Police think man killed wife, son

Publication Date: Friday Sep 25, 1998

POLICE: Police think man killed wife, son

Software company's woes may have set off murder-suicide

by Loren Stein

Vladimir Pokhilko decided to leave the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991 and immigrate with his family to the United States to "be safe." But the security he was seeking apparently eluded the 44-year-old psychologist-turned-entrepreneur, who, instead of protecting his family, allegedly turned out to be their greatest menace. Mounting financial pressures are believed to have driven Pokhilko to repeatedly stab to death his sleeping wife and 12-year-old son in their Palo Alto home Monday night before slashing his own throat, Palo Alto police investigators said at a news conference Wednesday.

A family friend on Tuesday discovered the bodies of Pokhilko's 39-year-old wife, Elena Fedotova, who owned the popular Stanford Yoga Studio, and the couple's son, Peter, at their home at 418 Ferne Ave.

Pokhilko, a well-respected software engineer, was co-founder and president of the San Francisco-based company AnimaTek, which specializes in 3-D graphics software for computer animation used in games, architectural drawings and other products.

Pokhilko was extremely worried about his firm's recent financial difficulties, but AnimaTek's troubles were typical of the ups and downs faced by most Silicon Valley start-ups, according to company officials.

Police said a note was found at the scene, but they are not releasing it at this time. No other evidence has been found that leads police to believe the crime was not committed by Pokhilko, they said. "We can't rule out anything, but there was no forced entry, no additional suspects, and nothing to focus us away from the situation we believe we have here: a double homicide-suicide," Detective Lori Kratzer said. No actual suicide note was found, she said.

Gilman Louis, a member of AnimaTek's board of directors and chief creative officer of Hasbro Interactive, said police officers told him that writings left by Pokhilko "indicated he was in some sort of distress. . . . It's really hard to read somebody's mind, especially with Vladimir, who was a psychologist by training. He kept very much in control," he said.

"It's really awful," said Louis, who knew Pokhilko for 10 years. "Vladimir takes things very, very seriously. He's one of the most responsible people I know. That's why it's such a big shock for anybody who knows Vladimir or is involved in AnimaTek. He seemed stable and in control. He never raised his voice, never got physical, never even swore."

Louis added that there were no visible signs that Pokhilko was using any drugs.

Louis said Pokhilko loved his family. "Peter was the joy of his life. He just loved his son and had a very good relationship with his wife. He was proud of her yoga studio and that she had raised herself to a very high level in her field."

Louis said AnimaTek was periodically but not consistently profitable. The company had major contracts and about $2.5 million to $3.5 million in venture capital money.

Pokhilko and the company's president, Henk Rogers, recently decided to expand AnimaTek into electronic commerce and were planning to raise $5 million to $10 million in capital to finance the online side of the business.

Louis said he and Rogers met with Pokhilko in Alameda on Friday night for sushi and beer. "The start-up was facing the traditional type of pressures," Louis said, "making payroll, growing the business and finding investors. But Pokhilko was concerned about the company and wanted to come up with a plan of action."

"He said to us, 'Do I have enough money to make payroll?' He was clearly looking at the 'what if's' if everything went wrong. We told him he was overreacting and that people loved his work. He thought that he would be fired. But we told him, 'Why would we fire you? You're doing a wonderful job; you have investors coming in.'"

AnimaTek was working with a large Japanese computer company, called Squaresoft, to develop 3-D graphic tools for movies and computer games. "We told him that the company was willing to give an additional advance to help manage the difficulties the company was experiencing in cash flow," Louis said. "Vladimir was afraid that they'd have to lay off workers both in San Francisco and Moscow."

Rogers, the company's initial investor, said Pokhilko's fears may have been exacerbated by layoffs in their Moscow office. "Vladimir was stressed about the business," he said. "This may have been the first time he dealt with this sort of situation."

Louis said they tried to explain to him that "the rules are very different in business here than in Russia, (that) even if things go poorly, he is protected as an officer of the company and that their contracts can be renegotiated. Vladimir seemed very calm afterward. He said, 'I'm looking at this all wrong, and I just need to get back to work and get ready for some presentations next week. He knew what to do and seemed up-spirited at the end of dinner, telling jokes and laughing."

Ironically, representatives from Squaresoft--who were unaware of the deaths--showed up in AnimaTek's offices on Wednesday, said Louis. "They were ready to wire $200,000 in AnimaTek's accounts on Thursday. This would have relieved the cash flow pressure on the company."

Added Louis: "It is the saddest thing, just awful. If he had just waited two days . . ."

Police have been cautious in their public statements, but they say they are digging deeper into the financial condition of AnimaTek. Although there is conflicting information, "We have evidence that the company may have been going under," said Kratzer.

Police came upon the three mutilated bodies in the Pokhilkos' one-story, olive green house on Ferne Avenue after responding to a frantic 911 call at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday from a close family friend with a thick Russian accent. Police said the friend had stumbled onto the dead family after entering the house with his own key.

After declaring the house a crime scene and sealing it off for six hours until a search warrant was secured, police entered and found the three bodies. Pokhilko's wife and son each had suffered multiple stab wounds and blunt trauma to their heads, police said.

Both mother and son, wearing bedclothes and apparently asleep in separate bedrooms, had been stabbed repeatedly in their backs sometime after 8 p.m. Monday night, police said. There were no signs of a struggle and no defensive wounds.

Pokhilko was found on the floor by his son's bed with his throat deeply slashed and holding a 6-to-8-inch-long hunting knife. A hammer was also found at the scene. The Santa Clara County Coroner's report will not be made public for about two weeks, police said.

"Obviously, with a child involved, it was a very traumatic situation to witness, even for the police department," said Kratzer. "There had been a lot of anger, it was a very brutal situation." Detective Tami Gage said the entire detective division of the Palo Alto police department--12-15 officers--is working on the case.

The Pokhilko family, whose relatives live in Russia, were well-liked in their neighborhood, Kratzer said. Neighbors told police they did not hear or see anything that would indicate something was amiss within the family or that aroused suspicion. Police had no prior reports of calls or a record of domestic violence or incidents from the family's address. "They were an outwardly normal family," Kratzer said.

Pokhilko's neighbors agree. "There was no indication of any problems," said Bob Herrick, who lives across the street from the family. "We would see their son up and down the street with the dog. My grandchildren would play with him sometimes."

Elena Fedotova, an accomplished yoga teacher, was the owner of the Stanford Yoga Studio in the Stanford Barn on Welch Road and specialized in the Iyengar style of yoga. She had previously worked at the California Yoga Center in Mountain View for two years before she left to open her own studio, said Elise Miller, the center's director.

According to Fedotova's Web site, she had created a yoga program for Russian television, published more than 80 articles on yoga and taught in Russia, India, Great Britain, Argentina and the United States.

Their son Peter, a seventh-grader, attended Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School in Palo Alto.

Fleeing political turmoil in the Soviet Union, Pokhilko settled his family in the quiet Greenmeadow area of Palo Alto. They bought a modest four-bedroom home there in 1994.

AnimaTek now employs 12 workers at its San Francisco headquarters and 70 others in Moscow, according to the company's Web site.

Before entering the computer business, Pokhilko was a psychologist, receiving his doctorate in 1985 from the Russian Academy of Sciences. Charlie Breitrose and Adam Billington contributed to this report. 

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