http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/1999/09/02/MN32968.DTL

San Francisco Chronicle
Father Victor Sokolov

Stolen Bells Reappear on Rectory Doorsteps

But man who says he bought them disappears

Jaxon Van Derbeken, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, September 2, 1999

Cloaked in a red and gold robe, the Rev. Victor Sokolov waved incense and crucifix yesterday to give thanks for the mysterious return of three stolen church bells.

``These bells are blessed and sanctified,'' he chanted over the priceless artifacts -- gifts from Czar Alexander III in 1888 -- which had vanished from the belfry at Holy Trinity Cathedral.

Just as strangely as they vanished, the bells materialized on the steps of the church rectory yesterday.

The bells, contained in two plastic postal bins, showed up one day after a man came by to say he had bought them ``on the street'' for $250 and wanted to return them.

Sokolov said his 16-year-old daughter greeted the man, who said casually, ``I heard you lost your bells.''

``I don't want money; I just want to return them, no questions asked,'' the man said.

He promised to return yesterday afternoon. But a painter, doing restoration work on the cathedral after an arson fire on Orthodox Easter morning of last year, spotted the boxes on the rectory steps outside Sokolov's door at 8 a.m., said San Francisco Police Inspector Greg Ovanessian.

The three bells, each of which weighs 40 to 70 pounds, were sliced free of their steel cables and stolen sometime last week. They were discovered missing Saturday.

Police said the theft could have been the work of one person. Scaffolding around the church could have acted as a ladder to the belfry, they said.

No one was in custody, but authorities are looking for the man who came to the church Tuesday. ``We'd like to talk to him, see what he has to say,'' Ovanessian said. ``It was either the act of a Good Samaritan, or he gave them back because it wasn't easy to sell them.''

Sokolov said the publicity surrounding the theft of the bells would have made any such sale difficult.

``He could have dumped them anywhere; he could have dumped them in Golden Gate Park in a lake, but he brought them to the steps,'' Sokolov said. ``I believe the whole efforts of the community created such a high profile that this was very hot to handle, these bells.''

The church, at Green Street and Van Ness Avenue, burned in the 1906 earthquake and fire, but the bells had been moved just before and survived. They were reinstalled when the new church was completed in 1909. Many Russian church bells were destroyed during World War II, making the survivors rarities.

``Those bells belong to the whole city of San Francisco,'' Sokolov said. ``It's part of San Francisco history, a part of the sound of San Francisco, a part of the culture of this wonderful city.''

The bells will not be rehung for a while, as the church renovation is continuing. ``We will have to figure out how to secure them better for the future,'' Sokolov said.

The return of the bells did not come too soon for Despina Aslanoglu, a 39-year member of the congregation who awoke each Saturday to the clang of the seven bells from her home down the block.

``It's such a joyous sound,'' she said. `'It's wonderful. I hope the person who returned them has good health.''

Welcoming back the three missing bells

GRAPHIC: PHOTO, The Rev. Victor Sokolov welcomed back the three missing bells -- gifts from Czar Alexander III in 1888 -- to Holy Trinity Cathedral. / Robin Weiner/The Chronicle