Fen-Phen Follow-Up

Federal authorities prosecuting the infamous "Internet Doctor," Pietr Hitzig, visited the Valley late last month as their case against the West Virginia man nears trial. Assistant U.S. Attorney Christine Manuelian and two others conducted interviews and gathered evidence in preparation for their case against Hitzig, who is now scheduled to go on trial in Baltimore this summer.

A federal grand jury indicted Hitzig in July 1999 on 34 counts of illegally dispensing drugs to 12 patients over the Internet between February 1996 and February 1998. Each of the 34 counts carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison. Hitzig, a medical doctor, surrendered his license to practice medicine in 1999.

One of the 12 alleged victims (though he's listed only by his initials in the official paperwork) was 25-year-old Alvin Chernov, who committed suicide at his father's Glendale home in September 1997 ("The Internet Internist," Paul Rubin, March 19, 1998).

Chernov began a downward psychological spiral after Hitzig prescribed him the diet-drug combination widely known as Fen-Phen. (The "Fen" referred to the appetite depressant fenfluramine, and the "Phen" to phentermine. Both are amphetamines.)

Chernov had been suffering from severe depression, and Hitzig -- whom Chernov never met in person -- promised that his unorthodox protocol could cure it in mere hours. Two days after Chernov killed himself, the federal Food and Drug Administration coincidentally ordered the recall of fenfluramine and dexenfluramine after studies linked the drugs to possible heart-valve disorders.

In his heyday, from 1994 to late 1997, Hitzig bragged on his 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.

But Hitzig's actions in the Chernov case raised troubling questions, including whether tweaking the brains of virtual strangers through cyberspace constitutes criminal behavior. A federal grand jury said it did, and the case has been edging toward trial for more than a year.

In Phoenix, prosecutor Manuelian and her colleagues interviewed several people who are familiar with Chernov's tragic demise, including a former employer and local medical experts.

Manuelian tells New Times that Hitzig has been residing in a halfway house in Washington, D.C., as his trial nears. A federal judge last December denied Hitzig's request for release to the custody of a former patient who wrote a book titled "Where Is the Father of Phen/Fen? From Harvard to Prison -- the Nightmare of a Political Prisoner."