In the hours after University of Utah researcher Uta von Schwedler was found dead in her bathtub, detectives became convinced that her ex-husband was to blame for the woman’s death.
It was his confusion, a detective testified Tuesday. His vague responses to direct questions. His demeanor, and finally this: “I’m a monster.”
It may have been a statement. It may have been a question. But either way, John Wall’s defense attorneys said Tuesday, it was not an admission of guilt.
Defense attorneys pushed back against detectives during the first day of Wall’s preliminary hearing in 3rd District Court, by saying police intimidated and berated Wall to the point that he didn’t know what he was saying.
“John Wall began to question his own sanity,” said defense attorney Fred Metos. “[Police] left him in a fairly small room, alone, for nearly an hour, with nothing on the walls, not knowing what he’s there for. Any person in that situation would be fairly stressed.”
The first day of evidence in the murder case against the Utah pediatrician offered a glimpse into how Wall might fight the charges against him: murder and aggravated burglary.
If Wall is convicted of either of the two first-degree felonies, he could face up to life in prison.
Wall, 49, intends to plead not guilty to all charges.
“My client has maintained his innocence all the way through this case,” Metos told a gaggle of news reporters and television cameras outside the courtroom during a midday recess Tuesday.
The day began with testimony from two men.
One who knew Wall and von Schwedler from the very beginning.
And one who saw the bitter end.
Klaus Fiebig, the first witness called, was a college friend of von Schwedler’s and a childhood friend of Wall’s.
He was there when they met. He was there when they married. He was there when that marriage came undone, he testified.
Fiebig, who said he was “keen on having [Uta and Johnny] work things out,” discussed the points of tension in the couple’s relationship: von Schwedler had allegedly begun seeing someone else; Wall had a temper and von Schwedler alleged abuse.
“She was frustrated by all the little pettiness and roadblocks that Johnny was building in her life,” Fiebig said. “She was very happy as a person, but not happy about [their] relationship.”
After the divorce, Fiebig kept in touch with von Schwedler more so than Wall. He said he and his old friend simply weren’t very good at maintaining contact. But he never thought Wall was a bad man.
“I was in between them,” he said.
The last time Fiebig saw Wall before von Schwedler’s death, it was January 2011. He said his old friend seemed “very much full of hate” over the contentious divorce and custody proceedings. He said that Wall blamed von Schwedler for “ruining his life.”
“He was very much against Uta. Everything she did caused a problem for him,” Fiebig said. “He was very much full of hate. ... He asked me, ‘Would it be bad if Uta wasn’t here anymore?’ ”
But defense attorney Howard Lundgren pressed Fiebig on that statement. Did he think Wall meant to harm von Schwedler?
No, Feibig explained. Wall had been planning to move back to California, where his family lives. He assumed he was talking about those plans.
Von Schwedler, 49, was found dead in the bathtub of her Sugar House home on Sept. 27, 2011. She was an AIDS researcher at the University of Utah and a mother of four.
Nils Abramson, who was von Schwedler’s boyfriend at the time of her death, discovered her body.
Photos presented at the court hearing Tuesday showed von Schwedler’s body as it was the day Abramson found her. The tub, he testified Tuesday, was full of ice cold water. The faucet was running. A scrapbook with photos of her youngest daughter floated near her feet. Beneath her body, there was a knife.
“I immediately went and grabbed her arm to pull her out of the tub. But I realized she was very stiff. She wasn’t breathing. That’s not a sign of life,” Abramson said. “The photo album was immensely important to her. It’s valuable, needs to be taken care of. She wouldn’t [have brought it into the bathtub.]”
In the months after von Schwedler’s death, police struggled to determine whether she was the victim of suicide or murder.
Abramson, who was called to testify after Fiebig, is a social worker by trade. He testified that von Schwedler did not display any signs of suicide or depression prior to her death. She was not on any medication — aside from something to treat her seasonal asthma — and was never prescribed Xanax, although she was found with a high dose of the drug in her system, according to court documents.
Charges allege Wall had written and filled a prescription for his mother for 30 Xanax tablets in May 2011, although there was no documentation indicating he had been treating his mother medically.
Expert analysis of the crime scene revealed a violent struggle and Wall’s DNA in the home, which he did not share with his ex-wife. Metos has pointed out the DNA found could have also belonged to either of von Schwedler’s sons.
But in photos taken from the home on the night von Schwedler was found dead, several things appeared out of place, Abramson testified. He also noticed blood on her bed cover and in the bathroom, on the sink and on a windowsill.
She was nearly naked, wearing only a pair of green shorts and had cuts on her left wrist, leg and an injury to her throat.
As Abramson spoke on the witness stand, and prosecutors scrolled through photos of the crime scene and von Schwedler’s unmoving body, her 19-year-old, son Pelle Wall, averted his eyes.
Pele Wall, who attended Tuesday’s hearing with a cousin and his adoptive mother, Amy Oglesby, will not testify at the three-day preliminary hearing. But he has been outspoken in his belief that his father is guilty of killing his mom.
Wall became a person of interest almost immediately along with Abramson, police said. But when they brought him in for interviews, his strange behavior made him stand out.
“He didn’t cry ever,” a Salt Lake City police detective testified. “He kept giving a very unusual response —’I don’t think I did it.’ ”
Nursing assistant Katie Grell was the last witness to testify Tuesday. She worked with Wall for a year and half at his pediatric practice.
She said in the weeks leading up to von Schwedler’s death, she noticed a change in the doctor.
“He was angry, upset,” she said. “Sometimes he’d come into work looking like he hadn’t showered or brushed his hair, without changing his clothes, without shaving.”
But after von Schwedler’s death, prosecutors asked.
“He looked really good,” Grell said. “Kind of like a weight had been lifted.”
Prosecutors have pointed to years of custody battles over Pelle Wall and his three siblings as a motive for murder. But defense attorneys said Wall had been prevailing in the custody struggle.
At the end of the preliminary hearing, which is scheduled to run through Thursday, Judge Robin Reese will determine if there is enough evidence to advance the case to trial.
Wall remains behind bars in lieu of a 1.5 million cash-only bail. As he was led into the courtroom in shackles, Tuesday, he glanced up and smiled at his sister, seated in the courtroom gallery.
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