CHICAGO (CN) — A native of the Chicago suburb of Oak Park pleaded not guilty to a murder conspiracy charge on Wednesday, less than twelve hours after arriving in Chicago from an Indonesian prison.
26-year-old Heather Mack was arrested on the Indonesian island of Bali in 2014 for the murder of her mother Sheila von Wiese-Mack, alongside her then-boyfriend Tommy Schaefer. She was arrested again on Wednesday when she landed at O'Hare Airport after being released from Indonesian custody last Friday. After a brief hearing in Chicago's Dirksen Federal Courthouse, she pleaded not guilty to judge Charles Norgle, a Ronald Reagan appointee.
According to the U.S. government's indictment against her, first filed on July 26, 2017, Mack arrived in Bali on Aug. 2, 2014 already with the intent to kill her mother. She then paid for Schaefer to come to Bali himself on Aug. 10, and after exchanging text messages between themselves about how best to kill von Wiese-Mack, committed the deed on Aug. 12 before stuffing von Wiese-Mack's remains in a suitcase.
Indonesian authorities arrested Mack and Schaefer the next day, after discovering and opening the suitcase which the pair abandoned in a taxi cab near the St. Regis Bali Resort. Von Wiese-Mack had been staying in the St. Regis on vacation at the time of the murder. An autopsy revealed the cause of her death to be blunt force trauma that caused an airflow obstruction and asphyxiation.
Tried in Indonesian court, Schaefer received an 18 year sentence for murder and remains imprisoned in-country. Mack was sentenced to ten years for conspiracy to commit murder and only served seven. She was released early, reportedly, for good behavior.
Though the U.S. federal court system lacks the jurisdiction to charge the pair directly with murder, it still has the capacity to charge her with conspiracy to commit murder; a charge the court backs up due to Mack and Schaefer's alleged mishandling and hiding of von Wiese-Mack's body.
"Heather L. Mack and Tommy E. Schaefer... each aiding and abetting the other, corruptly destroyed, mutilated and concealed objects, and attempted to do so, with intent to impair the object's integrity and availability for use in an official proceeding, by forcing the body of Sheila A. Von Wiese into a suitcase after she had been killed and removing the suitcase from
the place of the murder; and by removing linens and items of clothing worn during the killing," the indictment against the pair reads.
According to court documents from a related case, Mack and Schaefer discussed killing von Wiese-Mack as early as May 2014. Their motivation for the murder was allegedly both Mack's strained relationship with her mother, as well as to access her mother's $1.5 million estate. Much of that estate was itself inherited from Mack's father, famous jazz musician James Mack, who died in 2006. James in turn got most of that money — about $840K — from an injury lawsuit settlement with Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, according to a report by CBS2 Chicago.
A month prior to the murder, court documents show that Schaefer sent a message to Mack urging her to try and take her mother's money legally.
"Fuck your mom just take your money take that bitch to court and leave her on the street with 30%," The documents show Schaefer wrote.
Not long after this urging, it seems the couple went back to discussing more violent ways of getting the money. Schaefer's cousin Robert Bibbs, who pleaded guilty to his own charge of murder conspiracy in 2017, admitted to federal authorities that he advised Mack and Schaefer on how best to kill Mack's mother in exchange for a $50,000 cut of her estate.
"[Mack] asked me for my advice... So I told her like, 'if you would ever do something [to kill the victim], don't get your hands dirty... don't, don't like grab a gun and shoot your mom," said court records quoting Bibbs.
Bibbs is currently serving out a nine-year federal prison sentence. If Mack is convicted on her murder conspiracy charge, along with one count of obstruction of justice and one count of conspiracy to damage the property of a foreign government, she could potentially face life in prison.
Mack's attorney Brian Claypool, however, rejected the federal charges as "clearly a witch hunt" based on public pressure, according to reporting by NBC5 Chicago.
“The U.S. government had a choice to make in 2015,” he said. “They could have fought to extradite ... and try her in the U.S. court. They didn’t do that.” NBC5 quoted Claypool as saying.
One other factor complicating the case is Mack's own six-year-old daughter Estelle Schaefer, born during the couple's Indonesian trial proceedings in 2015. Estelle accompanied her mother to Chicago, but according to Cook County probate court documents filed Tuesday, she has been placed in the custody of Vanessa Favia, one of Mack's attorneys.
Another hearing in Estelle's guardianship case is scheduled for Nov. 18. The next hearing in Mack’s case is set for Nov. 10.
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