Heather Mack’s cousin gets temporary custody of Mack’s daughter

Lisa Hellmann will become the third person to care for Estelle Schaefer, known as Stella, since the child’s November 2021 arrival in the United States with her mother from Indonesia.

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Heather Mack holds her baby while standing behind bars in a jail cell, with a wall painted blue with white stars in the background.

Heather Mack holds her baby in a cell while she talks with a relative before her trial on March 31, 2015, in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia.

Agung Parameswara/Getty Images

A Cook County judge ordered Heather Mack’s 7-year-old daughter into the temporary care of a maternal cousin of Mack’s from Colorado at the end of a contentious, hourslong hearing Thursday — despite Mack asking the judge from jail to choose the girl’s grandmother instead.

Lisa Hellmann will become the third person to care for Estelle Schaefer, known as Stella, since the child’s November 2021 arrival in the United States with her mother from Indonesia. Mack was immediately arrested at O’Hare Airport and has been in U.S. custody ever since, under indictment for conspiring to kill her mother, Sheila von Wiese-Mack, in 2014.

Stella’s father, Tommy Schaefer, is also behind bars overseas, serving an Indonesian prison sentence for von Wiese-Mack’s gruesome murder in Bali. That left Stella’s future unclear. And in the year that’s passed, she’s become the subject of a bitter custody battle before Cook County Judge Stephanie Miller.

Miller said Stella’s placement with Hellmann was “not the most ideal situation.” The pair have had just a handful of virtual visits as part of the ongoing custody dispute. However, the judge also complained that Stella’s first caretaker in the United States, attorney Vanessa Favia, relinquished custody of Stella after seven months.

The woman who previously cared for Stella in Indonesia, Oshar Suartama, then came to Illinois in June to take custody of the girl. But now Suartama’s attorney says her client must leave the United States by Friday, forcing Stella to move to a third home.

“The fact that Stella is doing as well as she is is a credit to [Stella],” Miller said. “Dare I say, not to the adults.”

Hellmann’s mother is von Wiese-Mack’s sister, and animosity within the family revealed itself during Thursday’s hearing, held by Zoom. Speaking from the Metropolitan Correctional Center, Mack said she’d rather Stella go to Schaefer’s mother, Kia Walker, than Hellmann.

Mack told the judge that Hellmann “hasn’t said one word to any of us for years.”

Later, after the judge ordered Stella into Hellmann’s care effective Friday, Mack asked for an additional order that she be allowed to visit virtually with her daughter. 

“I’m sure that I would be denied access from Ms. Hellmann,” Mack said. 

Hellmann’s attorney, Clarke Mac Gillespie, said his client would “absolutely” facilitate those visits if approved by Stella’s therapist. The therapist did not object, so Miller also ordered weekly visits between Mack and Stella.

Hellmann, Walker and Suartama are seeking custody of Stella in an ongoing bench trial before Miller. So is Diana Roque Ellis, a California woman and onetime friend of von Wiese-Mack. 

Though a final custody decision has not been made, Miller’s ruling Thursday seemed particularly significant. Concerns have repeatedly been raised in the case about Stella’s move from home to home. The judge said Thursday that calling Stella’s next transition “difficult” is “about as big of an understatement that has been made in this court.”

Swirling around the custody case are allegations of book and TV deals given the high-profile, sensational nature of von Wiese-Mack’s death. Her body was discovered in a suitcase outside the St. Regis Bali Resort on Aug. 12, 2014, and some news outlets have referred to her death as the “Bali Suitcase Murder.”

Stella was born during the Indonesian trial of Mack and Schaefer that followed in 2015. She lived with Mack in prison until the age of 2. Suartama then cared for her until November 2021. Mack served seven years in Indonesia for helping with her mother’s killing before being returned to the United States. 

She is now set to go to trial in Chicago’s federal court July 31.

Miller earlier this week denied bids to hand Stella back to Favia or to Ellis, noting that Favia had withdrawn from the custody case and Ellis had not established a relationship with Stella.

That left Hellmann and Walker. Though Walker has fought passionately for custody of Stella since the girl’s arrival in the United States, she has also often sparred with the judge. And when Miller ruled Thursday, she pointed to several accusations made without evidence by Walker — as well as her claims of a vendetta against her. 

“The reality is, this has nothing to do with Ms. Walker,” Miller said. “It has everything to do with Stella.”

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