Woman accused of Bali suitcase murder had troubled family life in Chicago

Categories: The Guardian

Mark Guarino in Chicago

theguardian.com, Friday 22 August 2014 12.15 EDT

While browsing through items at an estate sale in Oak Park, an upscale suburb west of Chicago, freelance musician Heather Neaveill-Kramer came upon a treasure trove: hundreds of handwritten musical scores, all original, and from the hand of James Mack, a man whose pioneering work helped create breakthroughs for black musicians in Chicago in the civil rights era and whose original compositions and orchestral and horn arrangements were used by soul and jazz luminaries like Ramsey Lewis, Tyrone Davis and Nancy Wilson, among many others.

“I was astounded. They were all over this basement. I thought at the time it was kind of odd to have all this music open to the public for sale, especially stuff he wrote,” Neaveill-Kramer said. “I would have bought more scores but there was so much there I couldn’t choose.”

That they were for sale in a basement, and not professionally archived in a university or private collection, illustrates, to some, the fractured dynamic of the family James Mack left behind when he died in 2006 at the age of 76: his widow Sheila von Wiese-Mack, and their daughter Heather, who was 10.

Heather, now 18, is in jail in Bali after being arrested with her boyfriend, Tommy Schaefer, 21, in connection with the killing of her mother, whose body was found stuffed into a suitcase outside a luxury resort. She is not speaking to police, said her Chicago attorney Michael Elkin, because he has not yet been able to secure her an Indonesian counsel.

“It’s not easy to find a trusted, well-versed and knowledgeable individual,” he said. Elkin said Mack did not have counsel at the last time he spoke to her, which was early on Tuesday morning.

While Mack waits to hear whether she will be charged, her family’s life in Chicago is coming under scrutiny.

Located in Oak Park’s historic district, where tourists arrive daily to tour notable homes by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the Mack home was more likely to be visited by police. The Oak Park police say that they made 86 calls to the Mack home between January 2004 and June 2013 for a combination of domestic violence, theft, missing person, and 911 hangups. All were related to incidents between the mother and daughter, said David Powers, communications director for Oak Park.

Cook County juvenile records obtained by the Chicago Tribune showed that Heather Mack was arrested in December 2011 on domestic battery, aggravated battery and battery charges involving violence against her mother. She was found guilty of battery and ordered to attend mandatory counselling, with a focus on anger management. Many of the calls before and since that arrest involved alleged physical violence against Von Wiese-Mack from her daughter, such as biting, punching and hitting; reports say one incident caused her mother to break her arm. Repeatedly, Von Wiese-Mack told police she believed Heather needed counselling because she suffered from mental health issues.

Elkin does not deny the reports, but suggests that they reflect a troubled girl who found it difficult to cope with the death of her father. “You don’t know if [her behaviour shows] the growing pains of being that daughter,” he said.

He described the relationship between Mack and her mother as “more of a friendship” that made “the role between friend and mother probably difficult to maintain”. He also suggested that some of the earliest reports involved individuals related to James Mack from outside the household.

“It was not a relationship that was all acrimonious; I don’t believe that at all. Yes, there were physical altercations … That still does not mean a child commits murder against her own mother,” he said.

All the incidents date from the period after James Mack died. Before then, his new family represented a late chapter in his life as father and husband. By the time he met Von Wiese in the early 1990s, he was already well established as an educator, composer and arranger, a career that originated when he taught jazz studies at Crane junior college, Chicago’s oldest city college. Mack, who moved to Chicago with his family from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, when he was five, is credited with teaching a new generation of up-and-coming musicians on the city’s South Side who would later become internationally famous: some the founding members of Earth, Wind and Fire, and others who were long-time session players for The Chi-Lites, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Terry Callier, BB King, Genesis and Phil Collins, and others.

Mack moonlighted as an arranger and producer for labels including Chess, Capitol and Columbia, and later served as a guest conductor for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Before that, he was deeply involved in attempts in the 1960s to merge the segregated labour unions that represented musicians in the city.

He already had a son and four daughters by two previous marriages when he married Von Wiese. By that time, Mack was in the twilight of his career and was suffering health problems. Many of his friends were confused by the marriage – his new bride was 22 years his junior – no less his decision to have a new child at the age of 66.

“Nobody could figure out how he ended up with her. He was definitely in a situation where he didn’t want to be alone and needed somebody. But in many ways, he was alone in that house,” said the veteran Chicago trumpeter Melvin Williams, who studied under Mack starting in 1963. Williams said Von Wiese-Mack discouraged her husband from socialising with her adult children and their families.

Mack used a wheelchair in the last three years of his life. He died in 2006 in Athens, Greece, after suffering a pulmonary embolism. Williams said the fire sale of his works following his death went against the advice of Ramsey Lewis, and it showed that Von Wiese-Mack did not fully comprehend her husband’s legacy.

“She respected Ramsey but I guess she didn’t understand about publishing. She should have hung on to all that music until she understood what it was,” Williams said.

Before his death, the family’s Oak Park home was a centre of activity related to the arts, particularly music and literature.

Von Wiese-Mack was “a lovely, charming woman” said neighbour and friend Georgia Parchem who said Von Wiese-Mack encouraged her to enrol in literature courses at the University of Chicago where she received her doctorate. The Macks routinely held parties involving “artists and friends from all over the city”, said Parchem. “They were always lovely events.”

But once Mack died, problems emerged.

Heather Mack dropped out of high school two years early and lived in two different facilities for minors in the county’s juvenile court system who suffer from mental health problems.

Neighbours said that Von Wiese-Mack appeared overwhelmed by her troubled daughter and often turned to them for help. Pat Leavy described her friend as “very cultured and talented” and said she volunteered on separate music and art committees at the Nineteenth Century Club of Oak Park, a civic organisation where Leavy served as president.

“She shared a lot of different things with me about her daughter because I had raised four daughters and she would wonder what the dynamics were between mother and daughter,” say Leavy. “I said, ‘Everyone’s life is different.’ I couldn’t possibly relate, but she did have difficulties forever with her daughter.”

An autopsy released on Monday shows von Wiese-Mack, 62, died of asphyxiation due to severe trauma to her face and she also had a broken neck. Heather Mack and Schaefer, who is also from Oak Park, are currently in custody. No charges have been brought as yet, although police have indicated the pair could be charged with premeditated murder, for which the maximum penalty is death.

Elkin said that Heather reports being sexually assaulted while in custody “on at least three occasions” and found “needle marks on various areas of her body, without knowledge” of their origin.

Media reports say that Mack said she was two months pregnant. Elkin would not comment on that.

Williams said if he was alive, James Mack would “do whatever he could do” to get his daughter home.

“I’m never glad Jim is dead, but I’m glad he’s not alive to go through what has just happened with his daughter,” he said.




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