncle, Arshad Mohammed, said in court, choking up.

Yousuf ran across a yard and threw his arms around Mohammed’s neck.

“Missing you,” the little boy said.

A friend from first grade at the International School of Islamabad, Mustafa Abdur Rehman, spoke over Zoom about Rasmussen’s talent in school plays and playing soccer. “Not for a single second have I ever thought I missed out on the bond of a real brother. And that was because I always had Yousuf,” he told the judge. “Imagining Yousuf as a future part of my life was almost as easy as breathing for me.”

When Rasmussen was 13, his family moved to the United States. He had dyslexia and struggled academically, and his parents enrolled him in the Lab School of Washington, where he met Negroponte. Another friend from the time, Russell Goodacre, recalled Friday how he attracted others. “He became a very important person for everybody,” Goodacre said. “If you were feeling down, if you wanted to talk to him, have a laugh, he was that guy.”

Rasmussen went off to college in West Virginia and then to Muskingum University in Ohio, where he served as a student soccer coach and announced sporting events on the radio. In more private conversations, recalled classmate Payton Patterson, Rasmussen seemed willing to give others a chance.

“No judgment,” Patterson said in court, describing his friend’s philosophy: “Let’s give everybody the benefit of the doubt, because you never know what they’re going through.”

Rasmussen came home from college with a degree in health and fitness and started filling out job applications, and for week of Feb. 16, 2020, had at least one interview lined up. Several days before, he and another young man went over to the Airbnb to drink and hang out.

Negroponte and Rasmussen began arguing and, at one point, Rasmussen left, only to return to look for his cellphone. Moments later, Negroponte walked to the kitchen, took a knife from a drawer and attacked Rasmussen, according to witness testimony.

In court Friday, McGann said Sophia Negroponte carried pent-up anger, which came out when she drank. He spoke of Negroponte’s parents, John and Diana, and how they adopted Sophia from an orphanage in Honduras, sent her to five different schools as she grew up, and supported her through multiple stints of rehab. “They did everything they could to help her … did so much for the daughter they loved,” McGann said.

Police and medics were called the Airbnb shortly before midnight on Feb. 13, 2020. It was four hours later that the knock came on Zeba and Stephen Rasmussen’s door, and she saw an officer through the window.

“I know enough about what it means when three men, including the police, come to your door,” she said earlier.

In court Friday, and in her letter to the judge, Zeba Rasmussen and others tried to describe their grief.

She spoke of going into this dark bedroom for two years, unable to touch anything, only able to sit in the dark and cry. She struggles, too, with the pain she sees in her husband and their daughter, Hanya.

“We were supposed to grow up together,” Hanya Rasmussen has said.

One of Yousuf’s aunts, who has Down syndrome, painfully asks nearly every day, “Why did Yousuf die? He was too young,” while weeping. She is so scared of kitchen knives, Zeba Rasmussen said, that in the home where she lives, the knives must be kept hidden.