The Internet Internist

Dr. Pietr Hitzig of Maryland has prescribed a fen-phen panacea for all manner of ailments to thousands of patients he has never met. One of them, Alvin Chernov, killed himself.

In April 1997, Paul Coppinger of APPS Software hired Alvin Chernov for his Scottsdale firm.

"You can't get out of ASU's engineering program with such a high grade-point average without knowing your stuff," says Coppinger, a thoughtful man in his mid-30s. "We identified that Alvin might be a bit eccentric, but some eccentricity can be fine in a programmer. Unfortunately, we soon found he wasn't getting his work done, and that he was really out on the fringes."

He says he counseled Chernov about his work habits.
"We wanted him to be a winner with us, so we gave him easy projects to develop a pattern of success. He felt I was abusing him. Finally, I called him in and said, 'Tell me what the barriers are--we'll work with you.' He e-mailed me afterward, and that was it."

Sent last June 19, Chernov's e-mail message said, "If you want me to continue beyond 12 p.m. today, you will provide me with a written offer that details my job description, how my performance is to be measured, exactly how I am to be paid based on such performance . . . No discussion. Take it or leave it."

Coppinger left it, firing Chernov that evening.
Chernov didn't tell relatives he'd been dismissed.
On July 2, Tempe police informed another of Chernov's sisters, Meredith, that they'd responded to a 911 call from his apartment. Reports show he told an operator someone was trying to break into his third-floor apartment.

Chernov left a message on Knight's answering machine that night: "Well, sis, I managed to piss off the CIA, FBI and Tempe Police Department, and they may off me."

He then e-mailed Paul Coppinger a spree of vaguely threatening missives.
"In recent years in America, there have been a number of horrible elephant attacks on elephant trainers," Chernov wrote. ". . . In India, elephant attacks are very rare despite very close training handling."

The message deeply disturbed Coppinger, but he didn't respond, to this or any of Chernov's subsequent e-mails. On July 26, Chernov wrote to his former boss, "Important warning: At this point, I do not know what to do other than warn too much good feeling is just as dangerous as too much bad feeling. Pride the fall, etc."

On July 30, another e-mail message chilled Coppinger: "I am not sure why I have difficulty eating and sleeping. As far as I know, I still feel fine. So far, I feel very, very calm. Even I know there is a time to kill. I just know right now is not the time for me to decide."

Coppinger had read enough. He obtained an order of harassment against Chernov from a local court. He had an alarm system installed at his home. He sent his pregnant wife and three young children out of state.

On July 31, Chernov drove to California in his Honda Accord to visit the Knights. The trip would be portentous.

The couple anxiously awaited Chernov's arrival.
"He said he needed to be with people who could look at him like he was normal," Debbie Knight says. "We were hoping everything was all right with him, but I wasn't sure."

Chernov seemed himself, if somewhat more scattered, on his first day in Marysville, the couple recall. They assumed at first that he was unwinding from his high-stress job at APPS Software. But they soon saw that Chernov was unable to hold a train of thought, except for a fixation on his would-be "girlfriend," music star Meredith Brooks.

He stayed up at night, explaining that he was working on a top-secret software program for the CIA.

One day, Chernov returned with a new computer as a gift for the couple. He told them that Paul Coppinger would reimburse him for it. Actually, Chernov had charged the $2,900 computer to his own credit card. The Knights later returned it.

Chernov's behavior grew odder, the Knights say. He sifted through their belongings, then bagged them for disposal. He also took apart computer disks and offered no explanation when Debbie Knight gently confronted him.

He sent several new messages to Paul Coppinger, including one that a mental-health worker later cited as evidence that Chernov was hearing voices and belonged in a psychiatric ward. One message said, "I seem to constantly be hearing the following words in my mind: 'Sunny came home with a list of names. It's time for a few small repairs,' she said.'"

The worker apparently didn't know that Chernov was reciting a lyric to Shawn Colvin's hit song.

Toward the end of his visit, Chernov announced he was going to Los Angeles to meet Meredith Brooks and apply for a job at her record label, Capitol. He grabbed a few Pepsis, his Brooks CDs and his ASU diploma--which he'd brought with him from Tempe--and drove away.

After Chernov left, his sister looked through his belongings for clues to his erratic behavior.

"We knew he was in serious trouble, and I wasn't sure what to do," Debbie Knight says. "I found his bottles for Carbidopa and Levodopa--he told me he was taking his fen-phen with him--and I called the pharmacy on the label, Marty's Discount Pharmacy of Mississippi [located near Jackson]. 'My brother's acting really crazy, and I have to know what's going on.' A woman tells me the doctor who prescribed the stuff, Hitzig, was excellent, cutting-edge."

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