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Sugar House woman found dead in tub: Homicide or suicide?

Published February 16, 2012 11:13 am

Crime • Her boyfriend says, "It is a murder, there is no doubt in my mind."
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It's been nearly five months since a Salt Lake City woman was found drowned in the bathtub at her home, but police are still trying to determine if her death was a homicide or suicide.

Uta von Schwedler, 49, was found dead in her Sugar House area home, in the 1400 block of Harrison Avenue (1365 South), on Sept. 27, 2011. Since then, police have quietly been investigating what they call the "suspicious" death of the biologist and HIV researcher who worked at the University of Utah.

Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank said Tuesday that von Schwedler's case remains open and active.

"We have a suspicious death, we are looking for what potentially caused that or who potentially caused that," Burbank said.

Burbank said police have interviewed anyone who may have had a connection to the case, including the woman's immediate family and her boyfriend and divorced husband.

Burbank said evidence from the scene remains inconclusive. Police have no suspects or persons of interest, but they aren't ruling anything out. They have even involved the FBI to get their perspective.

The medical examiner's office could not determine if von Schwedler's death was a homicide or suicide, but said the cause of death was drowning.

The woman was found in a bathtub full of water.

A knife was found under the body, and there was blood in her bedroom, at the edge of the bathroom sink and on a window sill, the autopsy report states.

The medical examiner noted sharp force injuries to the woman's left wrist and left leg "which are not typical of self-inflicted wounds seen in the setting of a suicide." The report said the wounds could be viewed as defensive injuries if the woman had been struggling with an assailant.

Hemorrhages on the left side of the woman's neck could have come from "blunt injury ... during a fall, but could also be the result of applied force in the course of an assault," the report states.

Toxicology tests showed a high-level of Xanax in von Schwedler's system, but she did not have a prescription for the anti-anxiety drug.

von Schwedler was discovered by her boyfriend, Nils Abramson, who called 911 after finding her in a tub overflowing with cold water.

"It is a murder, there is no doubt in my mind. I know she didn't commit suicide," Abramson said recently, noting that von Schwedler loved to bike and be outdoors and never had mental health problems.

"I want to think [police] are doing a good job, but I do have my hesitations and my questions," Abramson said.

Abramson said he went to von Schwedler's home in the evening after she didn't respond to his text messages all day. When he got there, he noticed the garbage can and newspaper were still in the driveway, and the bathroom light was on while everything else was dark.

Abramson also said there appeared to have been "somewhat of a struggle" inside the house.

A lamp that usually sat on a night stand was on the bed, and everything from the other night stand was on the floor. The comforter was bunched up in the corner of the bed, and there were blood spots on the bed, he said.

As he headed to the bathroom, he heard running water.

"I freaked out because she was three inches under water," Abramson said.

He said a photo album in the tub with the woman was one of four albums — one for each child — that were "Uta's pride and joy."

Abramson said possession of the albums also were a "bone of contention in [von Schwedler's] divorce."

In 2006, von Schwedler and her husband, John Brickman Wall, 48, a pediatrician, began a messy divorce and custody battle. Court documents show that in 2008 both accused the other of physical abuse.

Wall had primary custody of the children — ages, 18, 16, 12 and 11. But von Schwedler filed a motion requesting an evaluation for a change in custody about a week before she died, according to court documents.

Defense attorney G. Fred Metos, who represents Wall in connection with the investigation, said Wednesday he has advised Wall — who spoke to police initially — not to talk further about the case.

Issues surrounding von Schwedler's children have continued after her death.

Almut von Schwedler — who is the executor of her deceased sister's estate and oversees funds intended for the children's health, education and support — filed a motion in 3rd District Court asking a judge to appoint a neutral party to facilitate communications with the children about their mother's estate.

Almut von Schwedler toldThe Tribune that Wall has been refusing to allow her to talk to the children.

During a Tuesday court hearing — which was filled to capacity by neighbors and friends in support of the dead woman — Judge Ryan Harris asked attorneys for Wall and Almut von Schwedler to work together to achieve "reasonable communication" between von Schwedler and the children.

Almut von Schwedler remembers her sister as someone who enjoyed the arts and was intelligent, energetic and patient.

"She really cared about people," said Almut von Schwedler, adding that she loved her children and her children loved her.

Prior to her death, her sister was excited about a recent discovery she had made regarding a gene related to childhood brain cancer, Almut von Schwedler said, adding that her sister was upbeat, motivated and had "incredible energy that would exhaust anybody."

cimaron@sltrib.com

Twitter: @CimCity