Xanax becomes focus in case of pediatrician charged with murder

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 2 2013 1:20 p.m. MDT

John Wall, the doctor accused of killing his ex-wife Uta von Schwedler appears in Fourth District Court in Salt Lake City Monday May 20, 2013 for a hearing to lower his bail.

Al Hartmann

SALT LAKE CITY — If high levels of Xanax had not been found in Uta von Schwedler's body, the Utah State Medical Examiner's Office would have classified her manner of death as a homicide.

That was the testimony of an assistant medical examiner Wednesday during the second day of a preliminary hearing for John Brickman Wall, 51. Dr. Erik Christensen's testimony focused on two of the biggest questions surrounding the death of Wall's ex-wife: Was her death a homicide or a suicide? And how did high levels of Xanax get in her system?

Von Schwedler, 49, was found dead in an overflowing bathtub in her home at 1433 E. Harrison Ave. (1625 South) on Sept. 27, 2011. The cause of death was determined to be drowning. But the manner of death could not be determined.

Christensen, who performed the autopsy, said there was evidence that pointed to both homicide and suicide as possibilities. The only thing he felt confident ruling out was that von Schwedler's death was an accident.

Von Schwedler had cutting or stabbing injuries on her wrists and her left leg. The injuries were in an area typical with suicide attempts, Christensen said. But the types of cuts were not commonly found in suicides.

"This is more almost of a carving than a cut," Christensen said of a large gash on her wrist. Likewise, a cut on her left leg was a superficial injury in an upward angle.

"I've never seen anything like this in a suicide," he said.

Christensen acknowledged the von Schwedler also did not have a history of suicidal thoughts and was not known to be depressed. But what prevented him from declaring von Schwedler's death a homicide was the "toxic to potentially lethal" amount of Xanax found in her system.

"I don't have a good answer for that," he said. "I'm not comfortable saying it couldn't be (suicide)."

Von Schwedler's family is adamant that the University of Utah scientist did not commit suicide, did not take Xanax and did not have a prescription for it. Christensen testified that the levels of Xanax found in von Schwedler's liver indicated she was not a chronic user of the drug.

During questioning, attorneys on both sides went over myriad ways that the Xanax could have ended up in her system. Defense attorney Fred Metos noted that there were no obvious signs of von Schwedler being restrained or that the medication had been forced into her mouth.

Prosecutor Anna Rossi raised the possibility that it could have been injected into von Schwedler and the puncture mark was covered up by one of her stab wounds. Christensen said there were no obvious signs of an injection.

Rossi also hinted at another theory that Wall, an accomplished pediatrician, knows how to get people who didn't want to take medication to successfully take it.

Wall, wearing a dark blue jail jumpsuit, took notes as he listened to the testimony and looked at autopsy photos that were projected onto a screen for the court to see.

A person who did have a prescription to Xanax was Wall, Salt Lake police detective Cordon Parks testified. Parks, a veteran homicide investigator, was the lead detective in the case.

Parks said Wall had written prescriptions for Xanax to himself and his mother. What he found odd about the prescription to his mother, which was filled right before von Schwedler's death, was that it was for an amount much larger than what the doctor prescribed himself.

Adding to the mystery, family friend Andrea Brickey testified Wednesday that she found Wall face down on his bed, sobbing, after he returned home from being questioned by Salt Lake police. Brickey, trying to calm him, asked if he had any Xanax in the house.

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