Friends and family remember Utah woman’s ‘joy for life’
By Marissa Lang
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Sep 29 2013 01:01AM
Even in the cold darkness of twilight, three siblings felt something Friday they hadn’t felt for nearly two years: Warmth. Togetherness. Home.
The Wall children — whose father sits in jail, accused of murdering their mother in her Salt Lake City home two years ago — stood arm-in-arm Friday evening as old friends and new family took turns speaking about their mother, Uta von Schwedler.
They recalled Uta the friend. Uta the scientist. Uta the mother, the outdoor lover and the quirky German woman who turned heads as she walked around the University of Utah campus or her Sugar House neighborhood.
"She had a lot of will," said friend Andrea Brickey. "A lot of personality."
The tone was bittersweet — remembering the good and the funny about a woman who met a tragic end.
Von Schwedler, 49, was found dead in an overflowing bathtub of ice-cold water in her Sugar House home on Sept. 27, 2011. She had a scrapbook lying atop her and a knife under her body.
For months, authorities struggled to determine whether it was murder or suicide. Eventually, police arrested her ex-husband John Wall, a local pediatrician, and charged him with murder.
Nils Abramson, von Schwedler’s boyfriend who found her the day she died, spoke about how much has changed since they last came together to honor von Schwedler.
"A year ago, we worried about the case, about whether the truth would ever come out, about the safety of Uta’s children," Abramson said. "But the direction has certainly changed."
On Friday, it seemed, there was little worry about.
There were no more custody suits — the Wall children all live with and are in the care of family friends Amy and John Oglesby.
There no questions about where the case will go from here — John Wall is scheduled to appear in 3rd District Court on Tuesday for a hearing where a judge will determine if Wall should stand trial.
"I wouldn’t say today is a happy day," Abramson said. "It’s still hard. We still miss her. She’s still gone. But there’s an acknowledgement that I think we all feel of how hard we’ve worked and what has come of that. Above all, that her kids are safe."
Pelle Wall, the eldest of von Schwedler’s children, said there are days he feels like he hasn’t seen his mother forever. So much has happened. So much has changed.
But then, he said, there are times when he feels like not a moment has past. Like he can still hear her laugh or sense her coming down the stairs to bring him ice cream.
Like he can still hear her voice, guiding him through the unfamiliar landscape of life without his mom. •
• ‘Joy for life’
The first time Andrea Brickey saw Uta von Schwedler, the renowned AIDS researcher was strutting around the U of U campus carrying a newborn child, and wearing bright leggings, a flowing skirt and flower-printed combat boots. Even now, Brickey said, she can see her friend’s vivid red hair blowing recklessly in the wind.
"She was this small, petite woman in a funky outfit with such an obvious joy for life," Brickey said. "That was Uta. And that spirit, that fight to live, is in her kids."
Most visibly, she said, that spirit lives on in von Schwedler’s oldest son.
Pelle Wall, who has been thrust into the national media spotlight in the time since his mother’s death, has fought his father for custody of his three younger siblings and vocalized his doubts about his father’s claims of innocence.
He has shown up to every major court hearing and will be a key witness in the trial against John Wall.
It’s a lot for a 19-year-old college sophomore to handle. But Pelle Wall said his mother prepared him for this.
"She was a very strong-willed person who wasn’t afraid to tell people when she disagreed," he said in a recent interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. "All of us [kids] have that strong-willed stubbornness and the ability to question things, like is this true? Is this right? We were never raised to accept something because someone said it was so."
She wasn’t all business all the time.
Pelle Wall recalled his mother’s quirky sense of humor and warm gestures. They’re what he misses most.
When he or his siblings were upset, he said, his mother would run for her camera. She used to chase them around the house snapping photos of them at their most pouty, making it impossible for anyone to stay mad.
When he would hunker down to do his homework, he said, his mother would come down with a treat to help him continue on — ice cream, cookies, you name it.
"She had a real sweet tooth," Pelle Wall said, with a chuckle. "She did all these little things to show you that she cared."
When she wasn’t baking or teasing her kids, Pelle Wall said, she was exploring.
She loved to hike and bike and camp and ski.
At Friday’s memorial, photographs of von Schwedler lined a small table next to an arrangement of candles spelling her name. Nearly all featured her outside and with her children.
• Life after her death
Already, Pelle wall has spent more than 10 percent of his life without his mother.
Some days, it feels like more than that, he said.
"In a sense I feel like I haven’t seen her in forever," he said. "Looking back on everything that we did and everything that’s occurred since then seems like a lifetime."
Since von Schwedler’s death, Pelle Wall left his father’s home and moved in with a new family — the Oglesbys. He was legally adopted by them on May 29 of this year.
Three months later, after years of battling his father for custody over his younger siblings, Pelle was joined by his younger sibling, ages 18, 14 and 12.. The Oglesbys were appointed guardians and granted "permanent placement" for the children by 3rd District Juvenile Court.
Amy Oglesby, who had five kids of her own, never knew Uta von Schwedler. Her daughter and Pelle were best friends in high school. But she only got to know his mother after she was already dead.
"We get asked a lot how this is possible," said Amy Oglesby. "I always say that we loved these kids before we even knew all of them. It just feels like it was always meant to be. Like Uta’s spirit is right here with us, guiding us into this new family. Like she’s got our back."
There are now 9 kids and two parents under one roof. They call their new hybrid family "the tribe."
One of the children wrote an essay reflecting on his mother and the changes in his own life since she died.
On Friday, Pelle Wall read it for the group.
"My faith was restored as friends and family ran in unity under one banner in memory of my mother ... I knew Uta von Schwedler, my mom, would never be forgotten, and her life had not been in vain. That was something I could live for, and so I live."
• Never forgotten
On Tuesday, friends and family will trade a backyard shrine for a courtroom. They will gather downtown to watch as prosecutors present evidence in the case against John Wall, von Schwedler’s ex-husband and accused killer.
Pelle Wall never looks forward to the court hearings, he said.
He doesn’t relish the media attention — photographers, national television programs, reporters with notebooks and recorders vying to talk to him about his mother’s death or his father’s case.
"This was never something that I wanted," he said. "I still wish I didn’t have to be a part of it, but I feel like it’s important for people to know who my mom was. It’s important for the world to know the truth."
It’s what she would have wanted, he said.
Pelle Wall will not testify at his father’s preliminary hearing, which is scheduled to begin Tuesday morning and last through Thursday afternoon.
Prosecutors will present three days worth of evidence to compel a judge to order John Wall to stand trial for the murder of Uta von Schwedler. The former pediatrician is also charged with burglary. Both charges are first-degree felonies. Each carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Wall’s defense attorney, Fred Metos, has said his client intends to plead not guilty to all charges.
But Pelle Wall doesn’t feel discouraged.
On Friday, he stood surrounded by the people who cared for his mother. They’ve become his family, he said.
They are her living legacy.
"She affected the heart, mind and actions of every single person who was around her," Pelle Wall said. "She had these really strong convictions and values and it just rubs off on you, I guess."
Before the memorial came to a close, Pelle read a poem he had written for his mother on his flight home from college.
"My mother’s life cannot be extinguished," he read. "Her life cannot be forgotten."