Teacher, coach say man held in murder of girlfriend’s mom was ‘charming,’ ‘good kid’

Written By BY BECKY SCHLIKERMAN, BRIAN SLODYSKO AND JON SEIDEL Staff Reporters Posted: 08/14/2014, 08:58pm
Array James L. Mack was an expert on musical plagiarism, a composer, conductor, arranger, producer and teacher. He also was humanities department chairman at Harold Washington College. | Sun-Times File Photo

Tommy Schaefer had troubles at home, but nothing ever seemed to indicate he could one day be involved with a cold-blooded murder, according to people who know him.

“He claimed to be homeless a few times and was just kind of transient — bouncing around from friends’ couches to friends’ couches when he was a student,” said Zachary Jablow, who taught Schaefer at Columbia College Chicago and produced a song for the aspiring rapper. “I would have never have expected him to do anything violent. He was always a pretty charming and pleasant-to-be-around guy.”

Now Schaefer, 21, of Oak Park, and his girlfriend, Heather Mack, 19, are in police custody in Bali in connection with the brutal murder of Mack’s mother, authorities there have said.

The body of Mack’s mother, Sheila von Wiese-Mack, a longtime Oak Park resident, was found in a bloody suitcase — left in the trunk of a taxi three days into the exotic vacation she took with her daughter and Schaefer, authorities told reporters in Bali.

“The reports are false,” Mack’s lawyer, Michael Elkin, told the Chicago Sun-Times on Thursday. “She claims to be innocent and I have some corroborating evidence.”

Elkin declined to elaborate.

“This is becoming a fiasco,” he said. “My client was portrayed as a psycho or some crazy cold-blooded killer . . . There’s more than meets the eye.”

He said Mack, whom he described as “a very pleasant young girl,” was hysterical when she called him as police were detaining her on Wednesday.

Mack has not been charged with a crime but can be held by police for at least 20 days, Elkin said.

He has spoken with his client, but he claims a police guard was present despite a request for privacy, Elkin said.

The suitcase containing von Wiese-Mack’s body was found Tuesday in the trunk of a taxi parked in front of the luxurious St. Regis Bali Resort in the island’s upscale Nusa Dua area, authorities in Bali said.

Mack and Schaefer were being questioned but were refusing to talk until being joined by attorneys.

The U.S. Embassy in Jakarta confirmed that von Wiese-Mack’s body had been found but did not give details.

Mack and Schaefer had hired the taxi and then placed the suitcase inside the trunk. Then they told the driver that they were going to check out of the hotel and would return, authorities said.

After two hours, Mack and Schaefer had not reappeared and hotel security guards found blood spots on the suitcase. They suggested the driver take his taxi to the police station, where officers discovered the body.

Mack and Schaefer were arrested Wednesday morning at a hotel in Bali’s Kuta area, about 6 miles away, authorities said.

Von Wiese-Mack and her daughter arrived at the St. Regis on Saturday, while Schaefer checked in on Monday, authorities said.

Jablow was shocked to learn that his former student, Schaefer, was allegedly involved in the heinous crime.

“I’m in disbelief,” said the Chicago-based music producer who worked with Schaefer on a song about a friend he had lost.

Schaefer’s mother, Kia Lashawn Walker, declined to comment when reached by the Chicago Sun-Times on Thursday.

Like Jablow, Schaefer’s former basketball coach at Oak Park-River Forest High School said the young man seemed to have troubles at home, though nothing to indicate he could be violent.

“He had some things going on at home. I don’t know exactly what it was, but sports were an outlet,” said Quinn Peterson, who coached Schaefer his freshman and sophomore years. “He was a good kid when I had him. He was 14, so he had the same kind of immaturity struggles that other people had. But he was always smiling, always in a good mood.”

But authorities in Bali paint a different picture of Schaefer and his girlfriend.

Officials there told the media that on the morning of the murder, Schaefer, Mack and von Wiese-Mack argued about who would pay the hotel bill for their stay at the posh resort.

Then just as the young couple checked out, they demanded hotel staff open von Wiese-Mack’s safety deposit box. But staff at the hotel denied the request — von Wiese-Mack, 62, had left clear instructions that only she could have access to the safe, according to a Sydney Morning Herald online report.

According to the Telegraph newspaper in London, an official at the hospital where von Wiese-Mack’s autopsy was conducted said the woman was hit in the face and head with a blunt object. An official at the hotel said the incident is thought to have occurred in Schaefer’s room, the Telegraph reported.

Schaefer’s criminal history includes a 2012 misdemeanor conviction for simple assault.

Schaefer, who goes by the name Tommy Exx, is an aspiring hip-hop artist who dropped out of both Northern Illinois University and Columbia College Chicago to pursue music, according to his website.

On his Facebook profile, he appears to mourn a former girlfriend who died in a car accident in April while on a mission trip in South Africa.

He also posted last month: “Leaving Aug 4th for Indonesia might not come backkkk.”

Contributing: Stefano Esposito, Associated Press

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