Trial kicks off in custody battle over Heather Mack’s daughter

Nearly a year after Heather Mack arrived in the United States with her young daughter, only to be taken into federal custody in connection with the 2014 murder of her mother, a trial kicked off Tuesday to resolve the messy custody battle that has developed over the fate of Mack’s child.

Four people are seeking custody of 7-year-old Estelle Schaefer, known as Stella, in the bench trial before Cook County Judge Stephanie Miller. Opening statements Tuesday revolved in part around Stella’s potential exploitation in the wake of the sensational murder of Sheila von Wiese-Mack of Oak Park, as well as the possible termination of Mack’s parental rights.

Meanwhile, Mack remains locked up in the downtown Metropolitan Correctional Center. She and her onetime boyfriend, Tommy Schaefer, are charged in federal court here with plotting von Wiese-Mack’s murder in Indonesia. Schaefer remains locked up overseas.

Seeking custody of Stella are Kia Walker, Tommy Schaefer’s mother; Lisa Hellmann, a cousin of Mack’s from Colorado; Diana Roque Ellis, a California woman and onetime friend of von Wiese-Mack’s; and Oshar Suartama, the woman who cared for Stella in Indonesia while Mack served her prison sentence there.

Stella has most recently been back in Suartama’s care, here in the Chicago area, even though Mack told the judge she’d prefer her daughter go to Ellis.

Hellmann’s attorney, Clarke Mac Gillespie, told the judge Tuesday she’d hear evidence that Ellis and Suartama struck deals that would lead to Stella’s exploitation in "some sort of video production or a book or some other type of thing that was highly unlikely to be in Stella’s best interest." Online reports dating back to 2016 have connected Ellis to such projects.

Gillespie said Hellmann is a science teacher who has raised two boys and wants "to try to do right by this child."

Ellis’ attorney, Enrico Mirabelli, told the judge Suartama has a written contract with a woman who has promised to write a book about Mack’s case. He also complained that Hellmann intends to adopt Stella and terminate Mack’s parental rights.

Mirabelli insisted that Ellis stepped up for her friend’s daughter and granddaughter and "never imagined that people would try to drag her through the mud as they’ve done in this case."


Walker, who is representing herself and also began calling witnesses Tuesday, stressed the importance of family and became upset as she told the judge, "I love me some Stella."

"She’s all I have," Walker said. "I fought for her. She’s my family. You all don’t get to decide what my family looks like. She’s my family."

Suartama’s attorney did not give an opening statement.

Von Wiese-Mack’s body was discovered inside a suitcase outside the St. Regis Bali Resort on Aug. 12, 2014. Mack and Schaefer were arrested the next day and prosecuted in Indonesia. Schaefer was sentenced to 18 years in prison for beating von Wiese-Mack to death, and Mack was sentenced to 10 years for helping.

Mack, now 26, gave birth to Stella during the couple’s 2015 trial.

Mack was released from an Indonesian prison in October 2021 and deported with Stella to the United States. An indictment against Mack and Schaefer was unsealed in U.S. District Court in Chicago as Mack’s flight neared O’Hare Airport, and she was arrested after her plane landed.