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Could judge order Heather Mack released? Experts say odds are slim

Mack’s lawyers would have to convince the judge that arrangements can be made to protect the community from Mack and ensure her appearance at court hearings.

Heather Mack of the US waits in a cell before her first hearing trial on January 14, 2015 in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia.
Heather Mack of the US waits in a cell before her first hearing trial on January 14, 2015 in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia.
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When Heather Mack returned last week to the United States seven years after her mother’s brutal murder in Bali, people around the world watched to see if Mack would stroll out of O’Hare Airport a free woman.

She didn’t. Instead, Mack spent her first week back home in Chicago’s downtown Metropolitan Correctional Center, in custody and under indictment for allegedly plotting the overseas killing of Sheila von Wiese-Mack.

But Mack could have one more shot at freedom, of a sort. U.S. District Judge Charles Norgle scheduled a detention hearing Wednesday for Mack at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. If it goes forward, he would decide whether to release Mack pending trial on certain conditions.

Former federal prosecutors who spoke to the Chicago Sun-Times said the chances of her release are slim.

That’s because the charges against Mack appear to carry a presumption of detention. Her lawyers would have to overcome that, arguing that arrangements can be made to protect the community from her and to ensure her appearance at future court hearings.

“She’s the model of instability right now,” said Megan Church, a former federal prosecutor now with MoloLamken LLP.

Keith Spielfogel, Mack’s local attorney, declined to comment Tuesday.

Mack’s international legal saga began when von Wiese-Mack’s body was discovered in a suitcase left outside the St. Regis Bali Resort on Aug. 12, 2014. Mack and her then-boyfriend, Tommy Schaefer, were prosecuted in Indonesia in connection with the murder. Schaefer was sentenced to 18 years in prison overseas for beating von Wiese-Mack to death, and Mack was sentenced to 10 years for helping.

Mack was released from an Indonesian prison in late October after serving seven years and two months.

Then, as a flight carrying Mack neared O’Hare last week, a three-count indictment was unsealed in U.S. District Court that charged Mack and Schaefer with conspiring to kill von Wiese-Mack. Federal prosecutors have said von Wiese-Mack was killed so that Mack, Schaefer and Schaefer’s cousin, Robert Bibbs, could enrich themselves with the proceeds of von Wiese-Mack’s $1.5 million estate.

Bibbs was prosecuted in federal court in Chicago for encouraging and advising the couple on the murder from the United States. He was sentenced in 2017 to nine years in prison.

During Mack’s arraignment last week, lawyers discussed the potential detention hearing with Norgle, and a prosecutor referenced the many visits made by Oak Park police to the Mack home before von Wiese-Mack’s murder.

Von Wiese-Mack told police that Mack bit her repeatedly and punched her in her already broken ankle during an argument over household chores, the Sun-Times previously reported. In all, Oak Park police said in 2014 they were called 86 times in 10 years to the Mack home.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Terry Kinney said the police reports also referenced psychological evaluations of Mack, which he hoped to subpoena in time for the detention hearing.

Steven Block, a former federal prosecutor now with Thompson Hine, said judges have “pretty wide discretion” when it comes to interpreting the law and evidence during a detention hearing like Mack could have. Still, he added, “this case is going to have some significant hurdles to overcome to convince a judge she should be released.”

Renato Mariotti, another former prosecutor now with Thompson Coburn LLP, said judges are normally tasked with finding the “least restrictive” conditions to ensure the safety of the community and appearance in court. But in Mack’s case, he noted, there is a presumption that detention is necessary — so the defense needs to find evidence to overcome that.

“I don’t think that that is in the cards,” Mariotti said.

One factor that might favor Mack is the presence here of her 6-year-old daughter, Stella, who was uprooted from her life overseas when authorities there deported Mack to the United States. Officials reportedly refused to let Stella stay behind with a foster family.

Mack gave birth to Stella, who is also Schaefer’s daughter, during the couple’s 2015 trial.

Church said children often become part of a judge’s calculus during a detention hearing. But she said she wouldn’t expect it to be enough to lead to Mack’s release. That’s in part because Stella was already living apart from Mack when they were in Indonesia.

Meanwhile, Mack has already been convicted in a foreign court for her role in von Wiese-Mack’s murder. Absent some sign that the conviction was flawed or tainted, Church said that will also weigh strongly against Mack’s release.

“I think you give it great consideration,” Church said.