Slain girl was 2nd couple adopted

Date: 2005-07-14

Sarah Ovaska and Jennifer Brevorka

When Victoria Bazhenova left a Siberian orphanage for the United States, the 1-year-old with a mop of wavy brown hair became Nina Hilt.

She acquired an older sister, Nataliya, a 4-year-old adopted from Ukraine. Her new mom was a dental assistant. Dad worked as a software developer.

They settled in a Wake Forest subdivision where young families spend evenings pushing toddlers in strollers and playing basketball in driveways.

It was here, inside the family's red-brick home, that Peggy Sue Hilt, 33, apparently became enraged with Nina, who was now 2. Hilt told police she shook her daughter, dropped her to the floor, kicked her and punched her stomach and back, according to court records.

The next day, the Hilts took their Dodge Caravan to Manassas, Va., for the Fourth of July weekend. After the four-hour ride, Nina collapsed and died, police said. Investigators charged Peggy Hilt with Nina's murder on July 6.

The girl's death prompted outrage and questions from the Triangle to Russia. On Tuesday, Russian officials called for tougher rules to govern foreign adoptions.

And people who knew the Hilts during their 10 months in Wake Forest wondered whether they missed signs of abuse.

"I wish I had just grabbed [Nina] and taken her and driven her away," said Carol Muth, who knew the Hilts through a Raleigh preschool.

During a tour of the Hilts' home in late January, Muth remembers being startled by the contrasts between the two girls' rooms. Four months after the family moved in, toys and decorations filled Nataliya's room.

In Nina's room, the walls were bare, and it was filled with boxes left over from the move.

Starting a family

Peggy Hilt had no criminal record. Her attorney, William Stephens, said Hilt's family was saddened and declined to comment.

"All of them are loving and supporting Peggy," Stephens said.

Christopher Hilt and members of his family also declined to comment. Former co-workers did not respond to requests for interviews.

But real estate records, Christopher Hilt's resume and a family Web site from 2000 and 2001 provide some insight.

Peggy and Christopher Hilt were married in 1994, while both were in college. They moved to Virginia in 1995, after Christopher Hilt graduated from the State University of New York at Potsdam with master's and bachelor's degrees in mathematics. Mrs. Hilt spent five years at the college but did not earn a degree, school officials said.

Mr. Hilt worked as a computer consultant, and a few years later, he and two partners founded Altum Inc., according to his resume. From 1998 to 2003, that company went from making $350,000 a year in revenue to $3 million.

The Hilts embarked on their first adoption in 2000.

"The next couple of months, we are going to be very preoccupied with learning some Russian, child-proofing our home, getting ready for our instant family, and preparing to be parents," Mrs. Hilt wrote in a Christmas letter.

By 2000, the couple had completed immigration paperwork and had been visited by social workers, according to the Web site.

On March 23, 2001, the Hilts left Virginia for Ukraine. In Kiev, at an adoption center, they settled on a blonde girl named Olga who was in a nearby orphanage.

"She seemed like the one," Mr. Hilt wrote on the Web site.

In April 2001, they returned home with their daughter, renamed Nataliya Oksana Hilt.

Second adoption

Other than immigration papers, there is little to document the Hilts' trip to Russia three years later. They used a Texas-based adoption agency, Adoptions International Inc. With Nataliya in 2001, the Hilts had not used an agency.

A social worker visited the Hilts' home and prepared a report, said Jody Hall, the agency's executive director. After Nina arrived in the United States, a social worker met again with the Hilts in May 2004 and in January. The Hilts pledged not to use corporal punishment, Hall said.

A similar process is required for state-sanctioned Russian adoptions. The process, if all goes well, can take about nine months and can cost about $30,000, said Walter Johnson, executive director of the Frank Adoption Center in Raleigh. Johnson was not involved in either of the Hilts' adoptions.

Families are screened by the Russian government, and parents provide criminal background checks, references and financial and health information. The U.S. government issued visas to 5,865 Russian orphans in 2004, according to State Department data.

While adoption agencies help parents find suitable children, there are still risks.

In Russian orphanages, two adults watch over as many as two dozen tots. Children can be isolated and undernourished and can lack speech skills. Fetal alcohol syndrome or other disorders may go unnoticed.

"We prepare families early on that there are certain risks related to this process," Johnson said.

Nina's death provoked a controversy in Russia, where it is seen as a sign of a failed system.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that the Russian Ministry of Education, which oversees adoptions, wants to introduce mandatory training programs and psychological testing for foreigners who want to adopt. The agency also wants to remove what it calls a loophole that allows unaccredited organizations to arrange adoptions.

'Stir crazy'

In Wake Forest, the Hilts mingled with neighbors, hosted barbecues and erected a redwood swing set.

Mrs. Hilt worked as a dental assistant for a dentistry practice in North Raleigh, said her former employer, Dr. Burton Horwitz.

Mr. Hilt left Altum and ran Hiltech, his own computer consulting business, out of the family's home.

Nina and Nataliya went to Chesterbrook Academy, a preschool in North Raleigh near their mom's job.

At Chesterbrook, Nina enjoyed playing house and dress-up and using the school's sandbox, Muth said.

Nina, a quiet girl, often approached adults with a book in hand, asking to be read to.

She ran to Heather Pattle every day when Pattle picked up her 2-year-old son, Henry. At the preschool's Christmas party, Nina was Henry's Secret Santa, giving him a Blue's Clues electronic game, Pattle said.

Adults who knew Nina noticed that her speech skills lagged behind those of others her age. "She wasn't a big talker," Pattle said.

Mrs. Hilt quit her job Jan. 26, citing the need to spend more time with her family, Horwitz said. The girls left the preschool.

Mrs. Hilt said the girls had nightmares and she needed to spend more time with them, Muth said.

But she recently told Muth she was "stir-crazy" from staying home. Muth suggested finding part-time care for the girls so that Mrs. Hilt could have time to unwind.

(News researchers Brooke Cain and Lamara Williams-Hackett contributed to this report.)

Staff writer Sarah Ovaska can be reached at 829-4622 or sovaska@newsobserver.com.

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