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Ex-husband charged with murder in death of University of Utah scientist

Published: Thursday, April 25 2013 12:05 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — For nearly two years, Pelle Wall has been convinced that his father killed his mother.

On Thursday, the 19-year-old said he "got an excellent phone call" from family friend Amy Oglesby in Salt Lake City telling him that his father, John Brickman Wall, had been charged with murder and arrested.

"I think my initial reaction was sort of disbelief," said Pelle Wall, who attends college in California.

"I had to make sure it was actually real after waiting so many months. I think it's still hitting me. It will take maybe a day or a week for it to sink in," he told the Deseret News on Thursday.

John Wall, 49, who for two years has been a person of interest in the death of his ex-wife, Uta von Schwedler, was arrested and charged in 3rd District Court with criminal homicide and aggravated burglary, both first-degree felonies. He was arrested early Thursday as he drove to work.

"Our office has never given up on this case," Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said. "And I know in a conversation with (Salt Lake City Police) Chief (Chris) Burbank nearly a year ago, he had not given up on it, neither."

Salt Lake City police detective Mike Hamideh said a traffic stop was initiated at 875 E. 900 South about 8:20 a.m. Law enforcement officers, with an arrest warrant in hand, took Wall into custody without incident.

Hamideh said investigators working with the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office had planned to arrest Wall away from his home so his children were not present.

Two of Wall's children, ages 13 and 11, who were living with him at the time of his arrest, were taken into protective custody by their guardian ad litem.

After Wall's arrest, Salt Lake police executed a search warrant on his residence, 676 S. 1200 East. Wall was being held Thursday in the Salt Lake County on $1.5 million bail.

Nils Abramson, von Schwedler's boyfriend at the time of her death, happened to be driving by Wall's house as the warrant was being executed and saw the yellow police tape surrounding his house.

"I was happy. I knew that it was finally going to go down," Abramson said. "There was no other reason why they would be there unless they had arrested him and done a full search of the house. There's a lot of hiccups in the case and a lot of things that should have been done (sooner). … But I was very very happy to see it happen."

Ever since her body was found in an overflowing bathtub in her house, 1433 E. Harrison Ave. (1625 South), on Sept. 27, 2011, von Schwedler's family has been vocal about their belief that Wall was responsible for her death.

Pelle Wall, the oldest son of Wall and von Schwedler, said he immediately flew back to Salt Lake City after hearing of his father's arrest. His biggest priority, he said, was making sure his brothers and sisters were taken care of.

As for his father being charged with murdering his mother, he said it really isn't that difficult for him.

"Frankly, I don't have any sort of positive emotional connection with my father," he said. "So I'm not sad or upset or anything that he's arrested. My emotions are on the other end of the spectrum."

Oglesby, who helped Pelle Wall leave his father's house after he turned 18, concurred that the arrest was "a great big sense of relief that this day is finally here."

Her concern Thursday was also the care of von Schwedler and Wall's children.

"As sad as it may be, the day that they lost their mother was also the day they lost their father," Oglesby said.

Abramson said none of von Schwedler's friends ever gave up hope that this day would come.

"It wasn't just one person that made this happen. It's kind of a testament to Uta and all of her friends," he said. "There were a lot of people, dozens, who would never let this go."

Gill acknowledged Thursday the huge cooperative effort between his office and Salt Lake City police. But he said the charges were based on the evidence, not public pressure.

"It is the evidence that drives this. This has been a very difficult investigation," he said.

For the past several months, the district attorney's homicide team and homicide detectives from the Salt Lake City Police Department have worked together to investigate the case.

"This is something that people have worked, just like difficult cases are supposed to be done. They require a diligent commitment, persistence and critical examination of everything, and that sometimes is hard work," Gill said. "This is how police work is supposed to be done. This is how you take on complex matters."

The case

Initially, investigators questioned whether von Schwedler's death was a suicide or homicide. The Utah State Medical Examiner's Office determined the cause of death was drowning, but also that she had a "fatal or near fatal amount of Xanax in her body," according to charging documents.

The medical examiner said at the time the manner of death "could not be determined." It was also noted that there were no signs of forced entry into the house.

Family members, however, insisted that von Schwedler did not commit suicide and said that the 49-year-old University of Utah researcher did not take prescription medication.

"We were told so many times in the beginning, 'The case is closing. The case is closing. It's a suicide.' None of us ever believed that," Abramson said Thursday.

Investigators found evidence of a struggle in von Schwedler's bedroom, according to court records. They found blood in several areas on the bed. A blood pattern expert determined "Uta struggled with another person in the bedroom and on her bed prior to her death," charging documents stated.

According to charging documents, DNA found under von Schwedler's fingernails could not rule John Wall out as a suspect. And a mixture of his DNA was found on the pillow in von Schwedler's bedroom.

"The things that are important are the DNA evidence, the blood evidence, and there's some other evidence that we have that we have not made part of our probable cause (statement)," Gill said.

In earlier reports from court documents, search warrants and the medical examiner, incomplete footprints in blood were found on the floor leading away from the bedroom. Blood was also found on the edge of a sink and windowsill in the bathroom.

Fresh scratches were found on von Schwedler's eyes and face.

Wall, a doctor, wrote a prescription for 30 Xanax tablets for his mother in May 2011 and filled the prescription himself, according to court documents, but he did not document any patient-client relationship prior to writing the prescription.

Some of the biggest red flags for von Schwedler's family, however, were raised by Wall himself in his words and actions.

In an interview with police following his ex-wife's death, Wall said, "Only a monster would do what was done to Uta. If it was me, I don't remember," charging documents state.

Wall went to work with a bad eye injury on the day von Schwedler's body was found, according to a search warrant. He was told to leave work to get his eye checked, but instead went to a car wash business.

Employees there told detectives that Wall seemed "agitated and acted strangely," the warrant states. He told them to clean a 3-by-6-inch pink colored stain on the carpet behind the driver's seat.

Pelle Wall said in court documents that when he and his siblings awoke early on the morning of Sept. 27, their father and his car were not at home. Later that afternoon, the son "observed a scratch across Dr. Wall's eye and blood in the conjunctiva," court records state.

When Pelle Wall filed a petition in court to have his siblings removed from his father's house, he revealed that he was so fearful of his father after his mother's death that he slept with a knife under his pillow.

More questioning

After John Wall was questioned the first time by police, he returned home that night and "his demeanor was frightening," his son said in the petition. "He rocked back and forth, cried, and was emotionally out of control, crying, 'I want my mom.'"

According to the petition, he further made statements to his children such as, "Am I monster?" "How am I supposed to know what I do when I'm asleep?" "What if I did it and I don't remember?"

Wall also asked his children to stay with him "so he wouldn't jump," court records state. His "extreme emotional distress" continued as his children found him "laying on the bed in a fetal position making strange statements." He was eventually admitted to the University Neuropsychiatric Institute.

While visiting his father at the institute, Pelle Wall said his father made several statements about police and their investigation, including, "If they find my phone there, how can I refute that?" court records state.

Prior to her death, John Wall and von Schwedler had been involved in a bitter divorce in 2006. Wall told several people prior to von Schwedler's death that she was ruining his life and that "she was to blame for his problems," according to court records. On another occasion, Wall said he would be OK "if Uta wasn't around anymore," according to to the charges.

After von Schwedler's death, the court battles continued between the embattled Wall and members of von Schwedler's family, including his own children. When Pelle Wall turned 18, he moved out of his father's house and filed a petition to have his three siblings removed from the house until the investigation into his father was completed.

When Pelle's sister turned 17, she too moved out. The two remaining children were temporarily removed from John Wall's house in 2012, but returned in February despite a protest from von Schwedler's family.

Abramson said he and von Schwedler's sister even went to Utah lawmakers asking them to consider a bill similar to the Charlie and Braden Powell bill in Washington that called for the children of murder suspects to be removed from a home until a case is resolved.

"If somebody's a suspect, they shouldn't have their kids," he said.

Hamideh emphasized Thursday that his office never gave up on the investigation.

"A case like this is a big case. We do it methodically," he said.

And even though there was a period where there seemed to be no police action happening publicly, "this is a perfect example of no homicide is ever closed," Hamideh said. "It was never not active."

Email: preavy@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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