Sheila von Wiese-Mack’s siblings said they would’ve looked forward to visiting her in Chicago for her 65th birthday this month, enjoying the warm June weather, strolling along the lakefront, talking about music and art and laughing.
Instead, they sat in a stark federal courtroom Friday, holding each other and crying as Robert Bibbs, a South Side man convicted of helping plot their sister’s brutal 2014 murder in Indonesia, awaited his fate.
A few feet from Bill Wiese and Debbi Curran sat the large suitcase where Bali police had discovered von Wiese-Mack’s bloodied body. On the prosecution table was the murder weapon — a curved metal fruit bowl handle — that had been used to bludgeon her to death.
The siblings bowed their heads as autopsy photos of their sister’s bruised and battered face were flashed on a flat-screen. When it came time to address the court, they approached the lectern at the front of U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer’s packed courtroom together, arms entwined.
“Her life senselessly ended in the most horrific way possible,” said Curran, shaking slightly as Bibbs looked on without expression. “This will haunt me for the rest of my life.”
Moments later, a federal judge sentenced Bibbs to 9 years in prison for helping coach his cousin, Tommy Schaefer, and von Wiese-Mack’s daughter, Heather Mack, to carry out the sensational murder in return for a share of her multimillion-dollar estate.
Text messages Bibbs sent to his cousin — many sprinkled with emoticons and speaking in joking terms about the murder — as well as his statements to the FBI after the killing showed he encouraged the crime and expected to be handsomely rewarded, prosecutors said.
In one text that was shown to Pallmeyer during Friday’s two-hour hearing, Bibbs had told his girlfriend, “Babe we’re gonna be rich. Heed those words.”
Before the sentence was handed down, Bibbs, 26, stood in court and apologized for his role in the crime, saying he was drinking a lot at the time and was “lost as a man” and “depressed.”
“I never expected them to do something so horrific,” said Bibbs, who pleaded guilty in December to a count of conspiracy to commit foreign murder of a U.S. national. “Please understand that.”
But Pallmeyer said the communications Bibbs sent to his cousin in the days and hours before the murder made it clear he was well aware of their plans.
“It’s haunting that someone who had every opportunity to step in and prevent a violent murder in fact did nothing of the kind,” Pallmeyer said in handing down the sentence.
The August 2014 murder of von Wiese-Mack, 62, made headlines around the world. Schaefer testified during his murder trial in Indonesia that von Wiese-Mack became angry when he went to her hotel room and told her that Mack was pregnant with his child. He said he struck her with the heavy bowl handle after she threatened to harm the unborn baby and then began strangling him.
After the murder, the couple stuffed the woman’s bloody body in the suitcase before ditching it in a taxi at the resort. When they were arrested the next morning at a nearby budget motel, Mack claimed kidnappers killed her mother but that they had escaped.
Mack, 21, and Schaefer, 24, were convicted by an Indonesian jury in 2015. Both are serving prison sentences — 10 years for Mack and 18 years for Schaefer.
Meanwhile, the FBI had learned of Bibbs’ involvement after analyzing the text messages found on Mack’s and Schaefer’s phones. FBI Special Agent Michael Vahidtari testified Friday that when he confronted Bibbs at his South Side apartment in December 2014, Bibbs first denied any involvement but later admitted sending the texts.
Bibbs admitted in a plea agreement with prosecutors that he’d coached his cousin and Mack before the Bali trip on how to kill von Wiese-Mack without getting caught. He offered suggestions of a drug overdose made to look like an accident or suffocation during sleep.
On the day of the murder, Bibbs exchanged numerous texts and Facebook messages with Mack and Schaefer about their plan. In one text to Mack, Bibbs wrote to “go sit on her face with a pillow” or drown von Wiese-Mack after she failed to fatally drug her, court records show. Bibbs also warned the couple about surveillance cameras that could catch them in the act.
Minutes after the killing, Schaefer texted to say that “for some reason” he didn’t feel bad, according to court records.
“She wasn’t a good person,” Bibbs said. “There wasn’t any positive energy released from her body.”
In court Friday, von Weise-Mack’s friends and family said they were haunted by that text and described in vivid detail how wrong Bibbs was about a woman he’d admittedly never even met.
She was a kindhearted woman with a sparkling smile and quick wit, a history buff who loved opera and books, they said. She was devoted to her church, St. Chrysostom’s Episcopal Church in Chicago, where her friend Diane Edelman recalled quiet conversations as they prepared the altar for services. And she also loved her daughter, despite their often rocky relationship.
“Sheila was filled with positive energy,” her brother said. “This was a real life, not just a character in some video game.”
After court, Curran said that getting up and speaking about her slain sister was the hardest thing she ever had to do.
“Bill and I did it for Sheila,” Curran said in the lobby of the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse. “She’s up in heaven, and she can’t speak.”