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Deaths of Orem plastic surgeon, girlfriend ruled 'accidental overdose'

Published February 15, 2013 8:24 pm

Orem • Medical examiner concludes couple used an inhaled anesthetic.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Troubled Orem surgeon Joseph Berg and the girlfriend he once abducted, Lucy Schwartz, died in August of an accidental drug overdose, Orem police said Friday in a surprise announcement.

Sgt. Craig Martinez said the Utah Medical Examiner's Office identified the drug used as Isoflurane, an inhaled anesthetic commonly used in surgeries.

"Combining the medical examiner's report with our investigation, we have ruled their deaths both as an accidental overdose," Martinez said.

The possibility that the overdose was intentional — either on Berg's part, Schwartz's part or both — was thoroughly investigated but eventually could not be supported by the evidence.

"We considered everything, from suicide and murder-suicide to accidental," Martinez said. "But we can only make the conclusion we did based on what we could prove. There was nothing to conclude a double suicide — no notes, no last calls to loved ones, things that you often would see in such cases."

Martinez summed it up this way: "We cannot speculate or share [other] opinions when we don't have the evidence" to support them.

Angel Kosovitch wasn't surprised to hear her old friend Schwartz died accidentally. Kosovitch could see Schwartz trusting Berg. Schwartz would have never intentionally taken her own life, she insisted.

"It's the last thing she would've done," Kosovitch said. "There's no way."

Kosovitch pointed out that Schwartz had made plans for the next day.

But Kosovitch doubts the ruling on the former surgeon. Berg, Kosovitch points out, was familiar with lethal levels of anesthetics. Josie Valdez, another friend of Schwartz, agrees. She suspects Berg may have had more to do with Schwartz's death than the ruling suggests.

"[The drug's] not very common and he is a doctor," she said. "It's very suspect. [The ruling's] not going to change anything, they're both gone. But knowing his personality, it's suspect."

Messages seeking comment that were left for Berg's family were not returned Friday. Berg, 47, and the 49-year-old Schwartz were found dead on Aug. 27 inside the doctor's home at 479 E. 1450 North. Berg had been released from the Utah County Jail just four days earlier.

Berg had a successful practice at the Cosmetic Plastic Surgery Institute in Orem until November 2011, when he attacked Schwartz in his home, grabbing her hair and dragging her to a bedroom closet. Schwartz managed to dial 911 from a bathroom phone, which she left off the hook. In a recording used as evidence, nothing is said directly into the phone but a woman can be heard pleading for a man to stop.

Berg tied Schwartz's hands and tried to stop her from screaming by covering her mouth, first with his hands and then with a cloth. After 20 minutes of knocking, police forced their way into the home and found Schwartz bound and kneeling in a closet.

In April 2012, Berg pleaded guilty to a reduced count of second-degree felony kidnapping and two third-degree felony counts of possession of a controlled substance and possession of a firearm by a restricted person. He admitted an addiction to pain killers. He was sentenced to 180 days in jail followed by 36 months of probation, including anger management and substance abuse treatment.

The Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing suspended Berg's medical licenses on Nov. 30, 2011, after an emergency hearing. The suspension applied to Berg's physician and surgeon license, and his controlled substance prescribing license. In the suspension order, the division said Berg's staff had quit en masse the previous summer because of his strange behavior: falling asleep standing up, swallowing handfuls of pills and buying drugs not used in his practice.

Berg could have appealed the suspension, but in early January 2012, he surrendered his license to practice medicine and agreed not to reapply for three years and until he completed treatment and probation.

How Berg obtained the drug that ultimately caused his and Schwartz's deaths was unknown.

remims@sltrib.com

Twitter: @remims —