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Heather Mack, Tommy Schaefer charged in U.S. indictment with conspiring to kill Mack’s mother

Mack’s arrest at O’Hare Tuesday marks the start of a new chapter in Mack’s yearslong international drama — one that could take years more to play out and puts the welfare of Mack’s 6-year-old daughter, Stella, into question. 

Heather Mack of Chicago, Ill. reacts inside a cell at Denpasar district court during her hearing objections trial in Bali, Indonesia, Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015. Mack and her boyfriend Tommy Schaefer are accused of murdering Sheila von-Wiese Mack, her mother, who was found stuffed inside a suitcase last August. (AP Photo/Firdia Lisnawati)
Heather Mack, seen here in January 2015, returned to Chicago on Wednesday.
AP file

When Heather Mack finally stepped into a federal courtroom Wednesday in Chicago’s Loop, her legs shackled and her eyes darting over her face mask, years of waiting finally ended.

Seven years of waiting ended for the loved ones of Mack’s mother, Sheila von Wiese-Mack, the Oak Park woman whose 2014 murder became international news fodder after her body was discovered in a suitcase outside the St. Regis Bali Resort.

Four years of waiting ended for U.S. prosecutors, who secretly secured the indictment of Mack and her former boyfriend, Tommy Schaefer, in 2017. The five-page document became public Wednesday as a flight carrying Mack neared O’Hare Airport.

The waiting even ended for Mack, 26, who now knows she is far from a free woman despite her release last week from an Indonesian prison. Rather, Mack ended her first day back in the United States since her mother’s death in the custody of the federal government, facing charges that carry a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Still, her arrest at O’Hare marks the start of a new chapter in Mack’s yearslong international drama — one that could take years more to play out and puts the welfare of Mack’s 6-year-old daughter, Stella, into question.

The charges became public after Mack’s lead defense attorney told the Chicago Sun-Times “it’s gonna be a war” if Mack were to be arrested. Another attorney pleaded not guilty on Mack’s behalf Wednesday.

Mack wore a tan turtle-neck sweater, black tights and white shoes, her hair in a ponytail, when she appeared in the 23rd-floor courtroom of U.S. District Judge Charles Norgle. She looked uncertain at times in what can be an intimidating federal courtroom. But she answered in a clear, strong voice when the judge asked for her name.

“Heather Mack, your honor,” she said.

Mack said little else during that proceeding. But von Wiese-Mack’s siblings, William Wiese and Debbi Curran, later released a statement calling the last seven years “incredibly long and stressful for us and our entire family.”

“We are forever thankful to all the FBI agents and the U.S. Justice Department officers who have spent endless hours finding and preserving evidence as well as searching for the truth in order to obtain meaningful justice for Sheila,” they wrote. “Every single one of them should be recognized because they all contributed to today’s arrest and indictments of Heather and Tommy.”

The Sun-Times reported the existence of a U.S. investigation in August 2015, and Mack’s attorneys previously acknowledged a grand jury probe here. They even pointed to an “ongoing federal criminal proceeding” back in February 2017. The indictment against Mack and Schaefer would be filed under seal five months later, on July 26, 2017.

Mack and Schaefer, 28, each face two counts of conspiring to kill von Wiese-Mack overseas, and one obstruction of justice count. Schaefer remains imprisoned in Indonesia. Federal prosecutors have said von Wiese-Mack was bludgeoned to death with the metal handle of a fruit stand 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 Chicago’s federal court and sentenced to nine years in prison. He is due to be released in December 2024.

Thomas Anthony Durkin, Schaefer’s defense attorney, told the Sun-Times that, “having represented him since 2014, I was surprised to learn that the government indicted him in 2017, and I never learned of that until today.”

Court records show Mack and Schaefer traded text messages ranging from giddy to tense all the way up to the Aug. 12, 2014, murder. They called each other Bonnie and Clyde and used the phrase “saying hi” as code for the killing, records show.

They later took a loaded luggage cart to the resort’s entrance and placed a large suitcase and other items in the trunk of a taxi before reentering the resort and fleeing the property through another exit.

Von Wiese-Mack’s body was then found stuffed in the suitcase, and Mack and Schaefer were arrested the next day. Mack was pregnant with Schaefer’s daughter, Stella, at the time. She gave birth during the couple’s 2015 trial. 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. She was released after serving seven years and two months.

Indonesian officials have asked that Mack be banned from the country for life.

Defense attorney Brian Claypool said arrangements had originally been made for Mack to travel to Los Angeles, but the FBI directed her to Chicago. Her anticipated arrival Wednesday at O’Hare led to a circus-like atmosphere. Dozens of reporters crowded around the arrival gate waiting for any sign of Mack and her daughter. They went away disappointed.

Kia Walker at O’Hare Airport
Kia Walker
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Kia Walker, Schaefer’s mother, appeared there too. She said she last saw her granddaughter in Bali when she was born but has seen her only online in six years. Tears streamed down her face as she addressed the media, calling herself both “Stella’s voice” and her son’s.

“Please don’t judge my son quite yet,” she said. “You don’t know the half of it.”

She also said she plans to fight for custody of Stella.

“My granddaughter — she’s 6 years old,” Walker said. “She’s been in prison already. Not many 6-year-olds can say they’ve been to prison.”

Cook County Circuit Court records show a judge this week appointed Vanessa Favia as Stella’s guardian. Favia has previously served as an attorney for Mack and declined to comment through her secretary Wednesday.

Mack purportedly asked that Stella remain with her foster family overseas, but Indonesian officials refused, saying “minors must be accompanied by their mothers when their mothers are deported.”

Schaefer’s mother also appeared at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse to see Mack in person. She was among roughly 20 people in the wood-paneled courtroom when the judge set a Nov. 10 detention hearing for Mack. But that also led to the first point of contention between prosecutors and Mack’s defense attorney.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Terry Kinney made note of the long history of police calls to the Mack home in Oak Park before von Wiese-Mack’s murder. Kinney said the reports mentioned psychological evaluations of Mack. He said he wanted to subpoena those evaluations and have them sent to his office.

Defense attorney Keith Spielfogel objected, telling Norgle, “I don’t want the government to see it first.”

“No doubt you don’t,” Norgle said.

Contributing: Associated Press

Not displaying properly? Read the indictment here.

Contributing: Associated Press