SALT LAKE CITY — A man accused of killing his ex-wife appeared before a judge for the first time Tuesday.
Johnny Brickman Wall, 49, wore a red jumpsuit, his hair unruly and his face sad as he stood before 3rd District Judge Su Chon. Wall waived a reading of the charges against him, which are murder and aggravated burglary, first-degree felonies, and stem from the death of his ex-wife, Uta von Schwedler.
Von Schwedler, a 49-year-old University of Utah scientist, was found dead in an overflowing bathtub in her Salt Lake City home on Sept. 27, 2011. The cause of death was determined by the medical examiner to be drowning, but it was also found that she had a "fatal or near fatal amount of Xanax in her body," according to charging documents.
Because of many suspicious circumstances found in the home and during her autopsy, the manner of von Schwedler's death — whether it was homicide or suicide — could not be determined.
Wall's defense attorney, Fred Metos, said that while it is early in the court process, it appears the case will be "intensive on forensic evidence." Establishing a motive will also be interesting, Metos said, because the custody issue he says is inferred as a motive in charging documents "is just absolutely wrong."
"There was no change in custody status, so whatever motive they're attaching to, that doesn't exist," he said.
Metos said there had been a custody evaluation agreed upon by Wall and von Schwedler, but that it had not yet been completed.
"In the first part of the probable cause statement, there is an allegation that Ms. von Schwedler had prevailed in a domestic case involving the custody of the children," Metos said. "That's not true. There was no change in status. There was no ruling against (Wall)."
Wall and von Schwedler had four children together. They divorced in 2006 and had bitter court battles over custody of their children up until the time of her death.
The court battles continued after von Schwedler's death. The legal issues included custody of the children, management of von Schwedler's estate, and complaints that the children — who were living with Wall after their mother's death — were not allowed to have contact with anyone from their mother's side of the family.
Pelle Wall, 19, who has long been convinced that his father killed his mother, moved out of his father's house when he turned 18. He then petitioned the courts to have his siblings also removed from the house until the police investigation into his mother's death was completed.
When Pelle Wall'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.
The children are currently staying with a family who is neither related nor a part of the state child custody system, according to attorney Rebecca Hyde Skordas. She said they have been in touch with both Pelle Wall and their mother's sister.
"They're doing relatively well, all things considered," Skordas said. "There are many people willing to come forward and provide a good environment and a good home for these children."
Pelle Wall attended the hearing Tuesday and spoke briefly afterward.
"I just want to once again express my gratitude and relief at this day, that this day has finally come," he said. "I want to thank the District Attorney's Office, as well as the Salt Lake City Police Department, for their excellent work. We support them and we look forward to a swift prosecution and, ultimately, justice for my mother."
Though there was no sign of a forced entry at her home, 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.
He also apparently made some odd statements and acted strangely to the point that he was admitted to the University Neuropsychiatric Institute, court records state. Metos said many of these comments were taken out of context or, according to some witnesses, were not said as recounted in the charging documents.
Metos said Wall maintains that he is not guilty and intends to enter a plea of not guilty when given the chance.
Nils Abramson, von Schwedler's boyfriend at the time of her death, was also at the hearing and said he was "happy and relieved" that her children are safe. He said he isn't necessarily looking for justice in the case so much as closure.Comment on this story
Abramson said the entire process has been "ongoing" since von Schwedler's death and that he has found some justice in the charges in that they confirm the belief her family and friends held that her death was not a suicide. He said the people who continue to support von Schwedler and attend the hearings for Wall and her children speak to her character.
"It's a testament to how she was with all of her friends," Abramson said. "She had lots and lots of friends who cared about her and she cared about them, and she would be fighting the same way if it was one of her friends."
A preliminary hearing in Wall's case has been set for May 13.