Friend says dead Utah doctor and fiancée were 'bad match'
Lucy Eribez Schwartz was hailed as one of Utah's 30 women visionaries eight years ago, noted for her business acumen and compassionate advocacy of the Latino community.
But by the time Schwartz met plastic surgeon Joseph Edward Berg, her life, like his, had hit some rough patches a divorce and bankruptcy and there was more trouble ahead for a woman whom friends and associates describe as "very resilient" and vibrant, a woman they say so completely stood by her fiancé it may have cost the 49-year-old woman her life.
On Aug. 27, Schwartz and Berg were found dead at a home he formerly owned in Orem. Police say there were no obvious signs to explain what happened. Autopsies were inconclusive, and it will be months before a toxicology report is available that may shed light on what caused their deaths. Even then, determining whether their deaths were the result of a double suicide or a murder-suicide may be difficult.
Angel Kosovitch is among those who do not believe Schwartz took her own life. She had planned to go shopping Monday with family and attend a political fundraiser Tuesday night for lawmaker Luz Robles, a longtime friend.
"I am 100 percent sure she didn't commit suicide," Kosovitch said. "That is not her. She wouldn't do that. It wouldn't cross her mind."
Berg was unquestionably despondent about events in his life. He had been released from jail four days earlier after serving a sentence on kidnapping and drug-possession charges stemming from a violent altercation with Schwartz last November. He admitted becoming hooked on painkillers because of back problems. The addiction intensified after Berg had back surgery a year ago, interfering with his ability to work and leading the state to revoke his medical license in January.
Two women filed malpractice lawsuits against him this year, including one filed a day after Berg left jail. A third woman sought to recoup money she had paid for cosmetic surgery that never took place because Berg lost his license. In a June email to The Salt Lake Tribune, Berg's father asserted that allegations in one of the lawsuits were unfounded.
There also was a contentious divorce from his first wife, which began in 2009 shortly before Berg apparently met Schwartz. Although the divorce from his wife of 22 years was final last summer, there were ongoing proceedings over child support he owed $30,000 as of August and a fight over a trust set up for his three children.
Being separated from his children was a hardship, Berg wrote in a June letter asking a judge to release him to home confinement.
They "are more important than the air I breathe," Berg wrote.
"He was extremely committed to his children," said Rhome Zabriskie, a Provo attorney whose firm represented Berg. "That was something constantly vexing him because he wanted to be with his children."
According to Berg's letter to the judge, he also wanted an early release in order to get back into drug treatment and rehabilitation for his back pain, neither of which he was able to get in jail.
Zabriskie said that Berg, 47, was "very depressed" at the time of his sentencing in April and, once in jail, "was really struggling with anxiety and depression and in a lot of pain. ... When we visited him, he seemed extremely sleep deprived."
Despite that, Zabriskie said he never suspected Berg was suicidal. Nor did he believe Schwartz, whom he briefly represented, harbored such thoughts.
"My impression of Lucy was she was a very resilient and resourceful person," he said, "and I never in a million years suspected she had suicidal tendencies."
With the jail sentence behind him Berg was sentenced to six months, but served only four based on good behavior Berg's family and supporters were hopeful about his prospects of getting his life back on track.
"There was a pathway for him to get back to practice," Zabriskie said, though undoubtedly a difficult road, given Berg's struggles with addiction. "I know that his family had a lot of hope in their son, and they never lost that hope."
Berg was undoubtedly an accomplished surgeon. He was a scholarship student at Brigham Young University, where he graduated in 1989 with a degree in zoology. He then received a medical degree from the University of Kansas School of Medicine in 1993 and interned at Stanford University, Michigan State, USC Medical Center, UCLA and the University of Missouri.
In July 1998, he became a licensed physician/surgeon in Utah, where he eventually opened Cosmetic Plastic Surgery Institute and Day Spa in Orem.
"If I had to describe Joe Berg with one word, it would be passionate," said Jen Hoskins Berg, his sister-in-law, in a statement released Friday. "Whether he was a student, playing competitive sports, doing plastic surgery or being a dad, Joe did it passionately and it was important to him to be the best."
As a surgeon, Berg was an artist, she said. "He used a scalpel like a paintbrush."
A former staff member and client agree.
Meredith Greer selected Berg in 2010 for her cosmetic surgery because she "wanted the best."
"I thought he was super smart," she said. "I found him to be a nice, likeable guy."
As she was prepped for surgery, Greer said she asked Berg about his family and he mentioned he was going through a complicated divorce and it was hard on his children.
She was "floored" by news accounts of Berg's criminal charges and then his death. "I felt really sad for him," Greer said.
An employee who worked for Berg for nine years but asked to not be identified also touted Berg's talents as a surgeon.
"He changed people's lives on a daily basis by making them feel better about themselves," she said. "The entire time I worked for him, before these problems started, I never heard him so much as raise his voice; he was very shy and even-tempered and treated his staff so great."
The changes coincided with his divorce, she said, and grew progressively worse. Berg's staff quit en masse in the fall of 2011 because they were so concerned about patient safety. Then, on Nov. 6, Berg attacked Schwartz in his home, grabbing her hair and dragging her to a bedroom closet.
Attorney Dean Zabriskie, who represented Berg in the criminal case, said everything "crashed and collapsed" in Berg's life that day.
As the couple began fighting, Schwartz called 911 and left the phone off the hook. On a tape of the call, Schwartz can be heard crying and moaning as Berg shouts at her repeatedly, asking for her car keys and calling her a liar. At one point, she screams, "Ow," and then says, "I'm sorry." As Schwartz cries, Berg asks repeatedly where her phone is and again says she's a liar.
When police arrived, they found Schwartz in a bedroom closet with her hands bound with medical tape and a cloth gag in her mouth. They also found prescription drugs in the home.
At his sentencing hearing, Berg said he regretted his actions, adding: "I'm so sorry I lost my way. I am responsible for what happened. Nobody else is to blame."
Schwartz vowed to stand by him: "I know in my heart he will be back and regain the success he had before the addiction took hold," she said in court.
But Kosovitch said Schwartz and Berg were "a bad match together. You could just tell. They both had problems that surfaced shortly after you'd get to know them."
Schwartz was sweet, smart and funny, but also the "biggest bullsh-er. That is the way she survived."
She grew up as one of nine children in National City, Calif., and came to Utah around 1998 with her first husband, according to friends. Within a couple of years she founded a business called Interpreting Solutions to provide translation services in hospitals and clinics, and later for real-estate agents.
In 2004, she was lauded as one of the state's "Women to Watch" the same year community activist Josie Valdez, author Terry Tempest Williams and former Utah Episcopal Bishop Carolyn Tanner Irish were honored by Utah Business magazine and several women's professional organizations.
Robles, now a legislator representing a Salt Lake City district, met Schwartz during a rally at the Capitol to support a resolution on cultural competency and health care and then worked with Schwartz, whom she described as an "amazing and loving mother" to the two girls her sister's children, according to Kosovitch she and an ex-husband were raising.
"She had a really amazing sense of the American dream," Robles said. "She loved life, she loved hard work and she was determined to do whatever she had [as] a goal. She was really an achiever and a doer. There was no such thing as an impossible for Lucy. She wanted to have her professional field or work be tied to a way she could help her community and did that through interpreting services."
But on a personal level, Schwartz had challenges. Her marriage was falling apart and, in June 2004, her divorce was finalized. A year later, she filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The children lived with her ex-husband.
In November 2009, Schwartz was arrested and charged with child abuse for allegedly choking one daughter; prosecutors dropped the charge last summer based on insufficient evidence. In 2010, Schwartz was arrested for several offenses, including driving under the influence of alcohol her second offense and sexual solicitation while working unlawfully as a masseuse.
Her ex-husband sought a protective order on behalf of their daughters. Like Berg, she owed back child support, according to court records.
But, Schwartz seemed ready to turn her life around. Del Brown, bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Windsor 6th Ward, confirmed that she had recently been baptized a member of the LDS faith.
"She was a lovely, talented woman, and she'll be greatly missed," said Brown, who also served as Berg's spiritual adviser.
As for Berg, "We all know the facts, that Joe had pled guilty to a felony, that he was troubled with drug addiction," Brown said. "I think he fought those demons and wanted to try to make his life better. Our hearts and prayers go out to the families."
Friends said Schwartz seemed happy, posting photos on Facebook and making plans for the future.
"She was just being hopeful and stuck by her man and thought she was doing the best she could," said Lorraine Story, who met Schwartz years ago through a Hispanic women's club. "I know she loved him deeply."