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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) 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.

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, ) 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, )

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)."

John Brickman Wall, the ex-husband of a woman found dead in her Sugar House home in September 2011, makes his initial appearance at the Matheson Courthouse on Tuesday, April 30, 2013.  (Francisco Kjolseth) John Brickman Wall, the ex-husband of a woman found dead in her Sugar House home in September 2011, makes his initial appearance at the Matheson Courthouse on Tuesday, April 30, 2013. (Francisco Kjolseth)

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.

John Wall, the doctor accused of killing his ex-wife Uta von Schwedler, appears in 4th District Court in Salt Lake City Monday May 20, 2013, for a hearing to lower his bail. (Al Hartmann) John Wall, the doctor accused of killing his ex-wife Uta von Schwedler, appears in 4th District Court in Salt Lake City Monday May 20, 2013, for a hearing to lower his bail. (Al Hartmann)

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.

Uta von Schwedler, 49, was found dead in her Salt Lake home on Sept. 27, 2011, and police are investigating her death as a possible homicide.  (Handout photo) Uta von Schwedler, 49, was found dead in her Salt Lake home on Sept. 27, 2011, and police are investigating her death as a possible homicide. (Handout photo)

"'Xanax? What's that?'" she said was Wall's reply. Brickey thought his response was very "odd" considering he was a doctor.

At another point in their conversation, Wall told Brickey that police believed he killed his ex-wife. Brickey asked if he had.

"'I don't know. If I did, I don't know. Only a monster would do these things,'" Brickey said Wall told her. "I started to think, 'Wow, this is a big deal.'"

During cross-examination, Brickey admitted that Wall never said he had harmed von Schwedler.

The majority of Parks' testimony focused on the crime scene inside von Schwedler's house. Based on what he saw, Parks believes someone went into her room, closed the blinds, turned on the light and tried to "clean up" after her death.

John Brickman Wall, a Salt Lake pediatrician charged in 3rd District Court with first-degree felony counts of murder and aggravated burglary in connection with the October 2011 death of his ex-wife, Uta von Schwedler, is brought into court, Wednesday, October 2, 2013. (Scott Sommerdorf) John Brickman Wall, a Salt Lake pediatrician charged in 3rd District Court with first-degree felony counts of murder and aggravated burglary in connection with the October 2011 death of his ex-wife, Uta von Schwedler, is brought into court, Wednesday, October 2, 2013. (Scott Sommerdorf)

"I thought it was a staged crime scene," he said.

Von Schwedler's blood was found on her bed sheet, a towel, tank top and comforter. The bed sheet and tank top, in particular, had "saturation blood stains," Parks said, indicating signficant bleeding. The blood patterns in some areas indicated "frantic motion," he said.

On the kitchen floor and in von Schwedler's bedroom, there were faint blood stains that appeared to be in the form of a shoe print. There were also blood stains on the bathroom sink that looked like someone had tried to wipe them off. Parks said the apparent shoe prints "have not been matched to any shoes."

During cross-examination, however, Metos suggested that it was not a "pristine" crime scene as firefighters and police officers walked through the house prior to evidence being collected.

Defense attorney Fred Metos listens to testimony during the three-day preliminary hearing for John Brickman Wall, a Salt Lake pediatrician charged in 3rd District Court with first-degree felony counts of murder and aggravated burglary in connection with the October 2011 death of his ex-wife, Uta von Schwedler, Wednesday, October 2, 2013 (Scott Sommerdorf) Defense attorney Fred Metos listens to testimony during the three-day preliminary hearing for John Brickman Wall, a Salt Lake pediatrician charged in 3rd District Court with first-degree felony counts of murder and aggravated burglary in connection with the October 2011 death of his ex-wife, Uta von Schwedler, Wednesday, October 2, 2013 (Scott Sommerdorf)

Parks said a significant piece of evidence to him was von Schwedler's calendar that had her upcoming San Diego vacation clearly marked. "Suicidal people don't make future plans and they don't buy plane tickets," he said.

Emily Jeski, of Sorenson Forensics, testified that a partial DNA profile collected from von Schwedler's fingernails could not exclude John Wall. DNA testing of the pillow and comforter in von Schwedler's house also found profiles that matched Wall.

But the DNA evidence collected from the fingernails and comforter also could not exclude others, including von Schwedler's children, Jeski said during cross-examination.

Considering that von Schwedler was in water for a long time, Jeski said she was surprised that any DNA evidence could be collected from her fingernails. Prosecutors raised the hypothesis that it might be because von Schwedler had a large chunk of DNA under her fingernails to begin with, which might have come from scratching someone during a struggle.

John Brickman Wall, a Salt Lake pediatrician charged in 3rd District Court with first-degree felony counts of murder and aggravated burglary in connection with the October 2011 death of his ex-wife, Uta von Schwedler, listens to testimo (Scott Sommerdorf) John Brickman Wall, a Salt Lake pediatrician charged in 3rd District Court with first-degree felony counts of murder and aggravated burglary in connection with the October 2011 death of his ex-wife, Uta von Schwedler, listens to testimo (Scott Sommerdorf)

The day after von Schwedler's body was found, police noted two scratches above and below Wall's left eye.

Wall, who had a bitter divorce with von Schwedler and continued to have a stormy relationship with her up until her death, is charged with murder and aggravated burglary, first-degree felonies. Both sides are expected to give closing arguments Thursday. Third District Judge Robin Reese will decide whether there is enough evidence to order Wall to stand trial on the charges.

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