A federal judge has convicted Fen-Phen doctor Pietr Hitzig of illegally prescribing the now-banned diet-drug combination over the Internet to patients he'd never examined in person. The 58-year-old West Virginia man faces up to 104 years in prison when he is sentenced in Baltimore on August 16.
One of Hitzig's 12 listed victims was Valley resident Alvin Chernov, who committed suicide at his father's Glendale home in September 1997. The 25-year-old Chernov "found" Hitzig on the Internet, and the medical doctor promised that his unconventional protocol could cure depression in hours. ("The Internet Internist," Paul Rubin, March 19, 1998).
Two days after Chernov killed himself, the federal Food and Drug Administration coincidentally ordered the recall of fenfluramine, after studies suggested that it scarred heart valves, sometimes fatally, and led to other medical problems. Both of the drugs are amphetamines.
In his heyday in the mid-1990s, Hitzig bragged on his now-defunct Web site that he'd "successfully treated over 8,000 patients" with Fen-Phen for all manner of ailments. His long list included obesity, alcoholism, methamphetamine abuse, migraines and even Gulf War Syndrome.
A federal grand jury indicted Hitzig in July 1999 on 34 counts of illegally dispensing drugs over the Internet. That year, the doctor surrendered his license to practice medicine.
In her closing argument, assistant U.S. Attorney Christine Manuelian described the Harvard-educated Hitzig as an arrogant criminal concerned only with "getting his name out in the media, gaining his fame and fortune."
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Two of Hitzig's listed victims were undercover agents, and the others were people from around the nation, none of whom he'd met in person.
Over the prosecution's objections, Judge J. Frederick Motz allowed Hitzig to remain free on bond until sentencing. The judge did so after the ex-doctor told him, "I want to vindicate my ideas and have them understood by the scientific community. I can't do that by running to Alberta, Canada, where I would wither and die."
One witness against Hitzig was Alvin Chernov's sister, Debbie Knight, a former Phoenix resident who now lives in California. She expressed gratitude that Hitzig is likely to be imprisoned for his crimes against her brother and others.
"It took a long time, but I'm very happy with the result," she told New Times last week. "My brother was a very good person, a very smart person, who just got hooked up with the wrong person. What happened to him was really wrong, and very sad."