Was the Tetris co-developer the victim of a Russian mob attack?

On September 22, 1998, police were called to Vladimir Pokhilko’s home in Palo Alto, California. They discovered a gruesome scene: the Tetris co-developer was dead, his throat cut; he was still holding the knife. His wife Yelena and their 12-year-old son Peter had been beaten to death with hammers and then stabbed to death.

There was a note in Pokhilko’s handwriting:

I was eaten alive. Vladimir. Remember I exist. the davil

Yet Sandra Brown, a now-retired Palo Alto CID investigator who was at the scene, couldn’t shake the feeling that the Russian immigrant was as much a victim as his wife and son.

“Something was wrong,” she told the Post, noting that Pokhilko’s blood splatters on the underside of a sliding glass door didn’t match the position of his body. “The blood and the knife didn’t make sense. I thought, ‘This man didn’t kill himself.’ ”

Vladimir Pokhilko at a dinner with his son Peter and his wife Yelena in 1991.
Vladimir Pokhilko at a dinner with his son Peter and his wife Yelena in 1991.
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However, the coroner quickly ruled that Pokhilko, whose company AnimaTek was in deep financial trouble, was responsible for the heinous acts. The case was closed: murder-double murder-suicide.

But doubts remained for Brown and other colleagues working on the case — the FBI, who showed up immediately on the scene just a day after the bloodbath, didn’t help either.

“I remember saying, ‘Why are you here? We have potential domestic violence, a triple homicide in a small bedroom community,” Brown said.

Two decades later, Brown finds that her intuition may have been spot on.

Pokhilko's wife Yelena was a well-known yoga teacher.
Pokhilko’s wife Yelena was a well-known yoga teacher.
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“The Tetris Murders,” a new three-part docuseries premiering on ID Monday night, takes on the gruesome murders in light of recently unearthed documents that suggest the Russian mafia may have been involved.

“Initially, some members of the Russian community came to us and said that this man did not kill his family. They thought it was a mob hit,” Brown said, adding that they pointed to the murder weapons — a hammer and a knife — possibly representing the Soviet hammer and sickle.

Tetris, the best-selling video game of all time, was born behind the Iron Curtain in the early 1980s. Pokhilko was then working in Moscow as a psychologist with a keen interest in computers. His friend Alexey Pajitnov had developed a version of Tetris. Pokhilko saw its uniquely addictive effects on the brain; The two worked together to develop Tetris as a video game.

Local students (left to right) Jonny Ceron, 14, Alan Justice, 15, Preston Burnes, 14 look at the memorial to the left of the Pokhilko residence on Ferne Avenue in Palo Alto on September 23, 1998.
Local students (left to right) Jonny Ceron, 14, Alan Justice, 15, Preston Burnes, 14 look at the memorial to the left of the Pokhilko residence on Ferne Avenue in Palo Alto on September 23, 1998.
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Given the Soviet government’s propensity to confiscate intellectual property, spreading the game was far from easy. Dutch businessman Henk Rogers, who befriended Pajitnov, was able to get the Russians to sell the rights to Nintendo just as the company was launching the Game Boy that made Tetris a global sensation.

However, the financial benefits did not accrue to the co-developers. Instead, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Rogers helped them get to the United States, where the trio formed AnimaTek, which developed the less popular game El-Fish.

Then, in 1996, Rogers and Pajnitov teamed up with an unnamed Russian oligarch to form the Tetris company, leaving Pokhilko to run AnimaTek.

“They’ve basically globalized the entire Tetris company under one roof,” The Tetris Effect writer Dan Ackerman said on the series.

When then-CSI Palo Alto's Sandra Brown burst onto the scene in 1998, she told the Post she had her doubts.
Arriving at the scene in 1998, then Palo Alto CSI Sandra Brown told the Post she had her doubts that Vladimir Pokhilko murdered his family and himself.
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Now retired, Brown hopes the documentary will help shed new light on the murders.
Now retired, Brown says she hopes the documentary will help shed new light on the murders.
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While the two were raking in money, AnimaTek found itself in a financial spiral that was clearly taking a toll on Pokhilko. Shortly thereafter he would stop dead.

But documents discovered by the show’s producers turn that narrative on its head — namely, a subpoena from the FBI branch investigating organized crime and racketeering and trying to get Pokhilko’s accounts, dated just two days after the murder.

“How could they have an arrest warrant right after we got the case? That tells me they already considered this a mafia case before we even had this as a murder,” Brown said. “[That] blew me away.”

Tetris exploded into a worldwide phenomenon when it was introduced with the Nintendo Gameboy.
Tetris exploded into a worldwide phenomenon when it was introduced with the Nintendo Game Boy.
Picture Alliance via Getty Image

Brown said she’s spoken to people linked to the case, who still fear for their lives more than two decades later, and convinced them even more nefarious forces were at play – and they’re still at large .

“That subpoena proved to me that they barked the right tree,” she said, noting that she hopes the series might cast doubt on Pokhilko’s guilt, leading to truth and peace for the souls of the victims.

“It’s like Tetris – you just don’t know what’s on that first layer.”

https://nypost.com/2022/12/05/was-the-tetris-co-creator-the-victim-of-a-russian-mob-hit/ Was the Tetris co-developer the victim of a Russian mob attack?

Emma Bowman

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