Local Jews rally around orphan emigre after brother is fatally shot

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By age 14, Svetlana Sogolova lost both parents to cancer. Last week, the 17-year-old Ukrainian emigre lost the only remaining member of her immediate family, her older brother and caretaker — to a bullet.

Now the Hebrew Academy senior is an orphan trying to cope with the tragedy of life without 23-year-old Ilya, whom she tearfully recalled as "a very close friend who told me everything."

Said Rabbi Pinchas Lipner, dean of the Hebrew Academy, "The whole thing is just a tragedy. This girl is a wounded child. She has nobody."

So the Jewish community is rallying to her aid.

Hebrew Academy, for instance, has started a fund to help whoever cares for Sogolova in the future to meet the teenager's costs. "She is an exceptionally fine girl, a good student, very nice," Lipner said. "We want to take care of her."

Sogolova is temporarily staying with an aunt in San Francisco, but the woman has a limited income and in a month will undergo exploratory surgery to determine if she has cancer. Should her aunt's health decline, alternative arrangements for Sogolova will be explored, Lipner said.

Ilya Sogolov, a computer programmer at Fourth Dimension Software in Redwood City, was shot in the head late Tuesday night of last week during an apparent robbery attempt in San Francisco's quiet Park Merced District. He was pronounced dead at the scene, police said.

Injured in the attack was Jewish emigre Igor Yagolnitser, a 25-year-old computer programmer who lived in the same apartment building as Sogolov. Shot in the throat, Yagolnitser remained in serious condition late Wednesday (the Bulletin's press time) at San Francisco General Hospital, according to hospital spokeswoman Gloria Rodriguez.

The shooting on Arballo Drive occurred so close to the apartment where Sogolova lived with her brother and his wife of 10 months that the teen heard the gunshots. People were frequently shot in the crime-ridden former Soviet Union, Sogolova said, but "I didn't think such a thing could happen in Park Merced."

Sogolova's sister-in-law Marianna, 25, has moved in with her parents, who also live in San Francisco.

In a Monday interview at the Hebrew Academy, which she attends on scholarship, the shy, soft-spoken Sogolova fought to stay composed as she discussed her tragedy. Her eyes downcast, she said matter-of-factly she has only slept four hours a night since the shooting, and her prime source of nutrition has been tea.

But her large green eyes brimmed with tears when Lipner spoke of her brother's intelligence, success and affability.

According to the rabbi, "three young men, his friends, got up and spoke unrehearsed [at last Friday's funeral]. One said he was `pure.' He was a very well-liked young man."

He was also proud. When his father died shortly after moving to the United States with his children less than four years ago, Sinai Memorial Chapel offered to give the two children a burial plot for free. But Ilya Sogolov preferred to pay for the plot using several thousand dollars he had saved, said Yakov Shrayer, a longtime friend of the family.

According to homicide inspector Napoleon Hendrix of the S.F. Police Department, two African American men in their late teens with close-cropped hair were seen fleeing the scene of last week's shooting. Police are currently pursuing leads, he said, though they are waiting for Yagolnitser to further recover so they can question him on the incident.

Hendrix said some people have suggested that the shooting may have been a Russian Mafia hit. He strongly disagrees. "It was definitely a robbery attempt. We know that for a fact," he said. "These guys [victims] are squeaky clean."

That seems to be how those who knew Sogolov view him. "He was open-hearted," Shrayer said. "Whenever someone asked for something, day or night, he was there for them."

In particular, he was there for his slight, dark-haired younger sister, who friends describe as a typical teen who likes TV, reading and hanging out with friends.

Now that he is gone, members of the Jewish community who know Sogolova hope to do what they can to ensure she receives as much support as possible. In addition to Hebrew Academy's Fund for Sogolova, Jewish Family and Children's Services, which helped settle the Sogolov family, has also started a fund.

Both organizations hope to raise enough money not only to help Sogolova with basic necessities, such as clothing, school supplies, and pocket money, but to help her go to college, or pursue whatever other avenues she chooses. She has expressed interest in going to Israel this winter to visit an uncle.

"Anybody can imagine that at this point, she's going to need help," said Sonia Sztejnklaper, JFCS emigre caseworker for Sogolova. "She's not a very lucky kid."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.