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The Internet Internist

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Chernov enrolled at ASU after graduating from Central in 1990. He moved out of his parents' home and, according to sister Debbie, began to blossom.

"I was just so proud of him," she says. "He was working out and he looked great. He was even showing some dance moves. He wasn't just this little computer dork anymore."

In June 1992, Martha Jean Chernov again disappeared. Passersby found her skeleton in late 1993 at the base of a cliff in the Superstition Mountains. Pinal County authorities ruled the death an "accidental fall."

For reasons he kept to himself, Gary Chernov never told his children about his wife's death. Debbie Knight wouldn't learn of it until August 1994, when she called the Pinal County Sheriff's Office for an update on her mother's missing-person case.

To his family, Alvin seemed unfazed by news of his mother's death. He wasn't. After he killed himself, police scanned a disk in his computer for clues. Data on the disk included a journal--he called it his "book"--Alvin began in his last months. Titled How I Think, it starts with a dedication to Martha Jean:

"I never told you this, but you were my hero. I looked for guidance about everything. You were the only person I felt I could tell anything. When you died, a part of me died with you. There were many times I wondered how I would make it through life. I had not yet learned all you wanted me to learn. What was wrong with you? Why did you leave me before I had the strength to carry on with your work?"

After learning of his mother's death, records show, Chernov got a prescription for the anti-depressant drug Prozac from doctors at ASU. But anguish didn't dampen his academic achievements. Chernov graduated from ASU summa cum laude in May 1996, with a degree in engineering.

That summer, he went to work as a software engineer for Xantel, a Phoenix firm. Though the reasons are murky, he was fired in late 1996. Months later, after Xantel gave Chernov a poor referral, he mailed a former boss a photo of the bombed federal building in Oklahoma City.

Chernov apparently started taking fen-phen between jobs, in March 1997.
"Alvin told me that spring that he'd been taking this medication for depression," Debbie Knight recalls. "He said, 'It's all about chemistry,' that he was playing with the levels he was taking, that his head was better and he was losing weight, too. It sounded great, and I completely believed him. I had no idea it was through the Internet."

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."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin