The pair's relationship was often violent, and they would bond over shoplifting expensive French cosmetics

By Johnny Dodd
Updated September 28, 2015 03:00 PM
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Credit: Agung Parameswara/Getty Images

The road that led Heather Mack to a prison cell in Bali, Indonesia, for her role in the grisly murder of her mother was messy, often violent and marked by warning signs that it would end in tragedy.

According to exclusive interviews with Heather Mack and a family friend, Heather and her mother – whose battered body was discovered stuffed in a suitcase in the trunk of a taxi in August 2014 – were entangled in a dysfunctional, co-dependent relationship from which neither could break free.

“She never wanted to be separated from me and yet she also hated everything about me,” Heather, 19, tells PEOPLE from the cell she shares with seven other women and her six-month-old daughter, Stella, in Bali’s Kerobokon prison. “It was complicated.”

Adds the family friend: “It was like they were locked in an inescapable pattern, a gridlock. It’s such a sad story. It was like a disaster waiting to happen.”

On the morning of Aug. 12, Sheila von Wiese-Mack, 62, was bludgeoned to death in the luxury hotel suite she shared with her daughter, according to Indonesian authorities and recently unsealed federal court documents. At trial, Heather’s boyfriend, Tommy Schaefer, confessed to the killing. Schaefer received an 18-year sentence and Heather was sentenced to ten years.

During Heather’s interview from her prison cell, she repeatedly insisted she didn’t kill her mother, but admits that their life together grew troubled after the 2006 death of her father, the renowned Chicago-based jazz and classical composer James Mack who left behind a $1.5 million trust for his daughter.

Still, she says, “There was a lot of good in our relationship. I don’t know if I would describe us as friends, but we were close.”

Perhaps too close: Heather describes Sheila was an overbearing mother who lavished her with gifts – but also made her sleep in the same bed with her every night.

“I had a nice room, but if I ever tried to sleep in it, she couldn’t take it and she wouldn’t sleep,” says Heather. “So I slept with her.”

Adds the family friend: “When I’d ask Sheila, ‘Don’t you think she’s a little old for that?’ She’d say, ‘Why? She needs me. She has nightmares at night. She needs me.’ ”

Bonding Over Shoplifting

According to Heather and the family friend, mother and daughter also bonded over shoplifting the expensive French cosmetics that Sheila liked but never wanted to pay for – despite having plenty of cash. “We’d take thousands and thousands of dollars worth of makeup,” Heather says. “She’d tell me that nobody would expect a kid to do that and have me steal it while she distracted the clerk. . . . I wanted to make her happy, so I’d just do it.”

The older Heather got, the more heated and violent their fights became. On several occasions, authorities sent Sheila’s daughter to various juvenile detention facilities where therapists attempted to work with the teenager.

“If I went to a psych ward, she would get frustrated within a couple days and couldn’t take being away from me, so she’d do everything she could to get me out,” says Heather, who claims her mother’s behavior grew increasingly erratic due to drinking. “She didn’t want me to get help and she didn t want to get help for herself.”

By the time she turned 18, Heather had begun pulling away from her mother, but that only added to the tension, she says.

“I tried to move out of the house multiple times because I couldn’t take it anymore,” she says. “And every time I would try to leave, she would call me and send me pictures of herself trying to kill herself, saying, ‘If you don’t come back right now you’re not ever going to see me ever again.’ So I’d always go back.”

By the time the two left for their ill-fated summer vacation to Bali in early August 2014, Sheila had called the police to their six-bedroom Oak Park, Ill., mansion a reported 86 times. “We had fights, but they weren’t one-sided,” Heather says. “A lot of them were me blocking her from coming at me or her backing me into a corner and not letting me leave and go cool off.”

According to the family friend: “Sheila would provoke her, sometimes saying, ‘Hit me, hit me,’ until Heather would do just that. When I’d try and tell her to give Heather space during their arguments, she’d say, ‘But what if she leaves? What if she doesn’t come back?’ ”

Sheila, says the source, not only “feared her daughter,” but was also terrified that Heather would abandon her. “So she had to keep her close and controlled in any way she could,” she adds.

When the family friend suggested to Sheila that perhaps putting some distance between her and Heather might be the answer, Sheila initially seemed open to it. “I suggested a boarding school or a private school or possibly even a group home for her,” says the source.

Not long afterward, the family friend says Sheila called her in tears, saying, “‘I can’t take it anymore. I think you’re right. I think I need a break.’

“But within a day she called back to say, ‘I can’t live without my daughter. I can’t do it.’ The fear of abandonment was too strong for her. Even though she knew she was suffering and her child was suffering.”

Their Ill-Fated Trip

Heather, who was pregnant with Schaefer’s child before leaving on the vacation in August 2014, claims she “had zero interest in going” to Bali. She says that Sheila was “drunk the whole time and taking prescription pain pills. I was so depressed I wouldn’t even leave our room. I missed Tommy.”

Schaefer arrived in Bali shortly after midnight on Aug. 12, using Sheila’s credit card to pay for his $12,000 plane ticket. Roughly nine hours later, Sheila had been bludgeoned to death and stuffed inside her suitcase.

Schaefer and Heather were convicted of Sheila’s murder in April. For their part, they claimed Sheila had flown into a rage upon learning that Heather was pregnant. Schaefer testified that he hit her with the steel handle of a fruit bowl when she attempted to strangle him as Heather hid in the bathroom.

On Sept. 22, federal authorities arrested Schaefer’s cousin on charges that he allegedly conspired to help the couple kill Sheila. Weeks before leaving for the island, Robert Bibbs, 24, allegedly gave Mack and Tommy Schaefer pointers on various ways they could murder Sheila, according to the documents that detailed dozens of text messages they exchanged. (Bibbs was charged in federal court last week but did not enter a plea. A federal judge ordered him confined to his mother’s Chicago home on a $50,000 bond, and he must wear a GPS monitoring bracelet.)

“In the media they say we had it [Sheila’s killing] all planned out, but that’s not what happened,” Heather insists. “She attacked Tommy, he hit her. That’s all he did. I saw it.”

Heather will have the next eight years to contemplate exactly what happened on that tragic morning. She claims to think about Sheila every day as she goes about trying to raise her daughter in prison and tries to achieve a sense of normalcy amidst the chaos.

“But things are more confusing now than when she was alive,” Heather says, pausing for a moment to check on the infant asleep in her bed. “I wish I’d found some way to get her help. And to get me help.”

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