Heather Mack’s aunt calls her ‘master manipulator,’ release from jail denied

Charged with conspiring with ex-boyfriend in the 2014 murder of her mother, Mack will remain behind bars until July 31 trial.

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Close up shot of Heather Mack as she raises her hand to her face while behind cell bars.

In this photo taken Jan. 21, 2015, Heather Mack waits in a holding cell on Indonesia’s resort island of Bali.

Sonny Tumbelaka/AFP via Getty

Debbi Curran warned a federal judge Thursday about her niece, Heather Mack.

She explained that Mack “will look up at you” with her “big brown eyes filled with tears. … She will appear frail, weak and incapable.” But Curran has known Mack her whole life. And she called Mack a “master manipulator.” A “chameleon.”

Nearby in an orange jumpsuit, Mack wiped her eyes while her aunt spoke. Mack has been behind bars ever since the grisly 2014 murder of Sheila von Wiese-Mack — Mack’s mother and Curran’s sister. But Mack had hoped her lawyer would persuade a judge Thursday to let her out of jail while she awaits trial next summer for an alleged murder conspiracy.

He didn’t. U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly shot Mack down. He said he didn’t even need to review the audio or video evidence that prosecutors repeatedly offered him Thursday, though he listened to the commentary from Curran and her brother, Bill Wiese.

Then the judge said, “There’s plenty of reason to believe that, when Ms. Mack has conflicts with other people, she solves them with violence.”

With that, the judge dashed nearly any chance Mack, 27, had of soon tasting freedom for the first time since von Wiese-Mack was found dead in a suitcase left outside a posh Indonesian hotel eight years ago. The ruling came three weeks after a Cook County judge ordered Mack’s 7-year-old daughter into the temporary care of Curran’s daughter, over Mack’s objection.

The onetime Chicago socialite has been at the center of an international legal drama that has stretched over nearly a decade. Federal prosecutors have alleged that von Wiese-Mack was killed so that Mack and her then-boyfriend, Tommy Schaefer, could enrich themselves with the proceeds of von Wiese-Mack’s $1.5 million estate.

Instead, Mack and Schaefer have spent the last eight years behind bars, with Schaefer still locked up overseas. The fate of their daughter, Estelle Schaefer, is uncertain. And Mack now faces a weekslong trial set for July 31 that could overlap with the nine-year anniversary of von Wiese-Mack’s death.

If convicted, Mack faces up to life in prison.

During Thursday’s hearing, Bill Wiese told the judge that Mack is “well-traveled, smart and resourceful.” He said she “clearly has connections with wealthy and resourceful people” and has never apologized for what happened to her mother.

Wiese later praised the judge’s decision to keep Mack in jail, telling reporters that “facing Heather at the hearing is one of the necessary steps toward justice and healing for our entire family.”

Thursday’s hearing at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse served as a bit of a preview of Mack’s trial. Earlier this week, prosecutors alleged for the first time that, during the murder, Mack covered her mother’s mouth with her hand after Schaefer hit the 62-year-old woman with a fruit bowl.

They also said that, in a recorded call, a relative of Schaefer’s asked Mack why she covered von Wiese-Mack’s mouth. Mack allegedly explained that her mother had to die because Schaefer would have been in even bigger trouble if she survived.

On Thursday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ann Marie Ursini said there are “multiple recorded statements [Mack] provided that implicate her directly in the murder.” She sought to play one such recording, which she said was not initiated by law enforcement. But Kennelly declined listening to it, telling her there seemed to be no “dispute about the contents of any of the evidence.”

Ursini also offered to show Kennelly video from the taxi stand of the St. Regis Bali Resort, which she said showed Mack and Schaefer manipulating a suitcase, covered in sheets, in a cab. She said the driver became suspicious and had a conversation with hotel staff.

Again, Kennelly declined to view it.

Mack attorney Michael Leonard told the judge that Schaefer has undermined the notion of a conspiracy to kill von Wiese-Mack. Rather, he said Schaefer contends that he “freaked out” during an argument with von Wiese-Mack, in which she called him a racial slur and threatened to cut the couple’s baby out of Mack’s womb.

Prosecutors long ago revealed several text messages in which Schaefer and Mack allegedly discussed killing von Wiese-Mack in the moments before her death. Schaefer’s cousin, Robert Bibbs, is also now serving a nine-year prison sentence for encouraging and advising the couple on the murder from the United States.

Leonard argued repeatedly to the judge Thursday that Mack “never laid a finger on anybody” other than her mother. He said Mack has no passport nor any means to travel. He also pointed to Mack’s daughter, known as Stella, and said Mack would never leave the country without her.

“She’s always had a loving, caring, put-Stella-first relationship with that child,” Leonard said.

Mack was pregnant with Stella at the time of von Wiese-Mack’s killing and gave birth to the girl during her 2015 trial in Indonesia with Schaefer.

Mack was sentenced after that trial to 10 years in prison for helping murder her mother, and Schaefer was sentenced to 18 years for beating von Wiese-Mack to death. Mack served seven years in Indonesia but then was deported with Stella. When she returned to the United States in November 2021, a separate indictment against the couple was unsealed in U.S. District Court in Chicago.

Diana Roque Ellis, a California woman and friend of von Wiese-Mack’s, offered to serve as a third-party custodian for Mack. She is also one of four people seeking custody of Stella in a separate, ongoing bench trial in front of Cook County Judge Stephanie Miller.

Also seeking custody are Lisa Hellmann, the cousin of Mack’s who has temporary custody of Stella; Kia Walker, Schaefer’s mother who also attended Thursday’s hearing; and Oshar Suartama, the woman who cared for Stella in Indonesia while Mack served her time there.

After court Thursday, Leonard said Mack’s bid to be released had nothing to do with Miller’s decision to place Stella into Hellmann’s care. However, he also said Mack had been very optimistic about the possibility of reuniting with Stella if Thursday’s hearing went her way.

He said the judge’s ruling was “very difficult” for Mack.

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