Erica Blasberg was so proud of her 2,100-square-foot house in Henderson, Nev., a bedroom community outside of Las Vegas. The far-flung LPGA schedule has a dislocating effect on the players; Blasberg's solution was to make her place as homey as possible. "Every room looked as if it was out of a magazine," says Irene Cho, Blasberg's best friend on the tour.
For Blasberg her first house also had symbolic value as a sign of her much-needed independence. Her golf and family life had always been intertwined. She learned the game from her demanding father-instructor, Mel, and their complicated relationship would define Erica personally and professionally. She turned pro in the summer of 2004, at 19, but a year and a half later was still living with her dad in Corona, Calif. When Erica finally relocated to the desert, Las Vegas and Henderson were boomtowns fueled by a frenzied real estate market, attracting dreamers and schemers from all over. "Erica liked to go out and have fun, and she thought it would be exciting to live in the Las Vegas area," says her mother, Debbie. "She didn't really know anyone out there but was under the impression that there were a lot of young golf pros in the area and she'd find her niche."
Blasberg may have thought she was buying a piece of the American Dream in Henderson, but she failed to find a community there. The entire Vegas area was hit hard by the implosion of the real estate market, particularly neighborhoods full of tightly bunched starter homes like Erica's.
"This is a weird little place, especially for a young person," says a Blasberg neighbor who asked not to be named. "Half the houses are empty. All that's left are stressed-out families and the single people who'd love to get out but can't because they're upside-down on their mortgages." No wonder Blasberg failed to make any connections on her street. "You'd see her at the mailbox or walking her little dog, and she'd smile and wave, but it never went beyond that," says another neighbor, Ben Durfee. "No one knew her here. She was pretty mysterious."
On a recent morning there were no signs of life on the street Blasberg called home—no one washing a car in the driveway, no kids on bikes, not even a barking dog. This eerie silence is not atypical, but the calm was shattered on May 10, when police cars and TV trucks flooded the street after Blasberg was found lifeless in her bed. Her death invoked comparisons with Marilyn Monroe and countless hard-boiled detective stories: a beautiful young woman in distress, a murky suicide, a married companion who tampered with evidence, a secret life exposed. These sensational details brought Blasberg a notoriety in death she never achieved through golf.
A can't-miss kid who dominated the amateur ranks, Blasberg found only disappointment and disillusionment as a pro. After a miserable 2009 season—12 missed cuts in 17 starts, a career-worst 128th on the money list—Erica walked off the course in the middle of a round at the LPGA qualifying tournament in December 2009. "It was clear she wanted out," says Mel. But five months later her bags were packed for yet another tournament. After a winter of brooding Erica was unable to walk away from the game that had held her in its grasp for so long. On May 9 she was to leave for an LPGA event in Alabama. She had dinner plans with Cho that night in Mobile. The preceding days had been busy and seemingly normal, as Blasberg worked on her game, bought curtains for the bedroom she kept in Mel's house and even had a round of Botox injections. But on the night before Erica was to fly away, something went terribly wrong. That evening she was visited at home by Dr. Thomas Hess, 43. They were friendly from Las Vegas's posh Southern Highlands Golf Club, where both were members. The first time they spoke, at the club, Blasberg asked Hess to examine her hand, fearing a blister had become infected.
They would become golf buddies, and on the night before Hess went to Blasberg's house they hung out at a casino. The level of intimacy in the relationship has always been a mystery in the case, but in an exclusive interview Hess told SI last week, "My right hand to God, on the life of my daughter, I never had sex with her. We were friends." He came to check on Blasberg on the night before she was found dead, he says, because she had sounded drunk on the phone. (An autopsy would reveal that there was a cocktail of prescription drugs in her system but no alcohol.) "She was a friend who seemed like she needed help," Hess adds. He poured out her bottles of liquor, had her drink some Gatorade, then stayed for two hours. They watched TV, talked golf and had a chipping contest in the backyard. Asked if there were any warning signs that Blasberg might harm herself, Hess tears up and says in a whisper, "Nothing. Nothing at all." Mel Blasberg has never been able to accept that. "We know from the toxicology and the note she left behind that Erica was taking pills all day long," he says. "How could [Hess] not have seen the signs?"
Hess went home to his young daughter and his wife, Lisa, a fellow doctor who until recently worked alongside her husband at the Hess Medical Center, a small private practice in a scrappy part of town. According to phone records provided to the Blasberg family by Henderson police, Erica tried to reach Hess at 3:35 a.m. From 6:12 a.m. to 6:35 a.m., Hess called Erica eight times without reaching her. Eight hours passed before he tried again. Finally, around 3 p.m. he went to Blasberg's house, entering through an unlocked back door. She was dead, with a plastic bag over her head. (This method of suicide is known as asphyxia through rebreathing.) Hess took a goodbye note Blasberg had written as well as a package of Xanax with a label that indicated it was from Mexico (where she had played in a tournament the week before). Hess says that he was so distraught and overwhelmed to discover Blasberg's body that he made a rash decision that would forever cloud her death. "I know [taking the note and pills] was stupid, but I was trying to save some embarrassment for her," he said in a court affidavit. "That whole thing was a fuzz for me."
According to Mel Blasberg's lawyer, Nick Crosby, Hess had prescribed medications for Erica. (Hess declines comment, citing doctor-patient confidentiality.) Mel believes that Hess took the note and the pills for fear of being implicated in Erica's death. Police found the missing items in the trunk of Hess's car, leading to a charge of resisting a public officer. Last week Hess pleaded guilty and received a year's probation, 40 hours of community service as well as impulse-control counseling. The misdemeanor will be dismissed if he fulfills the terms of his probation.
The court appearance in Henderson marked the first time that Mel Blasberg had laid eyes on Hess. When the doctor arrived in the courtroom, Mel stared him down with a visceral intensity, but he never got off his bench. "I don't want to do something that's going to land me in jail," he said. Afterward, Blasberg was seething that Hess had not made a conciliatory gesture or expression of remorse. Blasberg believes that Hess had a romantic interest in Erica and it clouded his judgment on the night of her death. "He didn't kill her, but she didn't have to die," says Blasberg. "Walking away from her in that situation was so cavalier. If she had been just another patient, he would have handled the whole thing much differently. Maybe he could have seen the seriousness of the situation more clearly. Maybe he takes her straight to the hospital that night. Who knows? But because he had this relationship with her, it completely changed how he acted that night. I think he was more worried with protecting himself than protecting Erica."