The story of a Utah physician convicted of murdering his ex-wife last month has remarkable parallels to the unsolved homicide of Susan Keegan. The eerie similarities give us hope that we will also see a conviction in the Keegan case.
Uta von Schwedler’s death in 2011 was initially treated as a suicide; four years later, Salt Lake City pediatrician John Brickman Wall was found guilty of killing her. High doses of the antidepressant Xanax were found in Uta’s body, pills were spilled on the floor of her home, and there were deep cuts to her wrist and leg. The medical examiner was unable to certify that a murder had taken place, and during Wall’s trial, the defense claimed that Uta had taken her own life. The doctor’s attorney described a woman who had stumbled around intoxicated, slashed herself and climbed into the bathtub where she drowned. Dr. Wall attributed a scratch under his own eye to a playful family dog.
The jury was persuaded that the truth was different– that Dr. Wall had used a knife in a struggle with Uta, injected her with drugs, and then moved her unconscious body to the bathroom, intent on making her murder look like something else. Wall’s scratches were no canine mischief, jurors concluded, but rather the result of Uta’s attempt to defend herself. They returned a guilty verdict.
Like Uta, intoxicants were found in Susan’s bloodstream — including high levels of alcohol, highly suspicious in a woman not known to drink much. A glass of whiskey and a bottle of pills were neatly arrayed as stage props near Susan’s bed. On her body, as on Uta’s, there were unexplained bruises and indications that she had died in one room and been moved to another.
Uta and her husband had gone through a bitter divorce and Dr. Wall “just couldn’t stop talking about how much he hated” his former wife, according to the prosecutor. Dr. Keegan, too, was filled with rage toward Susan. His sense of entitlement to the family assets had led him to jump up and down shouting, “it’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine” as the couple argued about money.
There are emotional parallels in the cases as well. “I am deeply thankful for the example of my mom’s life,” Uta’s son said after his father was convicted. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think about her and try and emulate her generosity, optimism and vigor for life. She may not be here any more, but her light is not gone. It lives on inside of me, inside of all of us who knew her.”
So many of us would say exactly the same thing about Susan.
Similar, too, are the forces propelling the quest for justice – family and friends search for truth, not retribution. “Revenge was certainly not what drove us in those dark days, and dark and desperate days we had many of,” said Uta’s sister. Her family wanted what we want – that her community know how she died and that the person who killed her face the consequences.
Because they understand death so well, physicians have a unique ability to manipulate forensics evidence. As a result, there was no smoking gun to easily explain Uta’s death, nor Susan’s. The case against Dr. Wall proceeded instead on a body of circumstantial evidence that prosecutors called “overwhelming.” In the state’s summation, the prosecutor declared, “the evidence of motive, of means, of opportunity [leads to] one compelling conclusion… Uta was murdered and the defendant Johnny Brickman Wall murdered her.”
The circumstantial evidence in the Keegan case is equally persuasive, perhaps even more so. There are witnesses prepared to speak about Dr. Keegan’s growing aversion to Susan and his verbal abuse towards her. They can describe his anger about the proposed 50:50 divorce settlement, and repeat Susan’s description of an unsettling scene at the divorce mediator’s office the day before she died, when Dr. Keegan reportedly “went ballistic.”
Friends can also talk about Dr. Keegan’s startling late-night visits to their homes in the weeks before his wife’s death, where he rambled on in a manic monologue about her alleged descent into drug use. As it happens, we know almost every detail of Susan’s final day, which was filled with artistic pursuits, get-togethers with supportive friends, and planning for the future. She had much the same activities on tap for the following day. None of that fits the profile of a woman with disabling substance use problems.
Several people can confirm that Dr. Keegan boasted repeatedly over the years about being able to make an intentional death look like an accident. Witnesses can describe the questionable medical practices and impaired judgement he displayed at the Covelo clinic where he worked. There are allegations that he abused drugs. There are the bizarre emails he wrote after Susan’s death, which are now in the hands of the Mendocino DA; some complained about how his wife had cheated him, others celebrated the new life he was finally able to lead. There are also countless Ukiah residents who can describe the happy man they saw dancing and partying around town just days after his wife of 32 years was gone.
There is forensics evidence as well, even if some of it was lost in the first botched police investigation. The cops called to the scene took photos showing bruises on both the front and back of Susan’s head that were inconsistent with a fall. There were also bruises on her arms, which Dr. Keegan casually ascribed to a medical condition no one had ever mentioned before. He blamed gardening for the bruises on his own arms. A world-class medical examiner is prepared to testify that Susan was murdered, as her death certificate states. Dr. Keegan was the only other person in the house the night she died.
In short, there is a wealth of evidence that a prosecutor can credibly present to a jury. That’s how we determine innocence or guilt in this society.
Three factors ultimately led to the successful prosecution of John Brickman Wall in Salt Lake City. First, the physician had, in fact, murdered his wife, and truth tends to emerge despite shrewd efforts to shroud it. Second, Uta’s family and friends kept pressing for action from the legal system, and persistence can bend the arc of justice. And third, the prosecution team was astute enough to build a credible criminal case on the basis of mostly circumstantial evidence.
On the last point, the Mendocino County District Attorney’s office has yet to prove itself, but we remain hopeful that it will.