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. star anise

    I can't believe the judge ruled out everything and declared that she killed herself. It is unmistakably a homicide, since how many people can tie their hands on the back by themselves??? And who would want to die naked??? And most of all, how can she MOVE to the railing when her feet are bound???? It does not make sense AT ALL. I'm outraged by the stupidity of the police and the court. They should investigate further, or find some fingerprints of the perpetrator.

    October 27, 2011 at 10:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • YANR

      Try reading the article.

      October 27, 2011 at 10:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sherri

      I agree that you need to read the article, but I also agree with you that this was undoubtedly NOT suicide. I don't care what they 'recreated.' I'm glad, as much as it is difficult for them, that the family is going ahead with the exhumation.

      October 27, 2011 at 10:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • chobes68

      Yes, YANR, read the article. Four separate contusions on the head? Clearly this wasn't investigated thoroughly. Where's the boy's biological mother? Why would a person committing suicide tie their own hands behind their back? Seriously, use your brain.

      October 27, 2011 at 11:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      Judge? this never went to trial–ruled a suicide by a police dept who also refused to investigate further (including the Attorney General of the State) and who also refuses to turn over police reports, and other data and personal belongings of woman to the family. Go figure.

      October 27, 2011 at 11:18 pm | Report abuse |
  2. ldean50

    any psychologists out there that can tell us how common it is for a woman to remove all her clothes before committing suicide? Why would a woman want to be found in the nude? Doesn't make much sense to me . . . but, I'm not a professional.

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

      Not a psychologist but retired from Federal law practice and I know from the stats that when a murder victim's body is stripped nude that it's the perp's way of demeaning the victim. From family statements about her personality I sincerely doubt Miss Zahau would leave her body naked to be seen by strangers. I think her death was retribution. Just my "think" on it.

      October 27, 2011 at 10:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • two cents

      choosing to commit suicide nude is very common. this is how i came into the world this is how i'm leaving it, sort of thinking.

      October 28, 2011 at 12:08 am | Report abuse |
  3. sick

    My sister was an alleged suicide the person who found her hanging cut her down so noone saw her hanging. I question everyday. This person who found her said she wanted to be "cremated." Police assume suicide too quickly.

    October 27, 2011 at 10:30 pm | Report abuse |
  4. jim

    ok wasn't he in phoenix at the time of her death? i really don't think it was him; however, his ex wife was was really aggresive person and never like her and i think she had treating him and her. now if she blame her of the death of the child don't you think she would of done something? she necer was interview or question of her wereabouts at the time of her death. why didn't they? why automaticaly say it was him. he did ask for more investigation and say ah no. the why no video cameras? well have you ever been in Coronado Island? I never seen a single camera on thir houses or even a lot of thier buisnesses. there is a military base there and i think they never think that something like that could ever happen there. i do not say it wasn't suicide never the less would it really hurt to investigate more? i use to be a EMT and we would be call all the time see if they could be save and normaly they been death for hours and the cops would tell us that it was no use. even for ovius suicide they would take about 2 to 3 months to say " yeap it was suicide." I am really surprice they say it so fast. why not investigate more maybe it was the brother taking revenge for his nephew. we don't know. he cut the rope well he could be the one that had done it. not saying he did but it is pluseble

    October 27, 2011 at 10:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • jojoshome

      The child dies AFTER the suicide..... there by negating everything you just said.

      October 27, 2011 at 11:42 pm | Report abuse |
  5. dave

    This was a murder. Her family is poor and needs to do a private investigation. They have a website set up for donations. I believe the name of the website is the Rebecca Zahau website.

    October 27, 2011 at 10:46 pm | Report abuse |
  6. stormy123

    All the evidence Ive read shows its a murder and crime of passion. How do the investigators know what happened when the brother had cut her down and removed her body from the scene of the hanging and changed all the evidence, correct???? In order for him to have cut her down he certainly should have left his fingerprints all over her body and the the articles claims only her presence and fingerprints was found as noted would be impossible! You dont have to be Sherlock Holmes to note so many discrepancies in both the story, the detective work, and the story here. Its clear to many people that this was a revenge killing blaming a woman for the death of a child. I would question the boyfriend and the brother....something doesnt add up here.

    October 27, 2011 at 10:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee


      October 27, 2011 at 11:21 pm | Report abuse |
  7. not buying it

    The boy died of blunt force trauma to the head and neck & then two days later the girlfriend dies pretty much of the same thing? No way that is a coincidence.

    October 27, 2011 at 10:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      The boy dies AFTER the girl is found dead so she could not have killed herself due to grief or remorse because she died without ever knowing the fate of the child–and she also took some blunt force to her head.

      October 27, 2011 at 11:22 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Sharp shooter

    Don't know where the bruises on her head came from and never will. She died from hanging; homicide or suicide. Take your pick, the case is closed and the state of Californa does not have to abide a PA. Medical Examiner's word.
    Dr. Phil shouldn't be involved, however he should be in a celebrity death match with Dr. Drew! Mmmmmk

    October 27, 2011 at 10:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      Wrong dear–if a separate ME proves or implies probable cause of foul play the state Attorney General HAS to open an investigation, if the family thinks the state AG office may also be compromised (like the police who refused to investigate) they can call for an outside investigation via the Federal government–then it is a whole new kettle of fish with no way for so many to be bribed . This can snowball out of their jurisdiction and if it does it will be a HOT MESS.

      October 27, 2011 at 11:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • jojoshome

      No the Attorney General doesn't have to do anything. You pay enough money or attract enough publicity and you can find someone to say anything you want them to. The State does not have to reopen any case.

      October 27, 2011 at 11:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      To bring any perps to justice there has to be involvement at the state AG level because jurisdiction still belongs to the state unless there is evidence proving mishandling or corruption. The public can think anything it likes (like we did with OJ) but for justice to be done, there must be evidence, charges must be brought, an indictment must be handed down then the case must go to trial–EXCEPt in the case of suicide then the steam rolling stops–but in this case the police may find that not only the boyfriend et al are in trouble–they may end up in trouble for failing to investigate and stymieing this case.

      October 28, 2011 at 12:31 am | Report abuse |
  9. YuliqMahbhat

    This is not the first time bad investigation has come out of this area and district in California. Check out the Ian Spiro case.

    October 27, 2011 at 11:00 pm | Report abuse |
  10. dcgal

    This is sad... previous articles stated that she was watching the boy when he had the accident, had just received the call that he was not expected to survive, and had a history of depression. The father was nowhere near the house. I find it much more likely that she was disturbed and committed suicide naked than that her boyfriend hired a hit man from the children's hospital as he sat with his little boy for the last time. The skepticism is only because people love seeing rich people burn. This man has suffered enough tragedy, I think.

    October 27, 2011 at 11:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • dcgal

      Besides, guilty people don't generally volunteer themselves up for investigation.

      October 27, 2011 at 11:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • jojoshome

      I agree 100%. It never fails to amaze me, how many people who do not have all the facts, think there is a conspiracy around every unusual death

      October 27, 2011 at 11:51 pm | Report abuse |
  11. john kesrouan

    Her family made a HUGE MISTAKE not paying for the $5,000 private autopsy after the Coroner was finished.
    There's unfortunately nefarious pressure to keep crime statistics down, so in gray area cases coroners often
    default to ruling a murder, either a accidental death or even suicide. If the body was embalmed (which most are)
    then a secondary autopsy will likely be useless.

    October 27, 2011 at 11:38 pm | Report abuse |
  12. timmy

    I vision things! Her sister fought with the son and pushed him down the stairs. The brother did this to the wife!!!! The husband has all knowlege and part even if he was not present in the home!!! Next vision Casey drugged her daughter she thought she was dead at point and disposed of her body. When she returned, Casey found her still to be alive and took her back home. Someone else was there. The baby had masive brain damage!! They murdered her and dumpped her in the woods. Had to get that off my chest!!!

    October 27, 2011 at 11:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      Too bad you never "visioned" the fact that the girl who was murdered was never married to the child's father. Now "vision" all the CBS bloggers laughing at you....LOL

      October 28, 2011 at 12:35 am | Report abuse |
  13. poop

    The dead boy's father beat her about the head, tied her hands, bound her feet and pushed her over the balcony for not watching his kid properly.

    October 28, 2011 at 12:02 am | Report abuse |
  14. Michelle

    Does it bother anyone else that Dr Phil is sticking his nose in here. It's like he's using this family's tragedy for ratings. Why is he going to be HE going to be the one to reveal the results of this new autopsy? Who the heck is he to even obtain such information?

    October 28, 2011 at 12:07 am | Report abuse |
  15. mnpk

    Has anyone checked the boy's mother? Its not hard to see how she might blame the new girlfriend for the fatal injuries to her son. Zahao, who would already have been disliked simply for being the new 'girlfriend', hadn't been supervising the boy. (Skateboarding inside at the top of a staircase?) Plus the boy had apparently even collided with the girlfriend's dog. This seems like a retribution crime.

    October 28, 2011 at 12:12 am | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      I find the fortuitous arrival of the man's brother to the scene, his cutting down the body and yet leaving no DNA , foot prints or finger prints despite handling the body–to be the most jarring–almost like he and the father arranged for him to come in and find the body while the dad was busy making sure everyone saw him at the hospital for his alibi–why would anyone come into a home and take down a body instead of calling the police and WHO wears gloves in the summer or do not leave finger prints when they handle a body? Guess the "Shadow knows..."

      October 28, 2011 at 12:38 am | Report abuse |
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