By Johnny Dodd
September 15, 2014 12:00 PM

On the morning of Aug. 12, as sarong-clad guests strolled the tropical gardens and pristine beaches of the five-star St. Regis Bali Resort, a cab driver outside the hotel noticed what appeared to be blood leaking from a suitcase that had been put in his trunk. He drove to a nearby police station, where authorities made a horrific discovery: Stuffed inside the bag was the battered, twisted body of Chicago socialite Sheila von Wiese-Mack, wrapped in a bloody bedsheet. “There were signs of a struggle by the victim,” Bali forensic expert Ida Bagus Putu Alit told reporters, “as there were bruises on her arms, and some fingers were broken. She’d been hit by a blunt object on the face and head.”

Even more shocking was the news that hours after the bloody suitcase’s contents were revealed, the 62-year-old victim’s daughter Heather Mack, 18, and her boyfriend Tommy Schaefer, 21, whom police say carried the suitcase to the cab, were locked up in a Balinese jail for the murder. An autopsy found von Wiese-Mack died of asphyxiation from a broken nose resulting from a blow and also had a broken neck, according to authorities. Her gruesome death has left friends struggling to make sense of the tragedy. “So many people,” laments longtime pal Mark Bacharach, “told Sheila not to take this trip with Heather.”

The mother and daughter’s 10-day vacation to the white sand beaches of Bali was yet one more attempt, friends say, by a desperate von Wiese-Mack to reach out to her daughter, whose father, renowned Chicago composer and arranger James Mack, died at age 76 of a pulmonary embolism on a 2006 vacation in Greece. Between January 2004 and June 2013, police were called to the family’s sprawling home in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Ill., 86 times to “break up fights” between the mother and daughter and “investigate missing money and credit cards,” says David Powers, spokesman for Oak Park Village. Also in dispute may have been a $1.5 million settlement the James Mack estate received in 2011 from Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, stemming from a debilitating injury he received in a cruise ship swimming pool in 2001. After netting $340,667 after legal fees, according to court records, von Wiese-Mack also received $500,000 as the sole executor of her husband’s estate. “She had a tumultuous relationship with Heather,” says a family friend. “But she never gave up hope.”

In the weeks before their Bali trip, Chicago police say that Heather and boyfriend Schaefer were arrested for disorderly conduct while partying at a suite in the city’s Conrad Hotel after von Wiese-Mack reported that her daughter had taken her credit card to pay for the room. Friends of Schaefer warned the aspiring rapper to “stay away” from Heather. “One minute she could be okay” says Schaefer’s pal Paris Reese, “and the next she would snap.” One of Schaefer’s last Facebook posts before departing to Bali read: “Leaving Aug 4th for Indonesia might not come backkkk [sic].”

Although the couple have so far refused to talk to investigators, Schaefer’s words could prove prophetic. “We have enough evidence, including CCTV [closed-circuit TV] and fingerprints,” Colonel Djoko Hari Utomo, chief of police in Bali’s Denpasar district, told reporters. “And I am inclined to charge them with premeditated murder.”

If convicted, the couple, who at press time have yet to be charged with any crime, could ultimately face death by firing squad. Heather’s Chicago-based attorney Michael Elkin insists his client “is innocent of committing murder.” The mother and daughter “were fighting like cats and dogs,” Elkin admits. “But they were close.”

Police have said that security camera footage reveals Heather and Schaefer arguing with von Wiese-Mack in the hotel lobby just hours before her death. The next morning, the authorities claim the pair—who reportedly told them they were ambushed at the hotel by an armed gang—loaded the suitcase containing von Wiese-Mack’s body into the taxi, then were videoed fleeing from a back entrance of the hotel. “Sheila loved her daughter very much,” von Wiese-Mack’s brother William said in a statement, “and was always a very … loving mother.”

In the days since Heather’s and Shaefer’s arrest, a steady stream of disturbing revelations about the couple has made headlines—including news that Heather is two months pregnant. While questions remain unanswered, those who knew the family best are left grappling with their grief. “Sheila worked so hard to keep that relationship with Heather going,” says former neighbor Allen Parchem. “And the result turned out to be tragic.”

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