Body of woman found hanged at mansion exhumed
Rebecca Zahau, 32, was found hanged at her boyfriend's California mansion in July.
October 27th, 2011
01:22 PM ET

Body of woman found hanged at mansion exhumed

[Updated at 4:44 p.m. ET] The body of a woman found hanged at a California mansion in July has been exhumed for an independent autopsy, according to an attorney for her family, which rejects authorities’ findings that she committed suicide.

Rebecca Zahau’s body was exhumed at her family's request last week in St. Joseph, Missouri, and will soon be examined by renowned forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht in Pennsylvania, Zahau family attorney Anne Bremner said Thursday. Bremner last month hired Wecht, who has publicly questioned the suicide ruling based on his reading of the official autopsy report, to consult in the case.

Bremner said she will be interested in Wecht's opinion on, among other things, whether there are signs of struggle or other foul play.

"It was painful for the family to agree to the process," Bremner said. "It's a difficult thing for them to go through right now, but I think it had to be done."

Zahau, 32, was one of two people - the other being her boyfriend’s 6-year-old son, Max Shacknai - who police said died as a result of July incidents at boyfriend Jonah Shacknai’s mansion in Coronado, California. Max Shacknai fell downstairs on July 11 and died at a hospital five days later, and Zahau was found hanging - naked, with feet bound, and wrists bound behind her back - in the home’s courtyard from a rope tied to a second-story bed at the home on July 13, police said.

Police told reporters last month that there was no indication of foul play in either death, and that evidence led them to conclude that Zahau hanged herself. Though they didn’t know the order of events, they say she painted a message on a door, disrobed, fashioned a hanging rope and bindings, tied the hanging rope to a bed and put the other end around her neck, bound her feet and hands, moved to the balcony and put herself over the railing.

Authorities said fingerprints and DNA on all relevant evidence - including the bindings, the bedroom door and a paint tube found in the bedroom - were Zahau's. Also, a set of footprints on the dirty balcony was consistent with the size of Zahau's feet, and toe impressions further ahead were consistent with a person leaning forward to go over the railing, police said.

Police showed reporters video of an experiment examining whether someone could bind themselves with a similar rope. The video shows a woman making knots and loops around her hands in front of her, taking one wrist out to move her hands behind her and then rebinding the wrists.

Zahau’s family contends she didn’t commit suicide, citing details from the official autopsy, among other things.

A call Thursday to the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, which said last month it had closed its investigation, wasn't immediately returned. It has previously said that as with any of its investigations, it would evaluate any new information pertaining to the case.

The case has caught the attention of television host Dr. Phil McGraw, who plans to announce the results of the second autopsy and host the Zahau family on his “Dr. Phil” show in November, CNN affiliate KFMB reported Tuesday.

An attorney for the family told San Diego’s KSWB that the “Dr. Phil” show is not paying for the exhumation, but producers on the show have agreed to donate to a fund set up by the Zahau family.

“We endorse the family’s effort to search for closure to this terrible tragedy and will stand with them going forward as they navigate through their grieving process,” a representative of the show said in a statement released to CNN Tuesday.

Jonah Shacknai - a lawyer and the founder and CEO of Medicis Pharmaceutical Corp. - asked the California attorney general to investigate the deaths of Zahau and his son to bring a “dignified resolution for everyone who has been touched by the horrible events of this summer.” But in a letter to Shacknai, the attorney general’s office declined, saying it would investigate only under “very narrow circumstances,” such as if there were allegations of gross malfeasance by investigators.

Wecht, who read the official autopsy report, told CNN in September that he would have left the manner of death as undetermined, saying, among other things, that said four subgaleal hemorrhages - between the scalp and skull on top of the head - listed in the autopsy report may be inconsistent with the suicide theory.

“You only get those from blunt force trauma,” Wecht said. “That means your head struck something or was struck by something. I repeat for emphasis: four separate locations. The head is contoured; to have it bruised in different places, that means you have to strike different parts of the head.”

Dr. Jonathan Lucas of the San Diego County medical examiner’s office countered that the hemorrhages were “relatively minor,” and that “because there was evidence that Zahau went over the balcony in a non-vertical position, she may have struck her head on the way down.”

Lucas said last month that that although bound suicides aren’t common, he has seen such victims and read reports of them.

“The thinking is, they bind themselves so that they won’t change their mind midway through,” Lucas said at a news conference last month.

San Diego Sheriff’s Department Lt. Larry Nesbit said that between the time investigators believe the suicide happened and the time that Zahau's body was reported found, Jonah Shacknai was at a children’s hospital, where his son was being treated, or at a Ronald McDonald House.

Regarding Max Shacknai's death, authorities were called to the home on July 11 after getting a call from Zahau's 13-year-old sister reporting that Max had fallen down the stairs and was not breathing, Coronado Police Commander Mike Lawton said. Zahau, her sister and the boy were the only ones in the residence at the time of the incident.

Jonah Shacknai's brother called 911 from the home on July 13 to report that he found Zahau's body hanging, police said. The brother was staying at a guest house that morning; San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said last month that investigators were comfortable with his account.

Max died at a hospital on July 16. Lucas ruled the death an accident, saying the boy died partly due to resuscitated cardiopulmonary arrest, cervical spinal cord contusion and blunt force trauma of the head and neck.

soundoff (451 Responses)
  1. banasy©

    I remember this case.
    I thought at the time it sounded a bit suspect.
    I will be following this, as it hold great interest for me.
    People are *such* complex creatures...

    October 27, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • musings

      Only a "bit" suspect? What part?

      October 27, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • coconutjuice

      I have an experiment for the police. Tie your feet together at the ankles, tie your hands behind your back now try to climb onto a three foot high railing and balance yourself while getting a noose over your head. Good luck with that. That would be damn near impossible, not to mention a totally illogical thing to do. Now I can easily make a video tape showing how it is very possible to hit someone on the head rendering them unconscious, bind their hands and feet in case they regain their senses, and slip a noose over their head. Which scenario seems more likely?

      October 28, 2011 at 2:25 am | Report abuse |
  2. Bimbo the Birthday Clown

    How does one bind one's own hands behind one's own back?

    October 27, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jamor

      The investigators actually did this to themselves to prove it could be done. So yes, apparently it's possible.

      October 27, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bimbo's bimbo

      With rope?????

      October 27, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • beehoney

      While it may be possible I don't think a person wanting to committ suicide will go through all that trouble, I would think they would want it to end as quickly & painless as possible. I also think that in all the time it would have taken her, she may have changed her mind; unless she was gulity of what happened to the little boy and she wanted to torture herself.

      October 27, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • rlr

      I agree it is impossable to bind your own hands behind your own back, UNLESS,
      you bind them in front of you first and then step through your arms to get them behind you....

      October 27, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chartreuxe

      No, with knitting wool. [/sarcasm] Yes, the investigators would have used the same materials used in the suicide.

      October 27, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Roger Noe

      When the suspect is rich and powerful, miracles happen all the time. For the poor, if they are not shot while being arrested, they will be convicted or take a plea bargain on the advice of incompetent court appointed attorneys who help the prosecutors by helping railroad the poor to prisons.

      October 27, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • d

      @Jamor I could also demonstrate that it was possible for someone else to have killed her and thrown her over the edge as being possible. Its funny how police just throw out whatever theory they want to explain things and then case closed.

      October 27, 2011 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      Jamor–and when they prove a person can do that it means the victim did it too? They say some people can tie bows with their tongue–does that mean YOU can do that? Get Real. There are contortionist that can do anything but that does not translate to the average person or situation and it should NEVER stop an investigation which has the following inconsistencies:

      1. How did female jump over 3 feet over railing with bound feet
      2. NO explanation for 4 signs of blunt force trauma in 4 different areas and the ME stating she might have hit her head on the way down does not count for the other 3 which all were on TOP of her head
      3. Why would a suicide cram her own mouth with a rag?
      4. POlice claim no prints but victims at the scene but brother for lover came in and pulled her down–but left no prints? He wore gloves and untied her from a noose that was attached to a bed and left nothing–what an amazing man.... NOT
      5. Police refuse to release reports to the family and refuse to release personal effects of this "suicide" why?
      6. Attorney General refuses to get involved and says will not unless malfeasance is proven–but malfeasance requires an investigation and that cannot be done if law enforcement refuses to do it.

      SEE how all of this works? So what is in your wallet and who put it there?

      October 27, 2011 at 11:37 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Ted

    Thank goodness,,it is about time,,yeah this whole thing is fishy,,I firmly believe from everything i know about this that that woman was murdered,, and nothing but money has kept it hidden and under the radar,,please i hope that they finally get justice for this woman,,

    October 27, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scott

      I totally agree with you.

      October 27, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chartreuxe

      Ted, neither of us has read the autopsy report on this unfortunate woman. It's a good idea for the death to be investigated further if her family needs closure, and that's fine.

      If someone killed her justice must be done.

      October 27, 2011 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
  4. zoe moire

    Isn't it kind of hard to tie your own hands behind your back?

    October 27, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      Well, we know she could not have used her teeth to tie those knots–because a rag was crammed in her mouth too–no prints even though boyfriend's brother got her down (just popped in to unmanned unservant house from out of town and found her while bro was at the hospital with an alibi) so if the way they show it being done involves using the mouth instead of just the hands–nix that–girl was bound hand and foot and had a rag in her mouth and had lumps to her head AND managed to jump vertically over 3 feet to clear the balcony.

      meanwhile, Boyfriend's brother is the only human in the world to not have fingerprints of any kind.... SHOCKING And AMAZING

      October 27, 2011 at 11:41 pm | Report abuse |
  5. banasy©

    Hi, Bimbo.

    Exactly my thought.
    We once had a suicide a few towns over where the police and the coroner determined it was a suicide, even though the cause of death was 47 blows to the head by a hammer, 40 of which would have been considered fatal.
    Needless to say, that investigation was re-opened and reclassified as a homicide, which remains unsolved.

    October 27, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • driranek

      The big question is whether the coroner is still employed and whether anyone has checked his accounts for unexplained deposits.

      October 27, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Ryan

    Does anyone else think this sounds like a horror movie script!? The house was built to be the summer home of the guy who built the Hotel Del Coronado – a known very haunted location – just a coincidence I'm sure but very creepy and scary and sad for all involved.

    October 27, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Tom Atkins

    This case has murder written all over it.

    October 27, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse |
  8. bobcat2u

    You beat me to it Bimbo. I was going to ask the same thing.

    October 27, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Michelle

    Leave it to Phil to get involved.

    October 27, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Spaceman

      where there is money to be had..........

      October 27, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Artist

    It's possible to tie yourself up behind your back but you must be a bit experienced. I can see this being a suicide IF she was into bondage. Like to tie yourself up and hanging (safely) is typical. Very easy to learn how to commit suicide this way through trial and error when experimenting in bondage.

    October 27, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mr Sarcasm

      I'll bet the police detectives would know all about that.

      October 27, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dan NC

      Remember Keith Carradine's death in Bangkok? He was bound, naked and had hung himself, albeit through accidental asphyxiation. Almost stranger than this story. Some things are stranger than fiction but true none the less.

      October 28, 2011 at 2:37 am | Report abuse |
  11. jdoe

    Somebody should investigate not just the death but also the police department. Somebody found dead with feet bound and wrists bound behind her back, and they called it a suicide. That's incompetence at best, or more likely police malfeasance.

    October 27, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chartreuxe

      Bound suicide is not uncommon in Asian culture.

      October 27, 2011 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • jdoe

      Maybe, but they don't bind themselves behind their back.

      October 27, 2011 at 2:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • musings

      Not too far from the Mexican border, either. And this guy runs a drug company. What did his girlfriend know about him?

      October 27, 2011 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      Char: is putting rags in their mouths and hitting themselves in the head also a part of Asian culture too? How about coincidentally arriving brothers of the lover who leave no fingerprints but removes the corpse–that in Asian culture too?

      October 27, 2011 at 11:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • From Asia

      Bound suicide is not uncommon in Asian culture??? Show me statistics. Definitely NOT in China, Taiwan, South East Asia, and Korea. And what Asian culture is for a woman to get nude before committing suicide?

      October 29, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Duane

    She was a beautiful woman

    October 27, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Frank Mondana

    I've never understood why the media needs to emphasize "nude" whenever someone is found dead. This is especially true with women. You never read "wearing blue gym shorts, white T-shirt, and loafers".

    If the person is naked, it is not only noted, but brought up many times in the initial report. Then again every time the person is brought up. "Mrs. X, if you remember, was found NUDE and hanging from her closet..."

    Why is this so important?

    October 27, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Artist

      Obviously, to create the image in your head. Beautiful woman NUDE hanging from balcony. You really didn't know that?

      October 27, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • NoodleHat

      You're dumb as a box of rocks, you know that?

      October 27, 2011 at 4:19 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Karla

    Pritty woman shows you bauity isn't all.

    October 27, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      ..evidently, neither is spelling.

      October 27, 2011 at 11:46 pm | Report abuse |
  15. jim

    I hope the truth comes out. I serioiusly doubt if she did this to herself. money talks always to cover up a mess.

    October 27, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15