The Suspicious Death of Rebecca Zahau, Murder or Suicide?

Discussion in 'Crimes, Trials & Missing Persons' started by cynic, Nov 25, 2012.

  1. cynic

    cynic Member

    Ann Rule will be releasing a new book that will feature this very unique case:
    Fatal Friends, Deadly Neighbors: Ann Rule's Crime Files Volume 16
    In July 2011, a billionaire’s Coronado, California, mansion was the setting for two horrifying deaths only days apart—his young son’s plunge from a balcony and his girlfriend’s ghastly hanging. What really happened? Baffling questions remain unanswered, as these cases were closed far too soon for hundreds of people; Rule looks at them now through the eyes of a relentless crime reporter.

    Case Summary:


    Rebecca Mawii Zahau, 32, was discovered dead on July 13, 2011, at the historic Spreckels Mansion in Coronado, California, owned by her live-in boyfriend, Medicis Pharmaceutical CEO, Jonah Shacknai.

    Zahau's death occurred two days after Shacknai's six-year-old son Max took a fatal fall from a staircase banister in the same mansion. San Diego Sheriff Bill Gore announced on September 2, 2011, that Zahau's death was a suicide while the younger Shacknai's was an accident, and that neither was the result of foul play. Members of Zahau's family dispute the contention that her death was suicide.

    Rebecca Zahau was born on March 15, 1979 in the town of Falam in northwestern Burma. She moved to Nepal and then Germany. She moved to the United States about 10 years before her death. Her parents and most family members live in Saint Joseph, Missouri.
    She had an older sister, Mary Zahau-Loehner, a younger sister, Snowem Horwath, who lives in Germany, and a teenage sister, Xena Zahau, among other siblings.
    She was married to Neil Nalepa of Scottsdale, Arizona, but their marriage ended by divorce in February 2011, and in May 2011 she returned to using her maiden name Zahau.
    In 2008, she began dating the previously twice married bachelor, 50-year-old Jonah Shacknai, while still married to Neil Nalepa.
    In 2011, Shacknai and Rebecca moved into an historic mansion in Coronado, California that had been built in 1908 by John D. Spreckel. The 13,000 square-foot dwelling featured 27 rooms and a guest house.
    Shacknai has since sold the historic mansion to "an unidentified group of investors at an undisclosed sale price.

    Max Shacknai’s Death:

    On July 11, 2011, Zahau and Max Shacknai were at the Spreckels Mansion along with Zahau's visiting teenage sister, Xena, when Jonah’s son Max fell over a second-floor banister. There was speculation that he may have tripped over a ball or the dog. He fell head-first, suffering injuries to his spinal cord and facial bones, the former of which affected his heart rate and breathing.
    Next to his body lay the large chandelier that had hung from the ceiling not far from where the boy had fallen. Investigators with the Coronado Police Department assumed the boy had grabbed the chandelier to break his fall.
    Zahau said she was in the bathroom at the time; she found Max moments later, her younger sister had called 911.
    Max was not breathing and unresponsive, and was taken to Rady Children's Hospital.
    Max died on July 16 due to brain damage caused by oxygen deprivation resulting from his injuries.
    On July 26, investigators ruled the boy’s death as an accident. However, a trauma doctor who examined Max prior to his death and autopsy stated to police that he did not believe Max's visible injuries from his fall were consistent with the cardiac arrest and brain swelling experienced by him, and suggested that Max may have suffocated prior to his fall.

    Rebecca Zahau’s Death:

    On July 12, the day before her death, Zahau went to the airport to drop off her 13-year old sister, Xena, for her flight back to Missouri, and then picked up Shacknai's brother Adam Shacknai, who had just arrived on a flight from Memphis.
    Zahau and Adam Shacknai ate dinner with Jonah Shacknai and his friend Howard that evening, and then returned to the mansion. Adam Shacknai stayed at the mansion that night in a guest house on the property.
    There were reports of loud music coming from the mansion that evening.
    Jonah Shacknai was supposedly keeping a vigil at Max's bedside with Max's mother Dina Romano; he would leave the hospital to recuperate at a nearby Ronald McDonald House.
    Adam Shacknai stated that he found Zahau nude, hanging from a balcony, with her wrists and ankles bound, at roughly 6:45 AM on the morning of July 13.
    He called 911 at 6:48 AM, and then sent a text message to his brother to inform him of the news.
    He cut the body down and placed her on a grass lawn prior to the arrival of police.
    Zahau was gagged with a blue, long sleeve T-shirt wrapped around her head with the sleeves double knotted and stuffed into her mouth. There was also what appeared to be tape residue on her legs.
    On a bedroom door not far from where the rope used for the hanging was anchored, someone in cursive writing using black paint, had written: "She saved him you can save her."
    Medics attempted to revive her, but pronounced her dead at the scene. The police initiated forensic and toxicology testing on her body as part of an autopsy to determine the cause of death.
    Dr. Jonathan Lucas, the San Diego County Medical Examiner, performed the autopsy. He found four hemorrhages under Zahau's scalp (but no lacerations), and evidence of tape residue on her legs. The forensic pathologist found traces of blood on her legs as well.
    Investigators indicated that DNA evidence at the scene pointed to Zahau.
    On September 2, 2011, San Diego Sheriff Bill Gore, amid rampant speculation of foul play, announced that Rebecca Zahau's death was a suicide. Distraught over Max Shacknai's accident on her watch, she had hanged herself. The sheriff's office closed the case.

    The scenario involving Rebecca Zahau is unique insofar as no woman had ever taken off her clothes, gagged her mouth, bound her own hands and ankles without any assistance, then hanged herself. According to the police theory she would have to have hopped out onto a balcony, while bound, and then somehow maneuvered herself up and over a railing that surrounded the balcony.
    Late in July, San Diego Sheriff's Office Sergeant Roy Frank said this to a reporter: "There are documentations of incidents throughout the country where people have secured their feet and hands to commit suicide. They do it to make certain they can't escape if they change their minds."
    While that may be true, the fact remains that no woman has ever hung herself naked, in full public display outdoors, while bound and gagged.

    The medical examiner, Dr. Jonathan Lucas, in response to a mounting criticism in the press regarding his manner of death ruling, indicated that Rebecca may have struck her head on the balcony on the way down. In addressing the blood on Zahau's legs, the forensic pathologist identified the cause as either a menstrual period, or an intrauterine device. The medical examiner offered no explanation for the presence of the tape residue.

    Dr. Maurice Godwin, a private forensic consultant from Fayetteville, North Carolina with a Ph.D in criminal psychology, told a reporter that Zahau's death had all the earmarks of a "ritualistic killing," and that the suicide had been staged. In Dr. Godwin's opinion, someone had dazed Zahau with a blow to the head, then tossed her off the balcony.

    Dr. Lawrence Kobilnsky, stated that the medical examiner's suicide manner of death determination was "premature." Dr. Kobilnsky said he believes that someone had delivered a substantial blow to Zahau's head. The forensic scientist said, "The chances of bumping into the railing, going over the balcony and hitting your head four times is highly unlikely."

    Dr. Werner Spitz, said he thought the San Diego medical examiner's manner of death ruling in the case made sense.

    People close to Zahau expressed doubt that she would have committed suicide. Zahau's elder sister said in an interview that "I still believe my sister didn't take her life", and in a written statement on behalf of the family wrote that "Rebecca valued her life and lived her life to its fullest. Rebecca loved God, her family and life."
    Her younger sister commented more strongly by e-mail, "Becky did not commit suicide. My sister was murdered." Her former trainer also stated that "She was always happy [and] always smiling when she came in. I didn't see a problem or anything like that."
    Family members disputed police characterizations of Zahau as depressed, describing her instead that as a happy person.

    On September 7, the family launched a website *****************.org seeking donations to fund their own investigation into Zahau's death. The site states: "It was obvious that the Sheriff’s Department had worked too hard to paint this picture of suicide and they were not about to let the Zahau’s ruin it."
    Rebecca Zahau's family hired Seattle lawyer, Anne Bremner, to represent their interests in the case, and to pressure the San Diego Sheriff's Office to re-open the investigation of Zahau's death. The district attorney's office, and the attorney general, declined.
    Bremner expressed derision at the medical examiner's conclusions, stating ""This would be the first case in the history of the world that a woman killed herself like this ... It's ridiculous on the face of it."
    Dan K. Webb of Winston & Strawn LLP, a lawyer for Shacknai, alleges that other statements of Bremner's imply that Shacknai used his wealth and profile to improperly influence the probe into Zahau's death. He sent a cease and desist letter to Bremner warning her that certain statements of hers constituted defamation, as well as being "highly insensitive on a human level" and contributing to "the harsh and unkind glare of a national media frenzy."
    Shacknai also hired public relations firm Sitrick and Company to represent him the week after Zahau's death.
    In response to media inquiries, a Sitrick and Company employee stated that Shacknai had hired the firm to handle his large volume of incoming calls in the days after the deaths, to give him time to grieve and make arrangements for the funerals.

    On November 15, 2011, Dr. Cyril Wecht, the celebrity forensic pathologist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, appeared on the "Dr. Phil" television show to voice his professional opinion regarding the cause and manner of Rebecca Zahau's strange and sudden death.
    (See the YouTube links at the end for a replay of those shows.)
    Dr. Wecht, at the behest of attorney Anne Bremner, had performed a second autopsy of the victim's exhumed body. While he found Dr. Lucas' initial autopsy thorough, Dr. Wecht questioned the medical examiner's suicide manner of death determination. Wecht said the four hemorrhages beneath the scalp could have not have been caused by hanging. "You have to have blunt force trauma for that," he said. "You have something of a rounded, smooth surface that impacts against the scalp, this not producing a laceration." According to Dr. Wecht, Zahau could have been knocked unconscious, which would explain why her body did not have any defense wounds from a struggle. The former coroner of Allegheny County agreed that the woman had died from hanging, but believes her manner of death should be changed from "suicide" to "undetermined."

    Dina Shacknai, Max Shacknai's mother, in order to acquire the boy's autopsy photographs, filed a suit against the San Diego Medical Examiner's Office on April 12, 2012. Dina and her supporters were looking for proof that someone had murdered the 6-year-old boy. They did not believe the wounds on his head had been caused by the fall. (It's not clear if they suspect Rebecca or her sister Xena, or what motive they assign to the homicide.)

    On July 16, 2012, the one-year anniversary of Max Shacknai's death, Dina Shacknai and her attorney, Angela Hallier, held a press conference in Phoenix. According to the lawyer, the family possessed information from "privately retained experts" that proves the 6-year-old had been murdered at the Coronado mansion.

    On August 6, 2012, a spokesperson for the Coronado Police Department confirmed they had met with Dina Shacknai and her attorney regarding Max Shacknai's death. Police investigators had agreed to read the report containing the opinions of forensic scientists who believe the boy could have been murdered. One of those experts, Dr. Judy Melinek, a forensic pathologist with the San Francisco Medical Examiner's Office, reportedly believes that Max was too small to have gone over the balcony railing. Moreover, she believes his head injuries are not consistent with a fall.

    On September 10, 2012, a spokesperson for the Coronado police announced there would be no reinvestigation of 6-year-old Max Shacknai's death. Investigators believe that the boy tripped while running, grabbed a chandelier, hit his back on the banister, and fell to his death.

    Further Information:

    Dr Phil’s shows on the Zahau case:

    Part One:

    Part Two:

    Dr Drew speaks to Lindsey Philpott (The Knot Guy) on the feasibility of Rebecca tying herself up:

    Tricia has featured the case in two of her shows:
    Last edited: Nov 26, 2012
  2. Elle

    Elle Member


    I think this sheriff is barking up a tree and is wrong! What a tragic situation! Life sure is a trial!
  3. zoomama

    zoomama Active Member

    Cynic, is this yet another case of a rich and powerful family influencing LE to reach a conclusion that benefits themselves. Meaning the rich and powerful family. This case is soooo convoluted it is pathetic. A woman who hangs herself naked...never happened! Murder all the way
  4. cynic

    cynic Member

    Elle and Zoomama,

    Amazing isn’t it?
    This is actually more of a travesty of justice by way of money than the JonBenet case.
    The investigators were so defensive about their decision that they actually posted a video on the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department website showing a woman tying her hands behind her back with the same type of knots. The desperation is staggering.

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  5. Elle

    Elle Member


    The woman doing the demonstration of winding a rope around her wrists is doing exactly just that, doing a demonstration. She isn't in the same frame of mind as the woman who has lost her senses. Yes, I'm seeing it, but I find it difficult to believe a woman contemplating suicide would make the actual act as cumbersome as this scene. So many easier ways than this, I'm sure. The mind of anyone thinking on suicide is surely anxious to get it over and done with than to sit naked fooling around with a rope. This young woman doing the demonstration has obviously practised it many times. I also refuse to believe any woman would actually go through this scene stark naked. It's too far fetched for me! jmo
  6. cynic

    cynic Member

    Hey Elle,

    I agree completely.
    Some of your remarks echo that of the knot expert, Lindsey Philpott, that appeared on the Dr Drew show to comment on the absurdity of the police video. This guy allegedly worked on the JonBenet case, although, I have never heard his name prior to this.

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  7. Elle

    Elle Member

  8. fr brown

    fr brown Member

    I just watched Marcia Clark's program dealing with Rebecca Zahau. The polygraph expert she consulted said that Adam Shacknai failed his polygraph; the examiner who administered the test said it was inconclusive.

    I don't think I had heard the 911 call before. Adam S. kept repeating that she had hung herself. Who comes across someone gagged, with bound feet, hands tied behind back, hanging from the end of a rope, and instantly concludes that the person killed herself? You wouldn't. You'd assume that the person had been murdered.
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