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Murder or suicide? Trial begins for doctor accused of killing ex-wife

SALT LAKE CITY — Was Uta von Schwedler so depressed that she ingested large amounts of Xanax, cut herself and committed suicide in her bathtub? Or was she murdered by her ex-husband, Dr. Johnny Brickman Wall?

That's what a six-woman, six-man jury will be asked to decide over the next four weeks.

The trial against Wall began Wednesday, nearly 3 ½ years after von Schwedler was found dead in her Salt Lake home. Wall, 51, is charged with murder, a first-degree felony.

During opening arguments, Salt Lake County deputy district attorney Anna Rossi told jurors that the case is largely circumstantial but said the evidence against him is also "overwhelming."

"You will be asked to determine if this was a homicide or a suicide. And the evidence will show this was a homicide," she said.

The couple's bitter divorce and custody battle was the root of Wall's growing depression, which gave way to anger when his second wife left him, Rossi said. They fought over their four children, money and the photo albums von Schwedler made of her children.

"He started plotting ways to make her life more difficult," she said.

Defense attorney Fred Metos countered during his hourlong opening statement by telling the jury not to "leave your common sense at the door."

Metos said while prosecutors will pick and choose what evidence to present, he told jurors to look at the totality of the evidence and reminded them they are expected to presume his client is innocent.

Scratches found on Wall's face the next day were made by his dog, not von Schwedler trying to defend herself from an attack, he said. A stain that he paid to have cleaned out of his car the morning she was found dead was made by a burrito spill, not blood, Metos said.

He suggested that it was von Schwedler who was upset with Wall the night before she was found dead and she was the one possibly taking medication for depression.

Metos also raised questions about Nils Abramson, von Schwedler's boyfriend at the time of her death. He told jurors they would hear the 911 call he made after discovering von Schwedler's body and told them to note what he described as no sense of urgency or distress in his voice.

"It's not, 'Help me, help me,'" he said. "It's this sort of cold, almost calculated, 'I'm covering my butt.'"

Metos also argued that Abramson seemed to distance himself from the crime scene, as if he were making an alibi.

Abramson was the first person called to the witness stand Wednesday and the 911 call he placed was played for the jury.

"I don't know what happened, she's in the bathtub," Nils said in a slightly excited but not hysterical voice. "She's not breathing, she's dead. I know what dead looks like. I was an EMT."

Von Schwedler, 49, a University of Utah researcher, was discovered in an overflowing bathtub in her home at 1433 E. Harrison Ave. (1625 South) on Sept. 27, 2011. A knife was found under her body in the bathtub. A scrapbook of her children was found in the bathtub, too. There were no signs of forced entry into the home.

The cause of death was determined to be drowning. But the manner of death could not be determined. Because of "toxic to potentially lethal" amounts of Xanax found in her system, the medical examiner could not rule out the possibility of suicide.

Von Schwedler was a happy person who loved life and did not take Xanax, Rossi said. She did not have a prescription for the antidepressant drug, had never been known to use it and did not have a history of suicidal thoughts. No Xanax was found inside her house after her death. If not for the Xanax, Rossi said the medical examiner would have declared the case a homicide right away.

She said Wall, however, wrote a large prescription for Xanax in his mother's name that he picked up himself a few months before his ex-wife's death.

Abramsom testified Wednesday how things seemed out of place when he went to his girlfriend's house on the night he discovered her body: The newspaper she collected early each morning was still sitting outside; her trash can she put out the night before was still in front of the house; her bedroom blinds that were always open were closed. Abramson also testified about how much von Schwedler's scrapbooks meant to her. He said they were something Wall wanted but she wasn't willing to give them up.

The scrapbook that was found in the tub with the woman was presented as evidence Wednesday.

"She didn't have enemies per se, but I know she didn't get along with Johnny," Abramson said.

Von Schwedler also had cuts on her body that prosecutors say were not consistent with wounds a person committing suicide would make. All of the blood found in von Schwedler's house was hers. Blood was found in the bathroom, in the kitchen, on a comforter, and especially on her bed sheet and her tank top. Both sides are expected to argue the timeline of events will work in their favor.

Firefighter Mike Alleman testified that Abramson was "shaken" when he arrived at von Schwedler's house.

Carolyn Redd, whose son played soccer with one of von Schwedler's sons, testified that she saw von Schwedler at a soccer match late in the afternoon of Sept. 26, 2011. At that time, she said von Schwedler was in "a great mood" and "not at all" depressed.

The defense pointed out during cross-examination, however, that Redd and von Schwedler really weren't that close and it was unlikely she would share intimate details of her life with her.

Wall wore a blue shirt and tie as he sat with his attorneys and listened to the proceedings. He smiled at family members as he entered and left the courtroom.

His family issued a brief statement Tuesday supporting him: "We mourn Uta's loss. We also love Johnny and we are confident of his innocence. We believe that when the jury is presented with all the evidence, he will be found not guilty."

Pelle Wall, von Schwedler and Johnny Wall's oldest son, also read a statement outside the court before the trial began.

"This trial is something we've long been awaiting. I think we're all a little nervous, but also excited with the prospect of closure," he said, adding that it's important for everyone to be held publicly accountable for their actions. He expressed confidence in the prosecution's ability and said the trial should be focused on his mother.

"No matter what the outcome of this trial, I will never forget what this is really about. I will never forget her playfulness and curiosity, her passion for protecting and playing in the outdoors, and certainly not the way she always spoke her mind," he said. "I always try to do my best to focus on the goodness of her life, not on the person who took it away."

Von Schwedler's family publicly accused the former pediatrician of killing her almost from the time she died and urged police and prosecutors to arrest and charge him. Rossi acknowledged in her opening statements that the Salt Lake police sergeant originally assigned to the case told her detectives to treat von Schwedler's death as a suicide. But those detectives disagreed.

"Something doesn't look right here. This doesn't look like an accident," were comments Rossi said investigators made when they first arrived at the scene.

Criminal charges were filed against Wall 19 months after the death on April 25, 2013.

On Tuesday as attorneys were selecting a jury, a charge of aggravated burglary, a first-degree felony, was dismissed against Wall.

Email: preavy@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam