CLEARWATER — The obituary was only the beginning.
It read like this: Czernia, Oren, 34, of Clearwater, passed away on Jan. 16, 2010. A University of Miami graduate, he is survived by parents; daughter; sister, nieces and nephews. Mitchell Cremation Chapel.
A post then appeared on a message board for Bruce Springsteen fans at Backstreets.com. It was written by someone called MrBaseball907. That was Oren's screen name.
Hello, the post began.
My name is Michael — the name of one of Oren's friends — and today I come to you with a very heavy heart. I know how much this place meant to him so I thought I should notify all of you. After a brief illness Oren passed away … He was my best friend and I will mourn him for the rest of my life.
The responses to the post started immediately.
my god no
People all over the country, some of whom had met him, some of whom had not, but all of whom felt like they knew him, mourned the death of Oren Czernia.
"I was absolutely hysterical," said a California woman for whom Oren's death brought forth painful memories of her son's brush with cancer. "I cried and cried."
Elsewhere, though, a handful of people sat in front of their computers and thought not OMG or RIP but rather: Wait just a sec.
Many of the people who post on Backstreets know each other in real life, too, from concerts, ball games or bars. Some of them go on vacation together. Some of them babysit for each other. Some of them are engaged. Springsteen is the common denominator but hardly the only topic of talk. They consider the board a community. A family.
Oren was a big part of that.
He was known for his generosity with his bootleg recordings. He sent people's kids baseball cards. He told his friends on the board, in posts and messages, and in conversations in person, about his marriage problems and his cancer.
"He was such a presence on the board," said John Kelly, screen name JJK007, on the phone from Detroit. "He posted all the time, morning, noon and night."
Joan Usiak, screen name killmo, last year came down from where she lives in Buffalo, N.Y., to volunteer on the stage crew for Springsteen's Super Bowl show. Oren did it, too, and in those two weeks they spent tons of time together. They had lots of laughs, she said, but sometimes she sensed he was having troubles or feeling down.
"Personal problems," she said on the phone, "that were none of my business."
Others from the board noticed something similar at a concert in Tampa last fall. Then Oren stopped posting as much.
Then came Jan. 25 and the shocking announcement: RIP MrBaseball907. A later post provided more intimate details: Brain tumor. Ice on his head. Pain in the dark. A risky operation. A stroke on the table.
The eulogies continued. The people on Backstreets called him genuine and kind, brave and classy to the end, an extraordinary man who had a heart and soul of solid gold.
One of the brightest stars in this dysfunctional little universe we have created here.
Never afraid to apologize or say he was wrong.
The outpouring of grief quickly jumped the porous borders of the Internet and started morphing into plans for real trips to real baseball games in his memory, real caps with his screen name embroidered on the back, and real checks coming from real people in real places as far away as the Netherlands.
Jim Kulhawy of New Jersey, screen name shaman1993, took charge organizing all the efforts, talking to ticket people and printing people and setting up a PayPal account.
One poster on the board suggested starting a fund for Oren's daughter.
MrBaseball907 posted quickly. She's all taken care of. A fund was "NOT NECESSARY."
Smaller gestures then. Like maybe flowers sent to the funeral home.
And here is where the week-long thread of messages began to get tangled in doubt.
having a hard time finding the funeral home's address and or phone number
• • •
The handful of posters who had been skeptical from the start were that way in large part because of Oren's history of telling tall tales. There was the time he got mugged. There was the time someone killed himself at the office. There was the time he got a ride from musician Gary U.S. Bonds. All of which he had been forced to admit were not true.
In this instance, they thought, too many things didn't add up: the suspiciously thin obit, the phantom funeral home, the absence of his name on the Social Security death index. Also, this: Oren, screen name "Oren," was still posting on a Frank Sinatra message board he was known to frequent.
Lynne Cardamone, screen name LynneSDaytona, had been to concerts with Oren, and dialed from Daytona to tell his mother she was sorry.
Oren's not dead, she said.
They had been unraveling it for most of the week since the initial announcement, in phone calls and private messages, even as the tearful tributes continued online and also on a Springsteen radio show. Finally, on Feb. 1, the revelation hit the board: Oren is alive.
The reaction? Stunned. Bewildered. Mostly angry. People who had cared like crazy now felt so foolish.
"My first reaction was: I'm glad he's not dead," said Katherine Byrd, screen name movielady, on the phone from Virginia. "My second reaction was: How dare he."
"He made a lot of good people feel used and duped," Backstreets editor Chris Phillips said from his office in Chapel Hill, N.C.
There's a professor of psychology at the University of Alabama who studies this stuff. He coined the term: Munchausen by Internet. It means faking online illness or death to get sympathy or attention. Those who do it, said the professor, Marc Feldman, who also wrote a book called Playing Sick, are "obviously very needy people."
In the case of MrBaseball907, their friend Oren, the people on Backstreets worked their way through emotions and then on to questions.
Why? All to get attention? What was the payoff?
"Did he want to see his own funeral?" Phillips asked. "Or is he really not well?"
• • •
Oren has got a wife and a kid and no job. He's overweight with thinning hair and a lazy left eye. He says his life is "boring."
He showed up at a meeting one recent morning at the Starbucks on the corner of McMullen Booth and Enterprise wearing jeans and sneakers and a New York Jets green fleece pullover. It wasn't a hoax, he said. It was a misunderstanding. He said he had needed to "disappear for a while" because of some personal problems, which include financial problems, which anybody can see in public records. He said his friend Michael agreed to help him go away but took it too far.
"Honest to God," he said.
At the end of the meeting, he asked: "Do you believe me?"
He showed up at a second meeting at the same Starbucks a few days later. This time he said he had a gambling problem — "It's in me," he said — and that he had used Backstreets as a cover when his wife asked him why he was spending so much time online. His friend Michael thought it would be good for him if he didn't go online anymore and killed him off without him knowing. He only found out, he said, after his mother got calls asking if he was dead.
"Honest to God," he said.
At the end of the meeting, he asked: "Do you believe me?"
Hard to say. One day he says his marriage is fine. The next day it's not. One day he says he has never had cancer. The next day he's showing you the scar on the side of his neck where he says a tumor was removed. And the University of Miami? Never went.
He insisted he wanted to look people in the eye, straight, and tell them the truth. Sitting in Starbucks, he did this, the only way he can.
Oren used two fingers to cover his right eye.
His lazy left eye snapped to the center, focused for an instant, but only by his own manipulation.
• • •
What's real? Oren's friend Michael is real. He has an address in California and a phone number and a Facebook page. And he has no idea whatsoever why Oren decided to use his name to do whatever it is he did on some message board.
When presented with this information, Oren said it was done by somebody else, this time a woman with no name.
There could be 100 meetings with Oren Czernia. There would be 100 different stories.
Oren was asked: Is Oren honest?
Answer: "One of the most honest people you'll ever meet — unless he's trying to protect himself."
So Oren Czernia tells a lot of stories. So what?
The people on Backstreets turned on Oren, hard, but they also turned on each other. They bickered on the board about who knew what, and when, and why those who knew more didn't share that so the rest of them didn't end up feeling so silly and hurt.
This kind of infighting, said Feldman, the professor, is not unusual. "There's no way to confront the person in real life. You can't retaliate. So people turn on each other."
"Some groups," he said, "have just dissolved."
That's not happening here. Still, though, there are wounds.
"He does this, like we're just screen names," said Kit White, screen name TheQuay, on the phone from Sarasota. "It was more than just screen names."
"If somebody needs help, I think there are still a tremendous amount of people in this community who would reach out to help," said Kulhawy from New Jersey, who spent so much time organizing MrBaseball907 memorials. "But I think there are some people who might think twice where they might not have before.
"I don't know what to trust," he said. "I don't know what to believe."
"It makes everybody anxious," the professor said, "because they realize how easily they can be deceived."
"It's interesting," said Kelly from Detroit, "because there's a Springsteen song …"
The song's called Brilliant Disguise.
So tell me what I see when I look in your eyes
Is that you baby or just a brilliant disguise?
News researchers Caryn Baird, Shirl Kennedy and Will Short Gorham contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8751.