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."
Blasberg's death cracked open her complicated private life, leading stricken friends and family to wonder how much they didn't know about her. The tragedy also opened a window into the often harsh world of the LPGA, for which young women travel the world alone while competing in a cutthroat profession. Blasberg died in a city in which she had no family and only one close girlfriend; in her final year she sought companionship with at least two married men. In the farewell note Blasberg said she was tired of being alone. This isolation was surely compounded by the lifestyle of a tour pro.
Of his daughter's death Mel Blasberg says, "It's an American story." There is indeed something outsized in the sweep of Erica's rise and fall. But hers was also an intensely personal journey, in which a young woman who seemingly had it all was ultimately a victim of her own talent. "I'm not sure I ever got the sense that this is what Erica wanted to do," Mel says of her golf career. "She was forced into something she never would have done herself. Even though she didn't want to do it, she got so good, she didn't have any other choice. It was like she was trapped in her own life."
When she was 10, Erica journeyed from Corona to a weeklong golf camp at Arizona State. On one of her first days there a fellow camper pushed her into a swimming pool, and Erica called home sobbing. Days later, at the airport, she again burst into tears while giving a hello hug to her mother. "I thought it was just relief at being home," says Debbie, "but then she said, 'I didn't want to leave.' That's when I knew she was taking this golf thing seriously." How could Erica not? Her father radiated a passion for the game and demanded that she demonstrate a commensurate desire. "The one thing I always wanted her to have was the emotion of wanting it so bad," says Mel. "She was a happy-go-lucky kid, but she could modify her personality on the course. She was programmed to be a competitor. Girls don't know how to compete; it's not in their nature. Over time Erica became a fierce competitor. It was my personality being force-fed into her."
Growing up on Long Island, Mel had been taught the game by a transplanted Scot he describes as "real stoic and cold, with very particular ideas about how golf was to be played." Mel competed for Plainview High but says, "I was good, but not that good. I was never quite the player I hoped to be."
He followed his father's footsteps into the car business, settling in Corona—an arid town of 150,000 about 40 miles east of Los Angeles—in part because of the promise of year-round golf weather. One night in 1980 he arranged a meeting with an old acquaintance from New York. She sent Debbie in her place, and a year later they were married. Erica was born three years later. In the late '80s Mel opened his own driving range and by 1990 was teaching golf full time, and he worked his way up to director of instruction at Corona's Eagle Glen Golf Club. Erica became his prized pupil.
Mel's swing theories were influenced by noted golf gurus David Leadbetter and Jim McLean, but his coaching icon was Vince Lombardi. He adopted an old school, confrontational style when teaching his daughter. "I used to get in her face, to try to break her down," he says. Yet Erica never cracked. This little pixie with a ponytail and frilly ribbons in her hair was "tough and strong-willed," says Donnie McGrath, a close friend and pupil of Mel's who lived at Eagle Glen and regularly played there with Erica. "They were often at each other's throats, and she gave it right back to him. If Erica was fed up with Mel, she would pick up her bag and walk away. But the next day they'd be back out there on the range like nothing had happened."
By age 11 Erica had a national profile, thanks to an athletic, repeatable swing and the passion that Mel prized. "She was so fiery," recalls Cho, who was 12 when she first competed against Blasberg. "The rest of us girls were pretty intimidated by her."
To supplement his teaching Mel enlisted the guidance of Derek Hardy, a renowned instructor who had mentored Hall of Famer Beth Daniel and 1986 U.S. Women's Open champ Jane Geddes. Hardy was blown away by Erica's raw talent and mature game. "As far as physical tools, knowledge of how to play golf, the ability to envision shots and then execute them, she was as good as anybody I had ever seen, including Beth," says Hardy, 77. He would become close friends with Mel, but that did not exempt him from tinges of exasperation with the father-daughter dynamic on the practice tee. "I would make suggestions to Erica, and Mel would always comment, 'No, that won't work very well.' So I had to learn to tell Mel what I was seeing and he would translate it for Erica. It worked. It made her better. But it did reinforce this exclusionary relationship they had."
Debbie, too, was often caught in the middle. "I tried to make sure Erica had a normal childhood," she says. "When she was in high school, she went to the proms, to parties, to football games, she went shopping and had sleepovers with friends. But there were definitely a lot of times when it created tension. Mel wanted golf to always be her priority. Erica sometimes struggled to find the right balance between being a kid and being a top golfer."
Erica was heavily recruited by all of the big golf schools, with strong pushes coming from UCLA and USC. But escaping Southern California became increasingly attractive after the Blasbergs' marriage fell apart during her senior year. Erica picked Arizona. "She needed her space from her parents," says Chase Callahan, a friend from Corona who would later become Erica's agent.
Blasberg arrived in Tucson in August 2002, only months after Lorena Ochoa had concluded her record-smashing career there, and the comparisons became inevitable when Erica won in her third collegiate start. She didn't finish outside the top eight for the rest of the season, leading the country in scoring average (72.36) and winning Pac-10 freshman of the year and player of the year honors, all of which earned her a place on the cover of Golfweek. During a cameo at the 2003 Welch's/Fry's Championship, a stop on the LPGA tour, she shot a head-turning 64. In the gallery was Mel, who drove to many of the tournaments. "How can I not say that I lived vicariously through her? I got so much joy watching her play," he says.
Blasberg turned professional in the summer after her sophomore season with a simple goal: "She wanted to be Number 1 in the world," says Cassandra Kirkland, a teammate at Arizona. In her second event as a pro—on the Futures tour, the LPGA's developmental circuit—Blasberg shot a 62, which is still the lowest score relative to par in the tour's history. She won the tournament going away, and the golf world was buzzing. Says Callahan, "We all thought Erica could be a crossover star who would transcend golf and take the sports world by storm. She could have been as big as Maria Sharapova. Erica was beautiful, she was great with people, and she competed with so much fire. People loved to watch her play. When she shot that 62, it was like, O.K., here we go." What no one could possibly know was that Blasberg's best golf was already behind her.
In 1996 and '97 a series of complicated land swaps were consummated between an Arizona developer and the federal government. In exchange for 173 acres of environmentally sensitive land in various parts of Nevada, the Olympia Group received 2,326 acres of desert scrubland at the southern tip of Las Vegas, just west of Interstate 15. The land was miles from the nearest development, but Garry Goett, Olympia's cofounder, fancied himself a latter-day Bugsy Siegel. Goett dreamed of a sprawling housing development that would be like a city unto itself with its own schools and fire stations and parks, a 21st-century, upscale community intertwined by a trail system that encouraged neighborly interaction. At the heart of this development would be an exclusive golf club with a national profile. In less than a decade this vision—dubbed Southern Highlands—sprang seemingly wholly formed from the desert floor, and the salespeople adopted a Capraesque slogan: IT'S A BEAUTIFUL LIFE.
Robert Trent Jones was contracted to design Southern Highlands Golf Club, but his early sketches would be some of the last of his long career as he was felled by a stroke. The work was carried on by his son, Robert Trent Jones Jr., and an impossibly lush dreamscape replete with streams, lakes and waterfalls became reality. With initiation fees of $200,000 and custom homes running well into seven figures, Southern Highlands quickly became home to "the who's who of Las Vegas," says Billy Walters, a prominent course developer in the area.
Hess joined the club 21/2 years ago, but he came in through a side door: His initiation fee was waived in exchange for his services as the club's on-call physician. Still, Hess was accepted by his fellow members, who universally called him Doc Hess. He was noted for having a low-key presence, a relative newcomer to golf who spent a lot of time at the range trying to dig the game's secrets out of the dirt. To other members it seemed that Southern Highlands was an important part of Hess's self-image. "You could see how proud he was to be a member," says a club source. And why not? Every time Hess drove his Mercedes through the club's imposing front gate, it was confirmation that he had finally arrived after a lifetime of striving.
Hess was raised in Chicago, his Nevada license plate serving as an enduring tribute to his favorite baseball team: XCUBSX. After a stint as a Navy corpsman he matriculated at the Ross University School of Medicine, in Dominica, West Indies. In 2003, upon completing his residency at Adventist La Grange (Ill.) Memorial Hospital, Hess moved to Las Vegas to be close to his elderly father. He hung his shingle as a family practitioner, settling in an office a mile from the Strip, in a tidy redbrick building. The waiting-room walls are covered with Norman Rockwell paintings, but these images of Americana are at odds with the surrounding neighborhood. Nearby businesses advertise checks cashed and payday loans. Last February ABC affiliate KTNV did a story about how the Hess Medical Center was in the vanguard of Las Vegas health-care providers offering "concierge" service to patients who were willing to pay a flat fee for around-the-clock access to their physician. Thomas Hess's affiliation with Southern Highlands was a ticket to a more upscale clientele.
For Blasberg, too, Southern Highlands was a transporting experience, a 25-minute drive from her very middle-class neighborhood in Henderson but a world away. Having grown up on scruffy public courses, Blasberg was dazzled by Southern Highlands's exclusivity and accoutrements, which included the best practice facilities in town. Erica had her agent aggressively pursue a relationship with the club and ultimately signed a sweetheart deal: In exchange for putting the club logo on her tour bag and for other considerations, she received a lifetime membership and unlimited meals and use of the spa, gratis. "Erica loved Southern Highlands," says Mel. "It was one of the reasons why she stayed in Vegas."
Blasberg's rookie year on the LPGA, in 2005, did not result in the coronation that many had expected. She made the cut in her first four tournaments but finished in the middle of the pack at each. It was a testament to her looks and reputation that ESPN asked her to wear an on-course microphone for her fifth event, the Chick-fil-A Charity Championship. Blasberg was always comfortable in front of the cameras, so it was no surprise when she opened with a solid 70, the low round of her season to that point. In the scoring tent afterward Blasberg signed her card and then scribbled autographs and posed for pictures with a handful of fans and volunteers. She was about 10 steps outside of the tent when she realized that she was still holding her scorecard. When she turned it in, she was promptly disqualified for having left the scoring area without submitting a card, the kind of ticky-tacky rule that befuddles those outside golf. It was a demoralizing end to what had begun as a heady week. At the next tournament, the Sybase Classic, Blasberg went 69--70 in the second and third rounds to scoot up the leader board. Playing her final hole of the final round she had a chance at a top 20 finish that would move her up the money list and provide some needed momentum. After hooking her drive into the heavy rough at Wykagyl Country Club's par-5 closing hole, she pulled out a hybrid in an ambitious attempt to reach the green. "I'm dying watching her take practice swings," says Mel, who was in his daughter's gallery. "I'm yelling at the trees. I mean, the grass is up to her ankles. No way she can hit a hybrid out of there. She should have had a short-iron in her hands just to get back on the fairway." Sure enough, Erica foozled her second shot only a few yards. Thus rattled, she went on to make a triple bogey and plummet to 37th place. Says Mel, "I honestly feel like these events"—the DQ and the final-hole blowup—"affected her in a profound way. You try to trace how her career unraveled, and it was a lot of little incidents that added up over time."
Blasberg struggled for the rest of the year. She finished 109th on the money list, with $52,522. Still, she remained a hot enough commodity that Puma signed her to a multiyear endorsement deal. The money wasn't that big, but the amount of promotion Puma did was almost unprecedented for an unproven LPGA player. When Blasberg began the 2006 season, she had to have been aware that her new contract had created a certain amount of jealousy and indignation among her colleagues. She then missed the cut in her first five tournaments, the worst slump of her life.
When her game was in a funk, Blasberg tended to withdraw from those close to her. It didn't help that her biggest fan could also be her harshest critic. "If Erica didn't play well, she didn't look forward to talking to her dad because she didn't want to hear about all the things she did wrong that day," says Callahan. "But by not talking to him after a poor round, she also would not give Mel that opportunity to play dad and comfort her and support her. It was a Catch-22 for the two of them." The LPGA schedule did Erica no favors. Debbie was content to go to a few tournaments a year; after the divorce Mel didn't have the financial means to attend many events. With Erica residing near the bottom of the money list—in '06 she would finish 112th, with $62,477—she couldn't afford to fly in her dad or friends for emotional support, unlike other young players who were prospering. "The difference between Erica and, say, Paula Creamer or Natalie Gulbis is that those girls could help their family or friends travel with them every week, so they had them there for the ups and downs and to take their mind off golf when they left the course," says Callahan.
Blasberg had a few boyfriends in high school and a long-term steady throughout college, but the two broke up early in her pro career. For a while she dated a caddie, of whom McGrath says, "She was happier spending time with him than hitting balls alone at the range. She was a young woman who was discovering that there's more to life than golf." Blasberg also had an on-again-off-again relationship with a young man in the financial services industry whom her parents thought highly of. But he was based in Chicago and could only travel sporadically. One of Blasberg's ex-boyfriends agreed to discuss their relationship on the condition of anonymity. He wrote in an e-mail, "She was so giving, generous, strong-willed—all the things you look for in a girlfriend. But I couldn't keep up with her intensity. She could be very difficult to talk to, and it was hard to get her to open up. It was as if Erica put up a wall to anyone who had a chance to get to know the real her. It almost seemed like at times she hated the people she loved. I think it is pretty obvious that this stemmed from her complex relationship with her father. Is he a coach, is he a dad, is he part of her personal life, is he part of her professional life? I really think that growing up and having all these lines blurred made it hard for her to develop emotionally."
Anxiety about her personal and professional lives could account for Blasberg's insomnia, about which she constantly complained. The sleeping pills she took seemed to offer little relief. Cho regularly stayed in a guest bedroom at Blasberg's house. Whenever Cho checked in on her friend, Erica would be propped up in bed, reading, her Yorkshire terrier, Wynston, curled up nearby. Yet Mel recalls Erica once confiding that she had slept for three straight days. Jet lag could have been the cause, or too many sleeping pills. Or it could have been a symptom of depression. In May 2007 Erica withdrew from the Michelob Ultra Open. A couple of days later, on the phone with her father, she blurted out, "I've had it. I'm going to kill myself."
Mel and Debbie flew to the next tour stop, in northern New Jersey, to comfort and confront their daughter. "It was so out of the blue, we didn't know how to react," says Mel. Erica downplayed the comment and insisted that she was O.K. At her parents' insistence, she spoke with a couple of psychologists, but Mel describes those efforts as "halfhearted."
Mel says he initiated discussions with the LPGA and was told that if Erica needed a break from golf for mental-health reasons, she could take the rest of the season off and still retain her playing status. (Tour officials declined to comment for this article, citing the confidentiality of any conversations between players and support staff.) Erica played on. Less than a week after threatening to kill herself, she was back on the LPGA circuit closing out another disappointing season.
In 2008 Blasberg, at last, began to show some on-course progress. At the SBS Open, the first event of the new season, she went 69--68 to take a share of the lead into the final round. Her playing partner would be Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam. But Blasberg couldn't close the deal, shooting a 74 to fade to a tie for eighth, in what would be the best finish of her LPGA career. Mel monitored the telecast from home. "She didn't miss a shot, but she made nothing [on the greens]," he says.
Blasberg's persistently middling results confounded tour cognoscenti who were dazzled by the quality of her ball striking. Cho has an explanation: "When she was swinging the club, she put no pressure on herself—she simply let her talent take over. On the greens, that was where the stress was." Blasberg could be particularly shaky on short putts, an affliction that is more mental than physical.
Blasberg was on the verge of another breakthrough in the summer of 2008, at the Corning Classic, where she again took a share of the lead into the final round. This time she blew up, shooting a 79 that sent her skidding to 37th place. She then missed the cut at eight of the final 12 tournaments.
By last year Blasberg's career was in a free fall: At one point she missed the cut in 11 of 12 starts, and she was regularly acting up on the course. In May, near the beginning of the slump, Erica shot a respectable 71 during the first round of the Sybase Classic but, says Mel, "Never in my life had I seen a person carry on like that. She was slamming clubs, using profanity. She wasn't showing respect for the game or for herself." Near the end of the season he headed north to the CVS/pharmacy LPGA Challenge in Danville, Calif. Again Mel was horrified by his daughter's comportment during an opening 76. "She was acting like a bitch—that's the only way I can describe it," he says. "She was practically spitting at me. On the 9th hole I walked in and went home." They wouldn't speak for the next six months.
At season's end Blasberg had earned only $26,408, but according to Callahan she was sound financially, thanks to continued endorsement income from Puma, Casio, Cleveland Golf and others. Still, the meager tour earnings forced Blasberg back to the LPGA's qualifying tournament to again play for her livelihood. She was suffering from bronchitis when she walked off the course in the middle of the third round. "She'd hit rock bottom," says Mel.
The golf course was not the only place where Blasberg seemed lost. She was amicable with everyone on the LPGA tour, but by all accounts her only real friend was Cho, who moved to Las Vegas in 2009 but spends a lot of time with a serious boyfriend. Says tour veteran Christina Kim, "Everyone on tour liked Erica—she was sweet, she was always smiling. But except for Irene, no one really knew her."
Cho and Blasberg's favorite place to hang out in Henderson was the Balboa Pizza Company, where they would play video poker at the bar. "Guys were constantly hitting on her," says Cho. "Erica attracted so much of that kind of attention, but she kind of laughed it off. She never talked about that part of her life. I don't think I ever heard her say she was going on a date." Blasberg had a reason to be secretive—in the final year of her life she was involved with a wealthy married man twice her age.
The two had a messy breakup around the end of 2009, when apparently he was unwilling to leave his wife for her. If Blasberg was looking for another man to replace him, she had many potential suitors at Southern Highlands, where she had always been a source of keen interest among the graying membership. Says one, "When Erica was at the range, there was never a shortage of guys eager to set up next to her. She's young, she's friendly, she's pretty, she's out in the sun getting hot and sweaty—what's not to like?"
In February 2010 Blasberg sought treatment from Hess for her lingering bronchitis. After that their friendship flowered at Southern Highlands. "We'd practice together and then go play a few holes," says Hess. "She helped me a lot with my game." He was happy to break 100 during their two or three full rounds together.
While Erica was getting healthy and playing a little recreational golf, the new LPGA season began without her. In late March father and daughter finally broke their long silence; when Erica didn't call Mel on his birthday, he rang her. They talked about a lot of things, including golf. After her extended break from the LPGA, Erica was ready to give tournament golf another shot. Mel was ecstatic, and they spent much of April working together. "We had some great practice sessions," says Mel. "She was fired up. And for me the feeling was a little different. I felt more like her father and less like her coach." For her part, Erica seemed more open to her dad's counsel. He suggested that she begin speaking to a sports psychologist, and instead of the usual push back, Erica enthusiastically agreed.
Blasberg's withdrawal from Q school left her with little status on the LPGA tour. To get into most events she would have to go through Monday qualifying, a Darwinian shootout in which dozens of players compete for two spots in that week's tournament. At the end of April, Erica successfully Monday-qualified for the Tres Marias Championship in Morelia, Mexico. She made the cut and finished 44th. While there, Blasberg had a lengthy heart-to-heart with Cho. "The conversation was very positive, and she seemed excited about golf, excited about the season," says Cho. "And we were excited to hang out together."
Blasberg returned to Henderson on May 3 to prepare for the following week's Bell Micro LPGA Classic, which was to be played in Alabama. (On May 9 she was supposed to leave for the Monday qualifier, at which Cho's caddie, Missy Pederson, was going to work for her.) On May 7 she and Hess played golf at Southern Highlands and then met at the M Casino, where they watched a hockey game on TV. He went home to his family, and Blasberg went home alone. At some point near the end of her life, Erica had a couple of confrontational phone calls with the wife of her former lover. On the night of May 8 or early the next morning, Erica tried to text-message the man but failed to execute it properly, and he never received the text. In that same time span, Pederson received a terse text from Blasberg saying she wouldn't be making the trip to Alabama.
Hours later Erica was dead.
From the very beginning the Henderson police were stingy about providing details on the death and subsequent investigation, and rumor-mongering and innuendo have been rampant in this information vacuum. A few days after Erica's body was discovered, Nancy Grace, the CNN Headline News carnival barker, devoted nearly an entire show to the case. Grace reported that Blasberg had been "... possibly smothered to death." One of her guests, lawyer Gloria Allred, wondered, "Was there a sex game involved?"
The speculation was fueled in part by early reports that Blasberg's bags were packed for Alabama and that friends and family had reported her to be in good spirits. Dr. Alane Olson, the Clark County medical examiner who performed the autopsy, says these kind of contradictions are normal in suicides: "When people are at the depths of their depression, they don't have the energy to formulate a plan and carry it out. If you interview the survivors of suicide victims, a common sentiment is, 'But they seemed to be doing better.'"
Olson ruled Blasberg's death a suicide not only by examining the body—there were no signs of foul play or sexual trauma—but also by other evidence, including the two-page note Erica had left behind and additional writings. A police inspection of Blasberg's computer revealed that she had researched suicide methods on the Internet. The toxicology report showed she had alprazolam (an antianxiety medication), temazepam (a sleep aid), butalbital (a migraine medication) and pain relievers codeine, hydrocodone and tramadol in her system. "What all of these drugs have in common is that they produce a sedative effect," says Olson. Rebreathing is a fairly common method of suicide in Clark County, in which 367 people took their lives in 2009. Significant quantities of drugs, usually sedatives, are almost always used by the victims "to put them in a state where the natural inhibition to death is lowered," says Olson. A loose-fitting plastic bag is placed over the head, and a person is slowly poisoned by the exhaled carbon dioxide. The level of drugs in Blasberg's system was toxic, but asphyxia was the primary cause of death.
Henderson police took almost four months to conclude its investigation, and the arrest of Hess on Aug. 24—and the few released details about his quizzical actions—have contributed to the lingering uncertainties surrounding Erica's death. Mel Blasberg has a copy of the note that was recovered from Hess, and he verifies it is his daughter's writing. Erica didn't name any individuals in the note but did write that she felt let down by those she cared about. "Golf is conspicuous in its absence," says Mel. "The only reference she makes is when she says she has no doubt that she can play at a top level, but she's not sure she's willing to make that commitment over and over again."
Hess's life has not been the same since he laid his hands on the suicide note. He is separated from his wife, who has left their practice and moved back to Chicago. (He says the marriage was troubled long before he met Blasberg.) "This has been a very, very hard time," Hess says. "I've lost 20 pounds, I don't sleep. I haven't done anything socially." Mel Blasberg has been a fixture in the media, often disparaging Hess. On the orders of his lawyer, Hess remained silent until the criminal case was resolved. Now he strikes a conciliatory tone. "I have not given interviews because I've tried to respect the family and their loss," he says. "I'm deeply saddened, I really am, for their loss. My heart goes out to them." He has become like a ghost at Southern Highlands.
With the criminal case adjudicated, Mel and Debbie Blasberg are waiting for more information from police before deciding whether to file a claim with the state medical board and pursue a civil lawsuit against Hess. Retribution is only one of their motivations. "We simply want that son of a bitch to tell us what happened that night at Erica's house," Mel says. And yet he has begun to make peace with the hard truth that Erica took many of her secrets to her grave. "She had a dark side. Over time, it became very powerful," Mel says. "But what pushed her over the edge, we'll probably never know."
It is the hollow uncertainty that is so devastating for those Erica left behind. "Did I push her too hard?" Mel asks, his voice cracking slightly. "That question will haunt me for the rest of my life. Every world-class athlete has to give up their childhood to some degree. They're given a special talent, and sometimes they have to be pushed to utilize it. But there's a downside to the quest. There are risks. There's glory and excitement, sure, but there's also a price to pay. When you start out on this journey, you have no idea it can cost you your daughter."
Ask those close to Erica for a favorite memory of her, and golf invariably comes up. Chase Callahan likes to think back to the hole in one she made at the 2005 Sybase Classic. Thanks to a promotion, Blasberg's ace won her a new Mercury Mariner. "She was going crazy, jumping around," says Callahan. "You should have seen her face. The biggest smile in the world. It was pure joy."
Mel goes with a tournament at Stanford during Erica's sophomore year. The Cardinal was one of the only California schools that didn't recruit Blasberg, and she always used it for motivation; the previous year at Stanford she had won her first collegiate tournament. The next season Blasberg was struggling with her game in the final round. "She went ballistic at the turn," says Mel. "She threw a water bottle, and it exploded with a shower of water. Her playing partners went running away, they were so scared." Erica made a slew of back-nine birdies and pulled out an unlikely victory. Mel has a tape of an interview his daughter gave afterward in which she credits the win to "staying levelheaded out there." It makes him laugh every time.
Most of Cho's reveries do not concern golf. Hanging out with Blasberg meant an endless series of small amusements. "She was a goofball," says Cho. "She had a lot of blonde moments." One of their favorite things to do was take Wynston for long walks through Erica's neighborhood. That part of Henderson is high on a hill, with sweeping views of the Las Vegas Valley. The eye naturally settles on the Strip—blinding in its brilliance and offering so much promise. But look beyond and it's nothing but desert, barren and lonely.
"WE ALL THOUGHT ERICA COULD BE A CROSSOVER STAR WHO WOULD TRANSCEND GOLF," SAYS CALLAHAN.
HESS SAYS HE WAS SO DISTRAUGHT THAT HE MADE A RASH DECISION THAT WOULD FOREVER CLOUD ERICA'S DEATH.
"EVERYONE ON TOUR LIKED ERICA," SAYS CHRISTINA KIM. "BUT EXCEPT FOR IRENE, NO ONE REALLY KNEW HER."
"WE JUST WANT THAT SON OF A BITCH TO TELL US WHAT HAPPENED AT ERICA'S HOUSE," MEL BLASBERG SAYS OF HESS.
"DID I PUSH HER TOO HARD?" MEL BLASBERG ASKS. "THAT QUESTION WILL HAUNT ME FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE."
Photograph by NICK UT/AP
LASTING IMAGE Friends and her father say they saw signs of a renewed passion for the game in the weeks, even days, before Blasberg committed suicide.
COURTESY OF DEBBIE BLASBERG
TEENAGE DREAM Mel drove Erica hard, and as a college freshman she led the country in scoring and became one of the game's most promising young faces.
COURTESY OF GOLFWEEK
[See caption above]
COURTESY OF DEBBIE BLASBERG
POPULAR SENTIMENT Cho (far left) says that Blasberg did not lack for suitors when they went out, but that did not keep her from spending time with married men.
COURTROOM DRAMA Mel Blasberg (seated) got his first look at Hess during sentencing last week and was upset that the doctor showed no remorse.