Crime

Wife of Cliburn winner found not guilty by reason of insanity in daughters’ deaths

For Sofya Tsygankova, mental illness first surfaced when she was 18.

Still living in her homeland of Russia, the pianist became depressed after a breakup and her failure to progress in a music competition.

After the birth of her and renowned pianist Vadym Kholodenko’s youngest daughter, postpartum depression reportedly followed.

But it was the July 2015 revelation from Kholodenko that he was in love with a mutual friend and wanted a divorce that apparently sent Tsygankova’s mental health spiraling.

She sunk into depression, suffered bouts of anxiety and later had auditory and visual hallucinations. She became suicidal and was hospitalized at John Peter Smith Hospital after hurling herself from a moving car and lying in traffic on a busy street.

She came to believe that her husband was controlling her through his cellphone and that he was poisoning her.

Believing that both her soul and that of her daughters had been stolen by the devil, she would later tell doctors, she believed she had no choice but to kill them and herself.

So in March 2016, she smothered 5-year-old Nika Kholodenko and 20-month-old Michaela Kholodenko with pillows inside the family’s Benbrook home, then tried to kill herself.

By doing so, she believed she was saving them from future harm and that they would live in a home not under the influence of the devil, she told doctors.

On Monday, State District Judge Ruben Gonzalez found Tsygankova not guilty by reason of insanity in the two capital murder cases.

The judge then ordered Tsygankova, now 34, committed to a state mental hospital.

She could remain hospitalized until her death.

“She loved those two babies. She adored those babies,” said Rose Anna Salinas, one of two defense attorneys who represented Tsygankova. “It was only because of the state that she was in that this happened. I know there’s going to be people that are going to say that justice wasn’t done. That she should have been punished.“

“... In our system, we want justice. This is what justice is in this particular case,” Salinas added. “This woman did not need to be punished for something that she didn’t even realize was wrong at the time. She does have to live with this for the rest of her life. It is the saddest, most tragic thing that a parent could possibly ever go through.”

The verdict was handed down after a brief hearing in which the judge was read reports by three experts — including one retained by the prosecution — who agreed that Tsygankova was criminally insane when she killed her daughters.

Prosecutors did not argue against the insanity verdict.

“What happened to these two children was a tragedy and it was awful,” prosecutor Dale Smith said after hearing. “Our office weeps for those children.”

But Smith said the law is clear that if someone, by reason of mental disease or defect, didn’t know that their conduct was wrong, they cannot be convicted.

“I feel like as given my ethics by the legislature to see that justice is done, I did my job today,” Smith said.

Such verdicts are relatively rare.

Since 2004, 30 defendants have previously been found not guilty by reason of insanity in Tarrant County, according to statistics provided by the District Attorney’s office.

Five of those involved murder or capital murder cases.

Kholodenko’s stipulated testimony

Kholodenko, the 2013 gold medalist at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, was in the midst of divorcing his wife and was staying at a hotel when the slayings occurred.

He did not attend Monday’s hearing but stipulated testimony from him was read aloud by Smith during the hearing.

According to that testimony, Kholodenko and Tsygankova had been married for five years and moved to the United States after he won the Cliburn.

He said he had met his girlfriend in June 2015 and requested a divorce from his wife that July, causing Tsygankova to have a mental breakdown. She was hospitalized at John Peter Smith Hospital as a result, he said.

Kholodenko said he had asked a doctor if the children were safe to be with their mother and that he was told that they were.

Kholodenko also described finding his daughters dead on March 17, 2016, upon arriving to take them to daycare that morning.

He found his estranged wife rocking back and forth, covered in blood from self-inflicted stab wounds, and mumbling in Russian in the closet of the master bedroom.

Tsygankova would later tell doctors, according to reports read Monday, that she had first planned to kill the three through carbon monoxide poisoning. At the Benbrook home, police had found a bloody sheet inside her car in the garage. A rag was stuffed in the car’s tailpipe.

But Tsygankova said she decided to abandon that plan after becoming fearful they’d be discovered before they died.

Instead, she told doctors, she smothered her daughters with pillows and then cut her wrists and stabbed herself in the heart, lying on the bed in an effort to push the knife in deeper. She said she also took pills.

She told doctors she believed she had no choice but to kill her daughters to keep them from a future where the girls would be damaged — Nika unable to think, and Michaela partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair.

She told doctors that she also she believed if her daughters did not die, it would prompt World War III.

Doctors’ findings

The doctors determined that Tsygankova was suffering from severe depression, which led to psychosis.

Sofya
Sofya Tsygankova Handout Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office

“They all determined she was so severely suffering from this mental illness that she believed what she was doing was the right thing to do,” Keene said.

At times, Keene said, Tsygankova recognizes what she’s done and, other times, she slips back into depression and psychosis.

Keene said she was happy that both sides agreed regarding Tsygankova’s mental illness.

“There’s times when you fight about it. Today was not that time when you fight about it. Sometimes it’s just that clear,” Keene said.

In a statement released after the hearing, Criminal District Attorney Sharen Wilson said under Texas law, a person who does not understand that their conduct is wrong because of their severe mental disease cannot be convicted.

“In this case, a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity is correct under the facts, and it is what justice demands,” she stated.

Sofya Tsygankova’s older sister and mother flew in from Russia Sunday to be present for Monday’s hearing.

In statement released to the Star-Telegram after the hearing, the sister, Anna Tsygankova, expressed gratitude to her sister’s attorneys.

“We would like to thank our lawyers from day one for their support and knowledge that helped us get through this tragedy and never lose faith,” she said.

Mental hospital stay

Tsygankova’s release from the state mental hospital could only come if a treatment team recommends — and a judge agrees — that she is stable enough to be released and doesn’t deem a danger to herself or others.

Even if released, she could be placed under tight restrictions, including that she wear a GPS monitor and take certain medications. She also could be ordered re-hospitalized.

She would remain under supervision and the court’s jurisdiction for life unless the court chooses to end all supervision.

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