Mack defense will focus on Sheila von Wiese’s mental health, alcohol use

By Bill Dwyer For Chronicle Media

Oak Park police evidence photo taken in April 2011, showing bite marks and other bruising on Sheila von Wiese’s left arm and wrist, and her broken right arm protected by a brace.

Should Heather Mack’s criminal case for her alleged conspiracy to kill her mother go to trial on July 31, her defense team appears prepared to put Sheila von Wiese Mack on trial as well.

In a May 1 filing in response to a prosecution motion, Mack’s defense attorney Mike Leonard said he would delve into various aspects of Sheila von Wiese’s mental health, her use of alcohol and her relationship with her late husband, James Mack.

In a pair of April 17 motions, the prosecution asked the judge to allow prior acts of both fraud and violence by Heather against her mother to be admitted under established exceptions to federal hearsay rules. The motions, they said, were filed for the “… purposes of establishing defendant’s motive and intent to commit the (murder of von Wiese).”

Prosecutors also argued that besides her hatred of von Wiese and her desire to take her personal wealth, there is “… direct evidence that one of Mack’s several motives for killing her mother was the concern about getting caught” for her alleged credit card fraud in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Leonard filed a response May 1, arguing against the government’s requests, saying Mack’s alleged prior bad acts have nothing to do with the offenses with which she is charged, and would lead to “undue prejudice to Heather Mack and juror confusion.”

He also stated that the evidence will show that it was Tommy Schaefer, not Mack, who murdered von Wiese.

Leonard specifically refuted the government’s contention that Heather Mack “hated” her mother. Rather, he said, the two “had an extremely complicated and troubled mother-daughter relationship.” Those complications, he said, stemmed from several underlying issues, including Sheila von Wiese’s and James Mack’s relationship, von Wiese’s “treatment of Mr. Mack” during the five-year period he was confined to a wheelchair following an accident, and “Ms. von Wiese’s own emotional and mental health issues, including with respect to the use of alcohol.”

Leonard also took a slap at von Wiese’s parenting practices, noting what he termed her “repeated and continual resort to local law enforcement as a means of ‘parenting’ and ‘discipline’ during Heather Mack’s high school years.”

A review of the 25 Oak Park police reports filed between January 2010 and March 2013, when Heather attended Oak Park and River Forest High School, shows that 12 of those incidents involved actual physical harm to Sheila or the explicit threat of harm to her by Heather, and six were regarding the theft of cash or jewelry, or credit card fraud by Heather. Six involved issues like breaking things and running away.

Heather was arrested on five occasions, was placed on one year of court supervision for battering her mother and was ordered hospitalized for psychiatric evaluation and treatment on at least three occasions.

Alcohol was mentioned in only one incident report, the last one filed in March 2013. Heather reportedly accused her mother of being drunk, and von Wiese reportedly told police she was “‘not drunk’ but admitted she was probably over the legal BAC limit to drive a car.”

Interviews with people who knew von Wiese in Chicago and Oak Park, dating back to the early 1980s, and several of Heather’s high school friends, indicate that she did drink to excess at times.

Despite previous media accounts that Sheila viewed her nursing of James after his crippling injury as “the richest experience of my life,” the truth was in fact more complicated. Numerous interviews indicate that James Mack was frequently abusive to von Wiese. She told several people that James “did not respect her,” and that he would verbally and also physically abuse her, often in Heather’s presence.

Von Wiese told several friends that Heather would tell her, “Well dad does it to you, so I can too.”

The conflicted nature of von Wiese’s relationship with James Mack is suggested in court testimony for their civil lawsuit against a cruise line for his debilitating injury in 2000. Several pages of handwritten notes by von Wiese about James’ injury were entered into the court record. In those notes, she wrote that trying to heal her husband’s wounds “provided me the richest experience of my life. Despite all the obstacles, we have persevered and remained a family bound together by our love of each other.”

However, her own testimony in court suggested she had mixed feelings about James.

“He had a lot of, I mean, in some ways, he felt like a burden to me,” she testified. “I was not an old woman, and I was reduced to caring for him.”

Several people recalled seeing significant bruising on von Wiese early in her marriage, and two people interviewed said they saw serious facial bruising on her in 1995, before she was married, while she was still pregnant with Heather.

After James died in 2006, Sheila’s friends and acquaintances reported seeing frequent bruising on von Wiese through the years, which von Wiese attributed to Heather. Several of those people made repeated attempts to convince her to distance herself from Heather after she turned 18, right up until days before they departed for Bali.