Bali’s brutal ‘suitcase killers’ speak
In 2014, young American couple Heather Mack and Tommy Schaefer shocked the world when it was revealed they'd murdered Mack's millionairess mother, stuffed her bloodied and broken corpse into a suitcase and stashed it in the back of a taxi while holidaying in Bali.
Mack, who was only 18 and pregnant at the time, was sentenced to 10 years for helping plan the murder, while Schaefer, who bludgeoned Sheila von Wiese-Mack to death with a fruit bowl, received an 18-year sentence.
In the past five years, both convicts have shared some details about the motives behind the gruesome murder and their lives behind bars at Bali's notorious Kerobokan Prison; Shaefer, through letters to friends that were leaked to the press, and Mack through videos and sometimes raunchy photos posted on social media.
Also, on one occasion, via a telephone interview from her jail cell with American TV.
But for the first time, both killers have agreed to extended face-to-face interviews exclusively with news.com.au.
The revelations are not only deeply disturbing but flip on the head much of what was thought to be known about the couple known as Bali's own Bonnie and Clyde.
BEST JAIL IN THE WORLD
An hour after presenting my credentials to the women's block at Kerobokan Prison or Hotel K as it's known, a heavy steel door opens and I'm ushered inside. There I am told to remove my shoes and leave them on a rack before being padded down thoroughly by a guard.
After giving me the all clear, another steel door opens and I am directed towards the visiting area: a large wire-mesh cage inside of which some 30 female prisoners in jumpsuits are sitting around talking with family and friends.
After taking a seat, I strike up a conversation with a man visiting his daughter who has been imprisoned for smoking methamphetamine.
Indonesia has some of the toughest drug laws in the world; more than 70 per cent of the country's prison population have been locked up over drug charges. Among them is Lindsay Sandiford, a British grandmother languishing on death row since 2013 when she was caught trying to smuggle cocaine into Bali airport.
When Mack turns up she appears very different to how I had imagined. Physically she hasn't changed since her arrest in 2014: childlike and slim with a button nose and mane of frizzy blonde-black hair.
But she has adopted and perfected both the language and mannerisms of the Indonesians: slouching as she walks, making light of everything and greeting every single guard, prisoner and visitor in her path until collapsing into the seat next to me and saying: "What's up?"
My visit is unexpected but Mack loves the limelight and is happy to talk.
"This is probably the best prison in the world," she says.
"I was pregnant when I got here and they let Stella (Mack's now four-year-old daughter) stay with me until she was two.
"I would not be the kind of mother I am today and Stella would not be such a happy child if it weren't for the Indonesians. They have taught me so much about patience and nurturing and how to be a good mother.
"One night Stella got sick and I had three people helping me: a doctor taking care of Stella, a nurse showing me how to hold her and another lady making me a cup of tea.
"Stella now lives with a friend from Australia but I'm allowed to hold her and kiss her whenever they visit. If I were in jail in America I would only get to see her behind glass. Over there, anyone with a criminal conviction they treat like a monster. I know because I was in juvie (juvenile prison) when I was 16 after I got in a fight with my mother.
"It wasn't even a real prison but it was so much worse than here. It was so violent, the guards were violent too because society in America is violent. Unless you're filthy rich, it's impossible to turn your life around once you're in the American prison system.
"Over there it's like 'prisoner 1161'. Here they call you by your name. There's really no punishment here, it's just about rehabilitation. Yes, I'm locked up but I'm happy. My life is better now than it ever was before. I'm far happier than I was living with my mother in Chicago."
The only child of a wealthy family, Mack says her childhood was perfect until her father, celebrated jazz composer James L Mack, died when she was 10 and she was left alone with her mother Sheila von Wiese-Mack.
"My mother was super abusive because she was an alcoholic and a drug addict. I still have these," she says, showing me small red scars on her forearms. "These are from when she stabbed me with her nails, this one was a cigarette burn.
"One time she even set my hair on fire.
"It may have looked like I was rebelling when I was a teenager because I was hanging out with gang members and missing school. But it wasn't like that," she explains. "My mother would drink heavily at night and once she was drunk she'd start fighting with me because I'd hide her car keys to stop her going for a drive to the store to get more booze.
"If I fell asleep early, she'd fall down the staircase so I rarely got to bed before five or six in the morning, and I'd wake up when she woke up about 1pm. At school, they thought I was a spoilt rich kid who was partying till dawn but they had no idea I was being chased around the house all night by my mother with a kitchen knife."
It is difficult not to feel a measure of compassion for Mack after hearing of her childhood, and a little less difficult to imagine why she plotted to kill her own mother.
"What happened on the day she was killed?" I ask her.
"Come by tomorrow and I'll tell you," she says, pointing to a guard who is signalling that visiting time is over.
A BLACK HOLE
After returning to my hotel I spend hour after hour pouring over the voluminous information on von Wiese-Mack's murder that has been published online.
Of particular interest is a documentary by US tabloid TV show True Crime Daily in which various sources refute Mack's claims that her mother was abusive. Rather, they say it was Mack who was both violent and abusive towards her mother.
"She bit Sheila. She would hit her. Heather pushed her one time in the bathroom and she fell down and broke her arm. And she wouldn't press charges (because) it's a really hard thing to do when it's your own child," says von Wiese-Mack's sister Debbi Curran.
Adds Elliott Jacobson, a friend of the family: "Police came to the house 86 times. Not in one of those (police reports) was there a shred of evidence that her mother was alcoholic or violent."
Jacobson also shows an email sent to him by von Wiese-Mack in which the deceased wrote: "Heather was violent tonight … I am really scared of what she may do next."
I also find a bizarre three-part video confession Mack posted on YouTube last year. "Since I have been a kid I have heard the truth sets you free and I never understood. But I am Heather Mack and I want to be set free. I don't want to live in a lie anymore," Mack said.
In the first part of the video, she accused her mother of killing her father in a hotel room in Athens and claims the real reason she plotted to kill von Wiese-Mack was revenge. However, a 2006 obituary published by The Chicago Tribune reports James L Mack died after suffering a blood clot in his lung.
In the second part of the video, Mack admitted she actually planted the incriminating the text messages found on her co-accused Tommy Schaefer's mobile phone - messages that convinced Indonesian judges to give Schaefer the maximum sentence of 18 years.
"Part of me knew … I might get arrested," Mack said. "And I didn't want to get arrested by myself in a different country (so) I trapped him here.
In the third part of the video, she said: "I don't regret killing my mother … I regret bringing Tommy into it … I regret trapping an innocent person into this … I killed her and told Tommy if he did not help me clean the room and get rid of the body I would tell police he did it. So he helped me clean it.
"He ran with me … I am sorry that everyone who knew you thinks you are a murderer when you are not. I am sorry everyone thinks you are a crazy killer. This is the truth. And whoever is watching this don't hate Tommy. He is innocent. I am not. I love you, Tommy."
Schaefer, however, does not reciprocate Mack's feelings.
In a rambling six-page 4351-word letter penned in 2016 - his only communique with the outside world since the trial - he described the mother of his child as "that evil girl … who manipulates everything", expressed disbelief over how Mack could be having such a good time in jail, accused her of "profiting financially as much as she can" from von Wiese-Mack's murder and says "the world deserves to know the truth".
The only way to hear that truth is to speak with Schaefer face-to-face - a practical impossibility given he's turned away every reporter who's visited him at Hotel K.
The following morning I attempt to speak with Schaefer all the same. After waiting for half an hour in the crowded and noisy visiting room in the men's block, Schaefer, now 28, appears behind a set of iron bars and asks me what I want.
When I inform him I am a reporter wanting to hear his side of the story he looks down at his hands and says: "You want to know why I killed Sheila? I killed her because … because … because …"
Schaefer can no longer form words because he is crying uncontrollably. Not knowing what else to do, I take the young killers' hands into mine and offer to leave him in peace.
"No," he says. "I can see the good in you. I see the love in you. I think God brought you here today so you could share my story with the world. The time has come time to break my silence."
Shaefer begins by telling me he is a born-again-Christian who has baptised more than 50 prisoners at Hotel K: "I work for the church and I try to baptise other people with the holy spirit, letting people know that God is always watching and everything is under control.
"Because once you know that truth, the higher truth, it releases you and you don't have to worry so much," he says.
Like Mack, Shaefer also claims he is better off at Hotel K than he would be in a prison in the US. "I have become a better person in here because of how forgiving the Indonesians are," he explains, sobbing again.
"They don't judge you for the mistakes you've made because they understand every person in here is going through a process of cleansing. It's your process so they give you freedom in prison. You can eat what you want, drink what you want and do what because they know the real battle is on the inside."
I then ask Shaefer what he thinks about Mack. For the first time since we began speaking, he looks up and meets my eyes. "Heather," he says through clenched teeth. "Heather is a black hole."
"I am guilty of murder and that is why I am in here. I did it along with Heather but my reasons for killing Sheila were different to hers," Shaefer says.
"She had an objective and I was emotionally tagged along. I don't want to sound like a crybaby or a b**ch or that I am not a man, but I was emotionally tricked. God only knows the sorts of mind games and tricks I went through at the time, which is why I helped kill her mother."
I remind him that Mack has already admitted that much on YouTube.
"She may have said in that video where she says the truth will set her free," Shaefer concedes. "But the truth is everything was her idea and I went along with it because at the moment I was really f**ked up.
"My life was great until my girlfriend Rachel died in a traffic accident on April 17, 2014. I already knew Heather as a friend but only got with her about two months after Rachel died because of how vulnerable I was.
"I was trying to find answers, trying to find something positive because there's a lot of negative things in the world. But if you know the higher truth, you know there is justice because God is always watching.
"So even though I know Heather is happy in prison and I am in hell, I would say I am freer than her. I have become a better person while she is stagnant; she's stuck in a spider web and she doesn't even know it. But God is currently judging her as he is judging me.
"To go through some sort of rehabilitation you have to go through fire. So I thank God for putting me through the fire and finally giving me the answers. But unfortunately it cost somebody their life and it has cost me my life, too."
I ask Shaefer about Mack's allegations regarding her mother being a violent alcoholic and drug addict. "Drugs, I don't know, but I knew Sheila was an alcoholic," he says. "I would hear her slurring her words when Heather was talking to her on speaker phone and hear her verbally abusing Heather.
"Was she violent? I think it went both ways, they were both violent to each other. But there is no doubt Sheila was an abusive mother. One time back in Chicago, I saw her flip out, grab Heather by the hair and drag her around."
He continues: "Sheila was doing the same thing the day I killed her. I did not mean to do it. I mean, obviously, you can argue from reading the text messages between Heather and I that it was premeditated murder. But the truth is it just happened in the heat of the moment.
"The fight was already going on when I walked into the room. I was just standing there listening to all the yelling and name-calling and it all became too much for me so I started thinking about justice.
"I made a terrible decision thinking if I killed Sheila it would help the situation. I was just trying to do what was right, to set things right, but I know now that isn't our job. That is God's job only."
In a fit of tears he adds: "I would give my own life to undo what I did that day. I would give my own life and so much more. So, so, so much more," he says, staring at me intensely, pleading to be believed.
I ask Shaefer if he thinks Mack could kill again. "There is no doubt. But I think it's more likely she could kill by neglect," he says, referring to his daughter Stella. "At the moment she is a huge risk to my child.
"I can't overstate how much danger she is in. She spent her first two years in prison, she doesn't even know who she is, probably thinks she's Indonesian. She doesn't even know her real family in the States. She lives five minute's drive from here but I also get to see her a few times a year."
I raise my head and look around. I am the only person remaining in the visiting room and Shaefer is the only prisoner still standing behind the bars. Visiting time is now over. Before departing, I ask Shaefer if he intends to apply for parole after his non-parole period of eight years ends in 2022.
"I am not focused on applying for parole," he says, sobbing again. "I am focused on bettering myself. Yes, it would be nice to be free. But I got work to do in here. As long as I am doing the Lord's work in here and I am alive, everything is a plus. I do believe I am paying back my debt by the way I live here."
But what does he plan to do when he is deported to the US after completing his 18-year sentence?
"When I get back to the States, I hope they will give me another chance. But if not, if the government or Sheila's family believes I have still not paid for what I have done, I will accept any punishment they give me. I will not fight them," he says.
DO YOU TRUST ME?
When I return to the women's section at Kerobokan Prison in the afternoon, I ask Heather why she never reported her mother's abuse during any of the 86 police visits to her family home in Chicago.
"If I had, they would've sent me to live in foster home," she explains. "I met kids in juvie who'd been in foster homes and their stories were terrible. I wasn't going to let that happen to me."
Next, I ask her about her confession video on YouTube about Schaefer being her unwitting pawn.
"Oh that. That wasn't true," she says, waving a hand in the air to signify its irrelevance. "I made it up because Tommy was blackmailing me. He wanted me to say that I planned it all so that his sentence would be reduced.
"I feel for him because he got 18 years while I only got 10, and some people say that is not long enough. Tommy's not a murderer, he's just lost.
"You know, people say I killed my mother for her money. That's untrue. The only thing my mother ever did for me was give me money. If I wanted her money, I didn't need to kill her.
"All I had to do was stay home and spend it," Mack says, referring to the $2.2 million estate she tried - and failed - to inherit after a US judge decreed Mack will not receive "any property, benefit or other interest". Instead, Mack's daughter Stella was named the beneficiary of von Wiese-Mack's estate.
And what about the part in the video where she claims Mack killed her mother in revenge for her killing her father. Was that something she made up, too?
"No. I still think she had something to do with my father's death," Mack replies. "They said it was a lung clot but what made me suspicious is that my dad was sick with cancer at the time and he didn't want to go to Greece on vacation.
"For months I had been taking care of him, taking him to the bathroom when he needed it while mum was out at lunches, she was a busy socialite. I will never forget what my father told me the day he died: 'Forgive your mother for what she did today.'"
I remind Mack that during her trial she claimed Shaefer killed her mother after von Wiese-Mack became enraged after learning of her pregnancy - an allegation that was debunked after emails were presented to the court showing von Wiese-Mack knew of the pregnancy before flying to Bali.
"Yes, she knew I was pregnant," Mack finally admits. "What really happened is she'd convinced me to have an abortion in Chicago and I had agreed. But when she broached the subject again in Bali I'd changed my mind. We had a huge fight about it and that's when Tommy came into the room.
"They were both drunk, they'd each drunk a bottle of champagne. My mother was using the n-word and Tommy was saying, 'but your husband was black', and she said it didn't matter because he was rich.
"She kept on saying to Tommy 'Can you spell ASSET? No, because you don't have any. What right did you have to f**k my daughter?' She wanted me to go up, to marry some rich kid, not go down, but I only wanted to marry for love.
"She said I was black enough and that if I had a baby with Tommy it would be even blacker. That's what upset my mother so much about Tommy. It was his colour."
And that's when you decided to kill her?
"No. I mean sure, we had planned it. I was the one who said it first. I planned it all in Chicago," Mack says. "But when it happened at the hotel it wasn't like that. There were huge knives in the kitchen for cutting up pineapples. If we had planned to kill her then, we would've gone for the knives. It just happened in the heat of the moment. He beat her to death with a fruit bowl that was in his hand."
And stuffing her corpse in a suitcase? Whose idea was that?
"Mine. Tommy was saying we should leave her there and run but I was like no, I just didn't want to leave her there. So we wrapped her up with tape, put her in a suitcase and got it outside to a taxi. But when we refused to let the taxi driver help us put the suitcase in the back of his car he became suspicious. He thought it was drugs, he wanted to open it, so we left it and ran."
Before departing, I ask Mack why she agreed to an interview.
"I always wanted to tell my story because it relates to a lot of people," she says.
"In what way?"
"In dealing with racism. My mother was a racist. That is why this happened," Mack says.
"So, do you feel any remorse over your mother's death?" I ask.
"Yes, I feel remorse" she answers nonchalantly. "She didn't deserve to die."
Mack also has one question of her own. "Do you trust me?" she asks.
I pause for a moment, searching for a diplomatic reply before spitting out the truth. "No," I tell her. "Look where you are."
"Well, you should," Mack says. "You should trust me not to come after you with a big pineapple knife or fruit bowl when I get out on parole."
Ian Lloyd Neubauer is a journalist and photojournalist. Follow him on Twitter @ian_neubauer