“Your mother is dead and [the police] think I did it.”
Those are the words Pelle Von Schwedler Wall says his father said when he walked into his bedroom of their downtown Salt Lake City home the morning of Sept. 28, 2011.
Uta Von Schwedler, 49, a University of Utah biologist and HIV researcher, had been found the day before by her boyfriend, Nils Abramson, at her Sugar House home in an overflowing bathtub of cold water. A scrapbook she had made for her youngest child floated above her submerged, nearly naked body. A knife was found beneath her when the tub was drained; she had cuts on her left arm and leg and bruising around her neck and face.
After informing Pelle and his three younger children of Von Schwedler’s death, according to court documents, John Brickman Wall then asked his children, “Am I a monster? How am I supposed to know what I do when I’m asleep? What if I did it and don’t remember?”
It was that statement that Pelle says scared him the most and made him unsure of what his dad was capable of.
“I didn’t know if there was some switch that triggered him,” Pelle said in a recent court testimony.
In 2011, high school senior Pelle Von Schwedler Wall was a student body officer, a varsity soccer player and a straight-A student at East High. He had plans to follow the example of his parents and study medicine. He had a heavy course load of several university-level classes, including Calculus 3 and genetics, and spent his free time volunteering as a mentor to refugee children and refereeing soccer on weekends.
It seemed as though the thin-framed young man was already carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, but in the wake of his mother’s death, Pelle was launched into the kind of life he’d never imagined, one that had him living in fear of his father while trying to fight for justice for his mother.
When he found out his mother had died, he immediately suspected his father. He knew his father better than anyone else, he says, and knew his mother’s death wasn’t a suicide.
A month after Von Schwedler’s death, Wall, a pediatrician, took his children to visit his parents in California. Pelle brought along a knife, hidden in his backpack, for protection.
Wall declined to comment for this story.
A few months later, in January 2012, Wall asked Pelle what he knew about his mother’s death. Pelle had already started looking into getting an attorney, and had read the medical examiner’s report and heard what other family and friends had learned about what happened that night.
But Pelle says he couldn’t let his father know he wasn’t on his side—John Wall was now his only living parent, and Pelle wasn’t old enough to move out. So, he simply said he knew only that she had drowned in a bathtub.
“I was extremely scared for my own safety,” Pelle said during a recent court testimony. If, he said, Wall knew about his suspicions, and that Pelle knew about the mounting evidence, “then perhaps my life would be in danger.”
Pelle, along with Uta’s relatives and close friends, stretching across several continents, fought for 18 months to ensure that the questions surrounding her death would not go unanswered. They struggled to keep her death in the public eye while also digging up clues in the face of what some saw as disinterest from the authorities. Indeed, at one point, the Salt Lake City Police Department e-mailed a close relative of Uta’s that they had closed the case. Whatever the role that a small, determined group of Uta’s loved ones played in bringing about John Wall’s arrest, the story of the fight for justice for Uta Von Schwedler is, finally, about the legacy that she left behind. People have kept the case alive, says former co-worker Virginie Sagrin, because Uta supported so many friends and colleagues during her lifetime. “That is why we are all still here 18 months after she has been murdered.”
Uta Von Schwedler was born April 13, 1962, the same day the famous Star-Club opened in Hamburg, Germany, with a performance by the then-unknown Beatles. The oldest of four sisters, she grew up in West Germany, where her father worked as a doctor. She studied biology at Bonn University and eventually moved to California.
A childhood friend of John Wall’s introduced the couple to each other while Uta was attending post-graduate school and Wall was in medical school in San Diego. They married in 1990.
They moved to Utah in 1994, where Von Schwedler worked at the University of Utah as a biologist studying HIV. Her research was published and selected as “one of most influential scientific papers published in the first 30 years of HIV research,” according to the family website JusticeForUta.com, which was used to collect memories of Uta as well as tips during the investigation.
Those who knew Uta say she loved life, and she made many friends through her welcoming attitude.
“She was just so generous,” Virginie Sangrin of France, wearing a sticker with the words “Justice for Uta” in a rainbow font, told City Weekly outside the courtroom at a recent bond-reduction hearing for John Wall.
Sangrin first met Uta in 2005 when Sangrin came to Utah to interview for a job in the HIV lab at the University of Utah. Uta let Sangrin stay with her at her home because she knew what it was like to be a foreigner in a new land. Over the years, Uta extended the same hospitality to nearly a half-dozen other foreigners in the same situation.
Since the two lived together for a couple of years and were the only ones working in a high-security facility, they got to know each other very well.
“Our friendship grew very quickly,” Sangrin says.
“Uta was really someone special,” Uta’s sister Anna Von Schwedler wrote on JusticeForUta.com. “Uta was the older and smarter sister,” who always tried to help with everything, Anna wrote. “She was a bit odd”—as noted on the website, she could spend hours preparing for a camping trip, carefully packing food and teas into mini containers—“but Uta never minded when we teased her because of her idiosyncrasies, she always went on unwaveringly her own way.”
She loved the outdoors and preferred colorful clothing to anything that hinted at formal dress.
Uta brought her running shoes to work at the University of Utah and would coax others to join her on runs around the campus. She kept bikes for her family in her sister’s basement in Heidelberg, Germany, and would wheel them out to explore the city during visits.
The summer before Uta died, Anna and her family flew from Germany to spend time enjoying the icons of the western United States, like Old Faithful at Yellowstone Park and white-water rafting in Moab.
“That was the last time I saw Uta and told her that I was definitely coming back next year,” Anna wrote. “I came back, only just seven weeks later,” after Uta’s death, “to visit her memorial ... and in January to clean up her house.
“I never thought or dreamt that my world might change so quickly,” Anna wrote. “I still don’t realize that my sister is not here any more, that I won’t receive any mails from her with good advice ... and she will never come back to eat ice cream.”%u2028
Sangrin last talked with Uta a week before her death. “She was like a big sister to me, so she was always giving me advice,” Sangrin said
The two talked about Sangrin’s new job, Uta’s relationship with her boyfriend, Nils Abramson, and how happy she was.
“And she also said that she really wanted to spend more time with the kids,” Sangrin said as tears filled her eyes.
A History of Contention
“Before they were divorced, I recognized that they shouldn’t be together,” Pelle, now 19, said of his parents in a recent interview with City Weekly. “Almost as far [back] as I can remember, there was a lot of contention and fighting.” He says he can’t recall a time when his parents publicly hugged or showed any affection toward each other.
Pelle says he watched the relationship between his parents become even worse and more hateful by the day after they divorced in 2006.
Sangrin, who lived with Uta for two years, was shocked to learn that Uta and her husband were divorcing. “It was a very nice and loving family,” she says. “I guess I didn’t stay long enough to understand the situation wasn’t as good as I thought it was.”
On the one-year anniversary of Uta’s death, her sister Anna wrote a post on the website addressing Uta: “You never complained about your difficult life. I’m pretty sure that ... not many were aware of how much you had to stand and to suffer. I guess that not many people but us, perhaps not even your children, knew how much John B. Wall made your life to hell.”
Police records indicate there were four documented domestic-violence incidents between the couple from 2007 to 2011. In 2007, a police report that was never prosecuted stated a neighbor witnessed Wall kick Uta in the backside in front of the four children after arguing about bicycles. He drove his car up off the driveway and into a flowerbed where she was working. Uta told police, according to a domestic-violence incident report, that she believed he was trying to run her over.
Family members say that photo scrapbooks Uta made for all the children, like the one found with Uta’s body, were a constant source of contention between the couple. After Uta’s death, John Wall sued his son to get the scrapbooks back and demanded that no copies be made of them. The lawsuit is ongoing.
The Friday before her death, Uta had a child-custody re-evaluation granted to her by the courts that potentially could have given her sole custody of the children.
Salt Lake City Police Detective Cordon Parks said in court testimony that, according to a witness, Wall told an acquaintance a few days before Uta’s death that “he was getting his kids back.”
The Night in Question
Many neighbors who remember the ambulance and police lights waking them up early on the morning Uta was found dead later felt confused that the case wasn’t being treated as more than an unattended death. Neighbors had overheard the police yelling on their scanners as if something more serious had happened.
The medical examiner stated that the cause of Uta’s death was drowning; the manner, undetermined. She had two knife cuts, one on her left arm and the other on her lower left leg that were described by the medical examiner as possibly being defensive wounds. She also had bruising around her neck and mouth and had ingested a lethal dose of Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication for which she did not have a prescription.
Parks said there were only antihistamine pills scattered around the bathroom floor, and that the blood-spatter expert determined that there was likely a struggle that went from the bedroom to the bathroom. The medical examiner’s report stated that there was a “substantial amount of blood on the comforter” of Uta’s bed.
Wall had scratches on his arms and bleeding in his eye the morning after Uta’s death. He told Pelle that the blood in his eye and the scratches on his arms were from Molly, the family’s 4-year-old Labrador, who had “became excited and accidentally scratched his eye” while Wall was sleeping on the porch of his home the night before Uta’s body was found, according to court records.
When a detective first asked him where he was the night his ex-wife died, Wall yelled back at the detective, “I don’t know where the fuck I was!” according to a search warrant.
Later, he told police that the dog had been startled by a possible intruder and scratched him while he slept on the porch.
Still, police continued to view the case as an unattended death—possibly a suicide, but not a murder.
At one point, the case was closed, according to an e-mail from the police department to Uta’s sister Almut Von Schwedler in January 2012.
“Your sister’s case has been closed by the Salt Lake City Police Department. If you have [sic] desire any more information, please feel free to file a GRAMMA [sic] request for a copy of the case file,” the e-mail said. An initial contact report obtained around the same time through an open-records request said the case had been “exceptionally cleared.”
The Salt Lake City Police Department declined to comment on the case and referred City Weekly to the Salt Lake District Attorney’s Office.
In May 2012, a search warrant was served to collect possible forensic evidence from John Wall’s car. Still, no suspects were named and no charges were filed.
Stand on Your Own
Meanwhile, arguments between Pelle and his father escalated in person and through e-mail after Pelle decided not to take his father’s side. Pelle wrote his father an e-mail saying what a difficult situation he was in. “It’s not fair to me to feel caught in a crossfire between two groups of people I care deeply about.”
On Pelle’s 18th birthday in January 2012, with the hope of finding a more “neutral territory,” he moved out of the house to live with the family of his high school friend Jessica Oglesby.
Pelle told his dad he wasn’t abandoning his family or showing ill will but was just removing himself from a difficult environment.
“I’m really sorry if you’re upset with me, I’m not trying to create more trouble,” the teen wrote to his father.
That same day, Pelle received two e-mails. The e-mails, given to City Weekly by Uta’s family, appear to be from John Wall and detail how he had given his son so much, including the best schooling, and paid for all of his activities even when it was financially difficult.
“These are the things a parent does when they love their children,” Wall wrote.
He also told Pelle how he loved Uta “despite her and my many difficulties,” and he had tried to see the good in her. “I reached my limit when she began to hurt not just me, but her children.”
Less than two hours later, Pelle received a more agitated-sounding e-mail that said Pelle was no longer welcome at the home and was now on his own because he wasn’t standing up for his father.
“As you step away from your responsibility to your family, so you should understand that you loose [sic] the privileges that go with that. Please return the house key, this is no longer your home,” the e-mail reads.
John Wall also took Pelle off his auto and health-insurance policies, according to the family, and told Pelle to “figure out how” to fill out college financial-aid applications because Wall wouldn’t be supporting him.
“So stand on your own and act like a man,” he wrote. “You will have to earn the privilege of being part of this family again.”
Later that year, in August 2012, Pelle and the Oglesby family met his younger sister, who was returning from an educational trip in Ecuador, at the Salt Lake City International Airport. Wall was also there to see his daughter.
Amy Oglesby, Jessica’s mother, later told the court that Wall came toward her in a “harassing way.”
She says he told her to “Stay the fuck away from me! Stay the fuck away from me and my family!”
After a few minutes, he walked back over to her and said, “You are damaging me, you don’t know what you’re doing,” she told the court.
When they left the airport, the Oglesby family and Pelle did not tell Wall where they were going. Pelle’s sister rode with him and the Oglesby family while Wall drove alone. They decided to go to Jamba Juice, and Wall, Amy Oglesby says, followed them there and started yelling comments similar to those he’d said at the airport. She says he told her she would be sorry one day and that she didn’t know who she was dealing with. She took it as a death threat.
Wall told Oglesby he should get a restraining order against her. She says she didn’t respond, but that Pelle spoke up and asked his father, “You should get a restraining order against her? I can’t even get a restraining order against you and you’re a murderer!”
Pressing the Issue
After a year had passed without police bringing criminal charges to prosecutors, the family began assembling its own case.
“It’s constant, all the time, every minute you are awake, even when you are asleep you are thinking about it,” Pelle says. “It takes the obsessiveness you have to have all the time. It would not have been solved without that.”
Pelle has now spent the majority of his inheritance to pursue justice for his mother in a wrongful-death lawsuit as well as fight for the custody of his three younger siblings.
After Uta’s death, Uta’s friends and family from the United States, Europe and Australia combined their knowledge and educational backgrounds to become an international think-tank examining Uta’s death and how to protect the Wall children.
Uta’s sister Almut, who lives in Australia, has been to the United States six times—a total of 18 weeks—since her sister’s death and, she says, has spent tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees pursuing the custody issue.
Sometimes, the insights came at 3 a.m., when Amy Oglesby or others basically were in “a complete immersion” of the case and would text the attorney a clue or tip to further the case, or an idea of where to get more information.
Pelle’s attorney, Margaret Olson, says progress in the case would not have happened without friends pushing for answers.
“I believe the police would not have come this far if it weren’t for Amy Oglesby,” she says, adding that Oglesby was a “driving force” and had “energy and commitment” to continue to give the case another perspective.
Several pieces of the puzzle came together through the multitude of Uta’s friends and family who started asking what they could do to help. Family and friends of Uta’s collected information through tips generated on JusticeForUta.com, which they advertised via billboards. Some biologist and doctor friends shared their expertise with police while searching for a DNA match.
“But how many people have that?” Almut asks.
“I feel like there was a lot of times where we were doing the investigation for [the police],” Uta’s boyfriend, Nils Abramson, says.
Finally, in April 2013, Wall was arrested and charged with murder.
News reports at the time quoted Salt Lake District Attorney Sim Gill as saying that enough factors had “stacked up” to allow prosecutors to charge Wall, and that the charges were based on evidence, not public pressure.
Gill would not comment on the case to City Weekly except to say that “many murders are not solved for many years. ... We provided guidance where appropriate and worked with the detectives with developing the case to a stage where we believe we both have the probable cause for the filing as well as the likelihood of success at trial.”
But Almut says she doesn’t understand why police didn’t move the case along more quickly.
“I am absolutely certain that if we didn’t have the intelligence, the education and the money, none of it would have happened,” Almut says.
A Final Plea
Wall, 49, is being held at the Salt Lake County jail on $1.5 million cash-only bail. He’s currently awaiting a preliminary hearing for charges of murder, a first-degree felony, and burglary, also a first-degree felony.
On a June afternoon, after two recesses from his father’s three-hour bond-reduction hearing, Pelle pleaded with 3rd District Court Judge Denise Lindberg to not allow the bond to be reduced to $100,000.
“He had the motive, he had the means,” he told Lindberg. “I know him better than any person in this room. Perhaps better than any person alive. I’ve seen the blind hatred he harbored toward my mother.”
Pelle went on to say that when his mother died, that hatred didn’t. It continued to spread to friends of his mother and her family and now to his adoptive family, the Oglesbys.
“They are all walking targets,” Pelle said. “That is my greatest concern.”
Prosecuting attorney Paul Parker told Lindberg that Wall’s actions toward Oglesby show he would be a danger to others if let out of jail.
“He followed [Amy Oglesby] from one place to another to confront people that are opposed to him,” Parker said.
Lindberg refused to reduce bond, agreeing with the prosecution that Wall is a flight risk and, since he sought out Amy Oglesby unprovoked, he is capable of doing so again.
Wall will remain in jail for now. The next hearing will be a three-day preliminary hearing in October.
For now, life goes on for Pelle and Uta’s friends and family. Pelle has completed a year of college in southern California, where his parents originally met, and still plans to study medicine.
The Oglesbys recently adopted Pelle and are also temporarily caring for his siblings. A child-custody hearing that will decide where the children will permanently live is scheduled for mid-August.
Wall’s attorney, Fred Metos, would not comment on allegations from the family about Wall. He said they are hoping for an acquittal.
Metos says Wall’s jail visits are limited.
“His spirits seem fine, he understands what is going on,” Metos said. “He knows we are working on the case. He is remaining very positive about it.”
Pelle hasn’t visited him.
Though the preliminary trial will undoubtedly open wounds, the family is happy that the case has come this far and are anxious to see justice served.
Amy Oglesby says those who loved and cared about Uta “haven’t forgotten and won’t ever let [her death] be forgotten.”
Cimaron Neugebauer is a freelance reporter. He tweets at @CimCity.
Almut Von Schwedler says she was surprised to see all “the red tape in the juvenile court” and “the bureaucratic hurdles to protect those children from their father.”
She says she was flabbergasted to learn what was done with the children right after John Wall was questioned by police and was taken to the Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute, where he stayed for about a week—nothing. Wall made no arrangements for where the children would stay. Pelle stayed with his friend Jessica Oglesby and her family. Other family friends took the three younger children in.
And after Wall was released, “I was absolutely disgusted to find out police had returned Johnny Wall to a home with four underage children without notifying any of the family,” Almut told City Weekly in a recent phone interview from her home in Australia. “No one cared about the children,” she says.
Uta’s boyfriend, Nils Abramson, says it’s for those reasons that he approached state Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, to create a bill to mirror the Braden & Charlie Powell Act, which is pending in Washington State, and would let a judge decide if it’s in the best interest of a child to stay with a parent who is a suspect in a missing-person or murder investigation of the other parent.
The bill is named after two Utah boys whose father, Josh Powell, was suspected of killing his wife, Susan Powell. In 2012, he attacked his two sons, ages 5 and 7, with a hatchet before setting his Washington home on fire and killing all three of them.
Abramson says that while the bill, which is still being drafted and should be presented at the next state legislative session, won’t help the Wall children, it could help others who don’t have the understanding and financial means to keep a child-custody issue active.