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Unhappy wife of prominent Hernando doctor brutally slain before Blackburn instructed office manager, shot himself

BROOKSVILLE — After months of gathering her courage, Sarah Blackburn finally told her husband, Robert, that she was going to leave him. The divorce papers were ready to be filed.

Sarah Blackburn told a friend in a text message that she was "very frustrated and sad" but ready to leave. Her husband, she confided, was "killing her emotionally and mentally.''

The friends made plans to meet and talk about the big move.

But by Sunday, Sarah Blackburn, 40, was dead.

Investigators said her husband, a prominent osteopathic family physician who treated some of Hernando County's elite, viciously killed his wife Sunday — beating her, strangling her and shooting her once in the head.

Blackburn, 55, then summoned his longtime office manager to his sprawling mansion on Laurel Oak Drive in the gated Lake in the Woods community.

He told Ruth Hoock that his wife had wanted to ruin him and take their two children. He said that she had attacked him, so he killed her. Blackburn then showed Hoock where important family papers were kept, asked her to ensure the kids were looked after and told her he intended to kill himself.

He then forced her from the home.

While Hoock called 911, Blackburn shot himself dead.

The couple's children, a 15-year-old daughter and a middle-school-aged son, were not home at the time.

Hoock, 51, arrived about 12:50 p.m. Blackburn let her in, showed her a small knife wound he had received, and said Sarah had threatened to take everything he owned.

Blackburn said he was going to kill himself, and Hoock told investigators she tried to stop him. But he forced her outside.

Sitting outside in her pickup truck, Hoock called 911. In a trembling voice, she described the stunning events as she waited for deputies to arrive.

Inside, they found both bodies in the master bedroom closet.

A medical examiner's report indicated that Sarah Blackburn suffered extensive blunt force to the chest, arms and face; multiple cuts on her face; a broken right collarbone; a broken sternum; broken ribs; a lacerated liver and heart; strangulation; and a gunshot wound to the head.

The autopsy showed Blackburn died from a single gunshot wound to the head. He had a minor wound on his chest, and detectives found a 2 ¼-inch bladed instrument near the bodies.

For many in Hernando County, the brutal crime could not have been further removed from the couple's public image of familial bliss.

Sarah Blackburn's friends spoke of a mother who cared for the couple's two children and maintained the family home despite the persistent absence of her husband.

"That's how it usually is with most physicians' spouses but especially with Dr. Blackburn," said Diane Visnaw, a friend and wife of a local surgeon. "She ran the house and took care of her children. That was her life. That was her joy."

In addition to caring for the family, Sarah Blackburn managed the couple's many rental properties, maintained a license as an X-ray technician and worked out regularly. She was frequently at her husband's side at local functions and gatherings.

But as the couple neared their 17th year of marriage, friends say Sarah Blackburn wanted out.

"She was very unhappy with the home situation and definitely wanted out of the marriage," friend Kris Lombardi said. ''She said (Robert) was killing her emotionally and mentally. Her situation always sounded grave."

At some point in recent months, Sarah Blackburn told her husband that she was going to file for divorce. In response, Lombardi said, Robert Blackburn tried to woo her into staying. But Sarah Blackburn had already made up her mind.

Meanwhile, Blackburn maintained his demanding work schedule. His friends and associates said they had no clue about the turmoil at home.

"He was just his typical bubbly, upbeat self,'' said County Commission Chairman Dave Russell, who saw the doctor on Friday at the special breakfast in Brooksville for Attorney General Bill McCollum.

As the personal physician for a number of Hernando officials, including Russell, Blackburn built a solid reputation through his thriving medical practice, tireless community involvement and political connections.

He was medical director for Hernando County Fire Rescue, Spring Hill Fire Rescue, the Brooksville Fire Department and the Hernando County Jail. He was also chairman of the county's Health Care Advisory Board; founded Access Hernando, which provided free health care to the needy; and last year was appointed president of the Florida Osteopathic Medical Association.

"Whatever he did, he did it compassionately," said Dennis Wilfong, a friend and local businessman. "Treating patients wasn't just a job for him. It was in his heart."

But there were hints that the dynamic doctor struggled with his temper: He was one of eight doctors who confronted a Hindu doctor for saying the United States had gotten what it deserved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks; Blackburn filed a civil suit against another doctor in 2002 for "repeated violence"; and other associates and friends spoke of an abrasive man who had little problem instigating loud arguments.

That tendency seemingly spilled over in a final confrontation with his wife.

In her 911 call, Hoock told a dispatcher that Blackburn had told her that a domestic dispute had gotten out of hand.

"He lost his temper," said Hoock, her voice wavering. "And he killed her."

Times staffers Barbara Behrendt, Tony Marrero, correspondent Sharry Lynn Marshall and Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Joel Anderson can be reached at joelanderson@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6120.

Unhappy wife of prominent Hernando doctor brutally slain before Blackburn instructed office manager, shot himself 01/11/10 [Last modified: Monday, January 11, 2010 11:31pm]
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