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. WHat

    So two mysterious deaths in two days, including a woman 'hanging herself' after tying her feet and tying her hands behind her back? Did she tighten the noose, bind her feet, bind her hands and then hop over to the window? This is just insane...our job creators get away with murder more than anyone will ever know.

    October 27, 2011 at 9:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Karl

      Can you explain what the hell job creators have to do with this story you silly lump? I am SO sick and tired of people trying to tie politics into non-related events and failing so miserably. It reveals low intelligence!

      October 27, 2011 at 9:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • WHat

      Jonah Shacknai – a lawyer and the founder and CEO of Medicis Pharmaceutical Corp, killed his son and his girlfriend and because he's a loaded member of the community the justice system's confirmation bias, never believing such a man would do something so horrid, let him walk and ruled it accidental/a suicide.

      October 27, 2011 at 9:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • haloguy628

      WHat great living it is for WHat to know everything about things that happen far and near. WHat must not have any worries because he knows WHat happenin...

      Now suppressed anger in his/hers life is another thing.

      October 27, 2011 at 9:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Think

      Really, Karl? You don't think being a billionaire had anything to do with the treatment this guy got? Um.. OK. Let the cops find a woman bound and hung off your balcony and see how it works for you.

      October 27, 2011 at 9:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • TwinforParts

      Boy I bet this was cheaper for the job creator then breaking up with her. Hope he can deduct the expense of the rope!

      October 27, 2011 at 9:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tara

      Curious how Jonas Shacknai killed his son when he wasn't even in the house at the time, only the son, his girlfriend and her sister; and how he somehow managed to then kill the girlfiriend while at the hospital?

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

      Tara–we actually do not know who was really at the house when the boy died. We know what the girlfriend and her sister originally said (but the girl friend may have lied to protect her boyfriend and her sister went along with it) she may also have tried to black mail her boyfriend or he did not feel like leaving loose ends even if she defended him so had her gotten rid of–what makes this stink is that with a wad of cloth in her mouth, bound hands and feet and lumps on her head–this should not have been ruled suicide without more investigation and the Attorney General should not have refused to look into the case AND the police have NO RIGHT to keep her personal effects and refuse to return them to her family IF this was a suicide....

      October 27, 2011 at 11:06 pm | Report abuse |
  2. jac315

    I am not sure how many of you posting on here have actually seen, processed, photographed and investigated "murders" or "suicides" but I am sure since you have great knowledge of these types of crimes the San Diego PD or the FBI could use your "professional" opinion to help the solve these crimes. so stop posting and apply at your local police department, i am sure they willl welcome you with open arms since you can solve crimes without a fraction of information they have.

    October 27, 2011 at 9:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • WHat

      Are you saying it's not an obvious case of shoving the kid down the stairs, intimidating the woman for a few days into silence, then hanging her and half-assedly making it look like a suicide? Hands bound behind her back? Doesn't make sense man.

      October 27, 2011 at 9:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ann

      I have never seen such poor investigating in my entire life! the San diego police dept. was given a huge donation. HAHA. This investigation was not an investigation. It was immediately called suicide and left at that. What a shame for this poor young woman's family. Gore should be fired ASAP.

      October 27, 2011 at 10:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • SAX

      Hands tied, Ok. But naked suicide? Very, very uncommon.

      October 27, 2011 at 10:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Guest

      so your telling me that he pushed his son down the stairs, killing him but leaving his daughter alive. Then somehow with witnesses seeing him at the hospital, tying up his girlfriend and hanging her? It's called post-traumatic stress disorder coupled with the use of drugs. He is the CEO os a pharmaceutical company, there must be drugs in the house. She was depressed so she took something, then that coupled with her stress and drove her over the edge. I don't get how people just randomly blame someone for killing two people for the lone reason that he's a billionaire..?

      October 27, 2011 at 10:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      Guest: Note to self–if ever want to get away with murder–go ahead and kill the person, then talk lover in covering for me–helps if he will get a friend or relative to back him up BUT then to get rid of loose ends, have my lover killed–while going on be sure to be seen OBVIOUSLY in very public venues to have an alibi–finally if I am caught or somehow my money does not get the case deemed a suicide, be sure to secure either OJ's jury members or at least Guest, Pamela, and cop killer on my jury for a slam dunk acquittal or if all else fails move the case to Florida...

      October 27, 2011 at 11:14 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Victoria

    I am so glad to see that the body is going to be exhumed for more testing. I remember reading about this case when it first happened and I absolutely could not believe it was ruled a suicide. The investigation was hardly an investigation at all and all parties involved were not questioned thoroughly. No way did that woman kill herself in such a manner. She was murdered and because the people involved were wealthy and told police she was responsible for the death of their child, the police covered it up and continue to do so. The case is closed and they refuse to give the family all of her rightful property. Something stinks here. Even with this new information, I wouldn't be surprised if someone gets away with murder.

    October 27, 2011 at 9:21 pm | Report abuse |
  4. patty o'furniture

    sadly due to pressure, negligence, lack of funds to investigte police often close xases quickly. look how few people are ever covicted for vehicular homicide. simply easier to close the case and move on. unless it involves a member of their family, then...watch out!

    October 27, 2011 at 9:22 pm | Report abuse |
  5. fedupwithinjustice

    The Keystone Cops aka San Diego Sheriff's Office is a laughing stock. Suicide? Case closed? So why does SDSO still refuse to return her personal stuff to the family. And WHY haven't they turned over the police reports to the family and to their lawyer? What are they hiding? Guess they were absent for MURDER 101 at the Police Academy. If it weren't so so sad, it'd be a joke. And btw, all you Public Relations posters are earning your dough workin overtime I see.

    October 27, 2011 at 9:23 pm | Report abuse |
  6. graciesplight

    It won't hurt anyune to look a little deeper into the case. Cops aren't suppose to feel anything, are they? So let's proceed.

    October 27, 2011 at 9:24 pm | Report abuse |
  7. vince

    comment, the owner was too cheap. despite being a multimillionaire, he had no nanny to take care of his autistic son, instead relied on the inexperience ex fiance to take that responsibility , no staff for the huge mansion and get this -no security cameras on the grounds or in the mansion whatsoever .

    October 27, 2011 at 9:25 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Texan

    Sounds awful fishy. It's so sad tha she and the little boy died. She sure was a beautiful woman, with a lot of life ahead of her, and the 6 year old baby had his whole life. So very sad indeed. This needed to be investigated, if only to give the family the absolute assurance that it was either suicide or murder. They deserve to know the truth, but we may never know..

    October 27, 2011 at 9:29 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Ed Peterson

    numerology for Jonah Shacknai, Rebecca Nalepa, and Adam Shacknai:

    http://edpetersonnumerology.com/2011/09/01/numerology-for-jonah-shacknai-and-rebecca-nalepa/

    October 27, 2011 at 9:35 pm | Report abuse |
  10. jac315

    I am not saying this case isnt without some unusual events and some questions I would still like answered.....but I have worked female suicides where they were naked when they killed themselves. I was told years ago as a rookie officer that the a woman would never shoot herself in the face to kill herself....well 3 or 4 of those have come my way so I dont rule anything out. again, it goes back to what do we KNOW and what do we SUSPECT. Maybe she felt remorse or responsible in some way for the childs accident/death. I dont recall seeing what she wrote with the paint either. I will admit that some things dont add up but sometimes they just dont. humans are a strange breed! I hope that the family can have closure and if futher investigation bares fruit....find em and send them to texas we have an express lane on death row.

    October 27, 2011 at 9:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      Note to self–add jac315 to my jury for that slamdunk acquittal.

      October 27, 2011 at 11:15 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Rod C. Venger

    So simple...woman throws or pushes boy down stairs because he's being a brat. Dad, understandably angry as well as filthy rich, sends one of his security guys to take care of her. The boy later dies. Police decide that it's a wash...she did the boy and Dad did her. Justice was served. The End.

    October 27, 2011 at 9:51 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Bentley

    After the OJ trial, I'll believe ANYTHING coming out of the state of Calif.!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

    October 27, 2011 at 9:54 pm | Report abuse |
  13. davidhar

    NCIS just had an episode like this

    October 27, 2011 at 10:06 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Randall

    Have money and you can do whatever you want...even be INNOCENT

    October 27, 2011 at 10:08 pm | Report abuse |
  15. justsaying

    Rather strange occurence of events. Seems there is more to the story than meets the eye! Let's see what the new autopsy shows. Should be interesting!

    October 27, 2011 at 10:17 pm | Report abuse |
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