Memorial service for Kholodenko sisters
The wife of a concert pianist accused of killing her two young daughters told police that she remembered cutting herself with a knife and taking pills because she “didn’t want to live,” but didn’t recall harming her children.
“Did I do anything bad to my kids?” Sofya Tsygankova asked investigators when interviewed hours after the bodies of her children — 5-year-old Nika and 1-year-old Michaela Kholodenko — were found Thursday morning inside the family’s Benbrook duplex.
On Tuesday, prosecutors filed two charges of capital murder against Tsygankova, 31, the estranged wife of Vadym Kholodenko, the gold medalist at the 2013 Cliburn piano competition. She was transferred to the Tarrant County Jail Tuesday afternoon.
The Tarrant County medical examiner’s office has temporarily ruled the children’s deaths as “homicidal violence pending investigation,” but evidence disclosed in arrest warrant affidavits released Tuesday indicates that the children may have been smothered with pillows.
The mother had a history with Mental Health and Mental Retardation and had visited an MHMR facility in Fort Worth on the day before her daughters were discovered, according to the affidavit. An empty prescription bottle found inside the home indicated that Tsygankova had just been prescribed Quetiapine, an anti-psychotic drug used to treat such illnesses as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Catherine Carlton, a spokeswoman with MHMR Tarrant County, said “we are aware of this tragic situation” but privacy laws prevent them from acknowledging if a person has received their services.
Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson said Tsygankova was undergoing a thorough medical and psychological screening Tuesday afternoon. She will be housed initially in the jail’s medical unit because of her injuries, he said.
According to the affidavits, Kholodenko had spoken with his oldest daughter and wife by phone on the night of March 16 and planned to pick up the girls the next morning and take them to school. He had been staying at a hotel outside of Benbrook.
When he arrived at the home in the 6600 block of Waterwood Trail on Thursday morning, however, no one answered the door. He told police that he opened the unlocked door and found his wife covered in blood with cuts to her wrists and his children in bed, not moving.
He called 911 and reported that his wife “was going crazy.”
When police arrived at the duplex, they said they found her kneeling on the floor in the master bedroom, “rocking back and forth and making noises.”
Police said she was wearing a mid-length nightgown that “was covered in blood” and a cut on her wrist and puncture wound on her chest were visible.
Inside the children’s bedroom, police found Nika’s body, dressed in a zip up-style onesie, on a small bed with pink bedding. An additional pillow on the bed — which appeared to have come from the master bedroom — showed a small spot of biological fluid on it, the affidavit states.
Michaela’s body was found in the master bedroom. A pillow — also with a spot of biological fluid on it — was found partially resting on her head.
Both girls, the affidavit states, showed signs of rigor mortis.
Police found two knives, a blood-covered butcher knife near the edge of the patio and a cleaver-style knife on the inside rail of the bathtub inside the master bathroom.
Next to the knife in the bathtub were three additional prescription bottles bearing Tsygankova’s name, the affidavit states. A search warrant return identified the medications in the bottles as sertraline, an anti-depressant, and hyrdoxyzine pamoate, an antihistamine that is also used as a sedative to treat anxiety and tension.
‘I think I committed suicide’
When asked about her injuries at the hospital, Tsygankova told police “I think I committed suicide.”
She told investigators she believed she cut herself with a knife and remembered taking a lot of pills.
“She stated at some point that she didn’t want to live,” the affidavit, written by Benbrook Detective R. James, states.
Tsygankova told police that she had arrived home about 8:50 p.m. the night before. She said Michaela was already asleep in her crib and that a babysitter was putting pajamas on the older girl.
Tsygankova told police she put Nika to bed and that nobody else was at the residence that night.
Tsygankova said she remembered going outside later with a knife because she “didn’t see any future for me and the kids.”
When asked if she knew where her kids were, Tsygankova told police that she hoped that they were with their father.
“At one point in the interview, Tsygankova asked, ‘Did I do anything bad to my kids?’ ” the affidavit states.
Tsygankova told police she recalled putting her children in the car at some point, but believed it was before she injured herself. She couldn’t recall for police what took place in the vehicle.
According to the affidavit, police found bloodied linens inside the Ford Focus and blood in and around the car. A suitcase had been propped up under the car’s rear bumper, apparently to hold in place a rag stuffed into the car’s exhaust pipe.
“Tsygankova made several mentions of a bad dream that she had that night, but was unable to elaborate fully about the dream,” the affidavit states. “Tsygankova remembered Kholodenko arriving at the residence and stating, ‘What have you done?’ Tsygankova assumed he was talking about all of the blood.”
While police were on the scene, a woman came to the residence at the request of Tsygankova’s sister, who lives in Amsterdam. The affidavit states that the sister had become concerned because her sister was not answering her phone.
“Tsygankova had been going through some difficult times because of the divorce,” the affidavit states.
Lyudmila Madmusaeva of Fort Worth was the girls’ babysitter, and, according to the affidavit, the last person to see the children before they were killed.
“I love them as my granddaughters. I think they loved me, too,” Madmusaeva told a WFAA reporter from her Fort Worth apartment Tuesday.
Madmusaeva says she babysat twice for the girls last Wednesday, including once in the morning so Tsygankova could go to the doctor.
“She said, ‘I just... need the pills for sleeping because I couldn’t sleep at nighttime,’ ” Madmusaeva recalls being told. She also said Tsygankova was acting absent-minded that day, including forgetting to turn off the stove.
Kholodenko no longer lived with his wife and daughters. He filed for divorce in November, stating that the couple, married in April 2010, had ceased living together as husband and wife on or about Aug. 15. Tsygankova counter-petitioned for divorce the same month.
David Kulesz of Arlington, Kholodenko’s divorce attorney, said he has spoken to his client since his daughters’ deaths.
“All I can really say about this tragedy is that my client is suffering great grief and requests that his privacy be respected at this time as he deals with this unbelievable loss,” Kulesz said.
Attorney: ‘It’s inexplicable’
An attorney who represented a Plano woman who killed her 10-month-old daughter in 2004 said the attorneys who represent Tsygankova in the criminal case will “have their work cut out for them.”
David K. Haynes was the court-appointed attorney for Dena Schossler, who sliced off the arms of her daughter and was found not guilty of capital murder by reason of insanity. Schossler lives in a state hospital.
“It’s just a very emotionally draining thing,” said Haynes, who works in Plano. “It’s about little children … It’s horrific.”
In the case of Tsygankova, Haynes said, her attorneys will have to “look into her previous life to see if there’s been any indication of mental illness before now and if so, what’s the nature of it. They have to try to find people who can explain all of that to a jury. And it’s very difficult to do that, it’s inexplicable why something like this could happen.”
He said her attorneys will work “really hard all the time for the next couple of years. They have their work cut out for them, that’s for sure.”
Court records indicate that Joetta Keene has been appointed Tsygankova’s defense attorney. Keene declined to comment on the case.
Last year, Keene represented a Graham man who was convicted of killing his two young sons, who were 8 months old and 2 years old. Gabriel Armandariz received a life sentence with no chance of parole. Prosecutors had sought the death penalty. After the trial Keene described Armandariz as a “flawed, brain-damaged human who had a breakdown and went to the darkest place of his life.”
Haynes said that when he first saw Schlosser, she was “far from coherent.” She was “in the throes of mental illness,” he said.
Haynes said mental illness is “poorly understood” by the public.
“There are many episodes [of mental breakdown]; sometimes these people are better, sometimes worse,” Haynes said. “Some people respond pretty well; some people don’t respond well to treatment.”
Staff writers Yamil Berard and Domingo Ramirez Jr. contributed to this report, which includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.
Michaela Kholodenko is one of the two young sisters found dead at their Benbrook home on March 15. Her first name was misspelled in several previous articles.