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Doctor charged in Erica Blasberg suicide denies sexual relationship

Photo: Kyle Auclair/Getty Images

Erica Blasberg was found dead in her home in Henderson, Nev., on May 9.

Dr. Thomas Hess, the physician who pleaded guilty to obstruction charges in connection with the May 9 suicide of LPGA golfer Erica Blasberg, has denied having had a sexual relationship with the golfer.

"My right hand to God, on the life of my daughter, I never had sex with her. We were friends," Hess told Sports Illustrated.

Hess, who made his first public comments in the magazine's Dec. 13 issue, said that he had not spoken publicly during the criminal case on his lawyer's advice.

"I have not given interviews because I've tried to respect the family and their loss," Hess said. "I'm deeply saddened, I really am, for their loss. My heart goes out to them."

The story, "The Mystery of Erica Blasberg," written by Sports Illustrated senior writer Alan Shipnuck, reconstructs Blasberg's final months and attempts to explain why someone with so much to live for took her own life.

Blasberg, 25, was found dead May 9 with a plastic bag over her head at her home in Henderson, Nev. That method of suicide is known as asphyxia through re-breathing. Hess, who had become friendly with Blasberg at the exclusive Southern Highlands Golf Club, had seen Blasberg at her home on the night of May 8. He told Sports Illustrated that he visited Blasberg because he had spoken to her on the phone and she sounded drunk.

"She was a friend who seemed like she needed help," Hess said.

Hess told Sports Illustrated that he poured out all the liquor bottles in Blasberg's home and stayed with her for two hours, watching television and chipping golf balls in the backyard. He said there were no warning signs that Blasberg was considering suicide.

"Nothing. Nothing at all," Hess said.

The autopsy report found a mix of prescription drugs in Blasberg's system, but no alcohol.

After he left Blasberg, Hess went home to his daughter and wife. According to phone records provided to Blasberg's family by the Henderson police, Blasberg tried to reach Hess at 3:35 a.m. From 6:12 a.m. to 6:35 a.m., Hess called Blasberg eight times without getting through. He didn't try to call again for eight hours. At 3 p.m., he went to Blasberg's house. After entering through an unlocked door, he found Blasberg dead in her bed. Hess then removed a note and a package of Xanax from the house.

"I know [taking the note and pills] was stupid, but I was trying to save some embarrassment for her," Hess said in a court affidavit. "The whole thing was a fuzz for me."

Hess's removal of evidence from the scene and the Henderson Police Department's reluctance to share information with the media led to wild speculation in the days following Blasberg's death, especially since early reports said that her bags were packed for an LPGA tournament in Alabama that week and that friends and family had said she was in good spirits, according to the Sports Illustrated article.

However, Dr. Alane Olson, the Clark County, Nev., medical examiner who conducted the autopsy, told Sports Illustrated that such 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 said.

Olson ruled Blasberg's death a suicide after her autopsy found no signs of foul play or sexual trauma. Police also discovered that Blasberg had researched suicide methods on the Internet. The toxicology report showed she had alprazolam (an anti-anxiety medication), temazepam (a sleep aid), butalbital (a migraine medication) and pain relievers codeine, hydrocodone and tramadol in her system, according to Sports Illustrated.

According to a lawyer for Mel Blasberg, Erica's father, Hess had prescribed medication for Erica, and Mel told Sports Illustrated that he believes Hess took the note and the pills to avoid being implicated in her death. Police found the note and the Xanax, which had a label that indicated it was from Mexico, in the trunk of Hess's car. Last week, Hess pleaded guilty to resisting a public officer and received one year's probation and 40 hours of community service.

Hess declined to tell Sports Illustrated whether he prescribed medication for Erica, citing doctor-patient confidentiality. While the misdemeanor charge against Hess will be dismissed upon successful completion of his probation, he still faces more fallout from Blasberg's death. His wife, a fellow doctor who has shared their small Henderson practice, has left him and moved to Chicago. Meanwhile, Erica's parents, 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 suit against Hess.

"We simply want that son of a bitch to tell us what happened that night at Erica's house," Mel Blasberg told Sports Illustrated.

Mel said that he believes 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," Blasberg said. "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."

The Sports Illustrated story also uncovers new information about Erica Blasberg's troubled life. After a storied college career at the University of Arizona, Blasberg struggled on the LPGA Tour, which can be a lonely place for a young woman. According to Sports Illustrated, Blasberg had threatened to kill herself in May 2007. A few days after withdrawing from the Michelob Ultra Open, she told her father, "I've had it. I am going to kill myself."

Mel Blasberg said that he and his wife flew to the next LPGA Tour stop to be with Erica and insisted she speak with a couple of psychologists. She did, but Mel called those efforts "half-hearted." Erica continued to struggle on the Tour, missing the cut in 11 of 12 starts in 2009. Suffering from bronchitis, she walked off the course in the middle of the third round of the LPGA qualifying tournament in late 2009.

Erica had personal troubles as well. According to Sports Illustrated, Erica was having an affair with a wealthy married man twice her age, and the two had a messy breakup around the end of 2009. Near the end of her life, Erica had a couple of confrontational phone calls with the wife of her former lover, Sports Illustrated reported. On the night of May 8 or early the next morning, Erica tried to send a text message to the man, but she failed to send it properly and the man never received it.

Mel Blasberg told Sports Illustrated that he is beginning to make peace with the fact that the reasons behind his daughter's suicide will always remain shrouded.

"Did I push her too hard?" Mel said. "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."

The Dec. 13 issue of Sports Illustrated is available on newsstands this week and available for download on iTunes now.

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