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Heather Mack sentenced to 26 years in federal prison for mother’s killing

For four hours Wednesday, Heather Mack sat nearly expressionless in a Chicago federal courtroom as her relatives called her a cold, calculating sociopath who plotted the murder of her own mother at a Bali resort and tried to cover it up by stuffing the body into a suitcase.

But when it was her turn to speak, Mack, dressed in orange jail clothes and wearing dark eyeglasses, approached the lectern slowly, unfolded a sheet of paper, and said something her family has waited a decade to hear.

I’m sorry.

“From the bottom of my heart, I’m sorry,” Mack said, her voice cracking a bit with emotion as she turned slightly to face her mother’s siblings and other relatives in the gallery. “I know that words are not enough for the damage I have caused. It breaks my heart. If I could take my pain away, I would.”

Mack said she’s grown up a lot in the past 10 years, going from teenager to adult in prison, becoming a mother herself. She now understands the love her mother, Sheila von Wiese-Mack, had for her. And she said she still loves her.

“I miss her smile, her ‘I love yous,’ and most of all her holding me,” Mack said.

After sitting down at the defense table, Mack looked at her aunt and uncle across the courtroom and mouthed the words, “I love you.” They did not appear to say anything back.

Moments later, U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly sentenced Mack to 26 years in federal prison for the gruesome 2014 crime, which sparked international headlines and a sensational legal saga that led police on a trail back to suburban Chicago.

Mack, 28, who pleaded guilty last year to conspiring to murder a U.S. citizen on foreign soil, has already spent nearly 10 years behind bars, including seven years in a prison in Indonesia. The sentence handed down by Kennelly means Mack will not be eligible for release until she is about 48 years old.

In announcing his decision, Kennelly said he was not there to adjudicate what went wrong in Mack’s toxic relationship with her mother, the truth of allegations that von Wiese-Mack was abusive or drank too much, or even the precise details of how the murder unfolded.

“We can speculate what exactly happened. I don’t know why we need to,” Kennelly said. “It was a brutal, premeditated crime, and there was a concerted effort to cover it up. … (Von Wiese-Mack) could have been the worst parent in the history of humanity, but she didn’t deserve to die. That’s pretty much all you can say about it.”

The allegations in von Wiese-Mack’s slaying are well known. Authorities alleged Mack conspired with her boyfriend, Tommy Schaefer, to kill her mother in order to gain access to a $1.5 million trust fund set up after her father’s death.

In addition to the prison sentence, Kennelly ordered Mack to pay about $260,000 in restitution to her mother’s estate and pay a $50,000 fine.

After the hearing, von Wiese-Mack’s brother, Bill Wiese, said the family was “relieved that the court today gave Sheila the justice she so rightly deserves.”

“The world knew that justice was not served in Indonesia nine years ago,” he said. Asked about Mack’s remarks to the family in court, Wiese said, “That’s the first time that I’ve ever heard Heather apologize. And I did appreciate that.”

The family of Sheila von Wiese-Mack, Carolyn Wiese, sister-in-law, from left, Bill Wiese, brother, Debbi Curran, sister, and Lindsey Lococo, niece, talk to reporters after the sentencing of Heather Mack for the murder of her mother Wiese-Mack in Bali in 2014, at Dirksen US Courthouse on Jan. 17, 2024.

Despite passage of time, emotions were running high throughout the lengthy sentencing hearing, with Kennelly’s packed courtroom punctuated by loud sobs from the victim’s family as well as cries from supporters of Mack as the lawyers discussed the gruesome details of the case.

At the outset of the hearing, Wiese read a lengthy statement to the court, urging the judge not to believe Mack’s lies, which started at a young age and continued even after the killing, when she waged a legal battle from an Indonesian prison to get at her mother’s inheritance money.

“Heather, your criminal actions killed my sister Sheila, but your morally reprehensible behavior did not stop on that day,” Wiese said. “You have never shown any remorse for your premeditated murder.”

He told the judge he believes the $150,000 lump sum payment sent to Mack from her mother’s estate for her criminal defense in Bali was “not just used for legal fees,” but was instead “divided” among her overseas lawyer, prosecutors, the judge, and prison officials as part of a corrupt system that gave Mack special privileges like time on release, access to phones and free roam of the prison grounds.

“She truly hasn’t changed at all,” Wiese said. “If it were up to me, Heather would spend the rest of her life behind bars. Heather has used up all of her second chances.”

Wiese also spoke poignantly of his slain sister, recalling early memories of her climbing a tree in their yard to read a book. Other relatives remembered von Wiese-Mack for her quick wit, a history buff who loved opera, attending lectures, and traveling, all the while trying desperately to navigate her rocky relationship with her daughter.

But witnesses for the defense painted a darker picture. Onita Mack, a cousin of Heather’s father, James Mack, claimed von Wiese-Mack would not allow Heather to play with the Black side of her family and would not even let them in the house. She also told the judge James Mack was afraid of Sheila, and that Sheila was “jealous” of the bond he had with Heather.

Meanwhile, Mack’s self-described godmother, Diana Roque Ellis, wrote a letter to Kennelly pleading for leniency, saying she’s “seen no trace of this horrifically diabolical girl that Sheila had endlessly detailed throughout the years” and who has been demonized by the media.

“What I have come to know is a surprisingly rational, even keeled, fair-minded, well spoken, intelligent, lovely young woman who is (surprisingly again) essentially cheerful, good-natured, sympathetic and kind,” Ellis wrote.

Ellis also called out her slain friend, saying the abusive relationship between von Wiese-Mack and her daughter went both ways.

“It was mystifying as to how Sheila was always lovely, gracious and kind to me and her other friends and yet so unremittingly caustic to Heather,” Ellis wrote. “There would be brief interludes of ‘lovey-dovey‘ peace only to be followed by more fierce rancor and hurled invectives. Unfortunately, I recognized early on that neither Heather nor Sheila were both getting out of this downward spiral of crazy behavior alive.”

In asking for a sentence of 28 years, prosecutors argued Mack has shown little remorse and has continued to try to capitalize on her own infamy through tell-all book and entertainment deals.

Frank Rangoussis, a special prosecutor with the Department of Justice, said that however strained her relationship was with her mother, Mack’s ultimate decision was to “double down” on the plot to kill her.

“She could have changed her mind,” Rangoussis said. “If she was unhappy in the household she could have simply walked away. But she didn’t, because she wanted the money.”

Rangoussis also detailed how von Wiese-Mack suffered in her last moments. She had repeated blows to her face, and an autopsy showed blood in her lungs, meaning she was still breathing as the assault went on. “She struggled to stay alive and in that moment the defendant showed no mercy,” he said.

Mack’s attorneys, meanwhile, had asked for the minimum term of 15 years in prison, which would have made her eligible for release in as little as four years.

Heather Mack, right, and her mother, Sheila von Wiese-Mack, smiling in first class on the plane to Indonesia in 2014. Federal court document photo

(U.S. attorneys office)

Defense attorney Jeffrey Steinback told Kennelly that no one was arguing the tumultuous relationship Mack had with her mother in any way justified the murder. But he said Mack’s actions were a “paradox” considering she’d never lashed out at anyone else in her life.

Steinback also suggested the murder plot was not as “meticulous and sophisticated” as the government claimed.

“What happened, as heinous, violent, brutal as it was, occurred on the fly, ad hoc, and essentially unplanned,” Steinback said.

Tommy Schaefer and Heather Mack, charged with premeditated murder in the August 2014 slaying in Bali, Indonesia, of Mack’s mother, Sheila von Wiese-Mack, are escorted to a prison van in February 2015 in Bali, where they are on trial.

Mack was sentenced to 10 years in prison in Indonesia for the crime but released early for good behavior. She was arrested by the FBI when she landed at O’Hare International Airport in 2021 on a federal indictment that had been filed under seal while she was overseas.

In pleading guilty, Mack admitted to a horrific set of facts outlined in a lengthy plea agreement. Mack secretly flew Schaefer, the boyfriend, to Bali using her mother’s credit card, and they texted each other repeatedly about their plan, right up until Mack and her mother were alone in their hotel room.

“i need your help,” Mack texted Schaefer, according to the plea agreement. “you could just put your hand over her and i could grab her body.”

“must knock her out,” Schaefer replied. “I’m finding something right now … I’ll do it.”

Not long afterward, Schaefer entered the hotel room and beat von Wiese-Mack to death with the metal handle of a fruit bowl. An autopsy determined she suffered multiple facial and skull fractures and also had defensive injuries, the plea stated.

Together, Schaefer and Mack put the body in a suitcase and loaded it into the trunk of a taxi at the hotel. They tried to get away in the taxi, but the driver wouldn’t accept their fare; instead, they left the cab and abandoned the suitcase inside. Mack later tried to claim that armed men had broken into their room and kidnapped her mother.

Schaefer, who admitted to fatally beating von Wiese-Mack, was sentenced to 18 years in Indonesia and remained locked up there. The federal indictment remains pending against him in Chicago.

Federal prosecutors in Chicago had previously charged Schaefer’s cousin, Robert Bibbs, with helping in the murder plot. The FBI learned of Bibbs’ involvement after analyzing text messages found on Schaefer’s phone.

Bibbs, 33, is serving a nine-year prison sentence in Michigan for coaching the defendants on how to carry out the murder in return for a share of the anticipated multimillion-dollar estate. He is eligible for parole in 2025.

 Heather Mack is escorted by police officers as she arrives in the courtroom for her sentencing hearing at a district court in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia, on April 21, 2015.

Mack’s attorneys argued in court filings that incarcerating Mack for a lengthy period of time would not only needlessly cost taxpayers millions of dollars, but also keep her from developing a strong bond with her young daughter, Stella, who was born while Mack was serving time in Indonesia.

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Stella, now 8, has been placed with Mack’s cousin, Lisa Hellmann, in Colorado after a lengthy and bitter custody battle in Cook County Circuit Court.

Mack defense attorney Michael Leonard told reporters after the sentencing Wednesday that she will likely request to serve time in prison in Colorado, though he acknowledged it might be “difficult to get a visitation” with Stella.

In a written statement to the court, Hellmann told the judge Stella “does not want to be raised by Heather” and has “an intense desire to be a normal kid.” In recent years, she’s learned to ride a bike and has gone camping, to birthday parties, and sleepovers with friends, Hellmann said.

Still, Hellmann said, the girl is grief stricken over the loss of a mother she thought she had “and a grandmother she will never know.”

“I have had to tell her that she is not her parents,” Hellmann said. “It is not her fault.”

jmeisner@chicagotribune.com

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