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. John

    How can you take the results of the independent autopsy seriously when it's going to be announced on a talk show like Dr Phils?

    October 28, 2011 at 12:21 am | Report abuse |
    • Name*Bucktooth

      I agree John! How can we believe anything on TV these days! The news is slanted to the right! Women aren't hangers, and they really wouldn't hang themselves nude! Too barbaric..men hang themselves and shoot themselves in the head..women take pills or turn on their cars in the garage..easier! Just go to sleep because theylre exhausted from Life!
      Dr. Phil needs to let go of that sensationalism on someone else's grief!

      October 28, 2011 at 12:45 am | Report abuse |
    • Joe Sixpack

      As soon as "Dr. Phil" proves he is a true PhD of psychology/psychiatry, I see him as en entertainer with a talk show. Nothing more, nothing less. Oprah made him the "star" he is today. Gullible Americans made him wealthy beyond his wildest dreams when they bought into his BS.

      October 28, 2011 at 4:58 am | Report abuse |
  2. RC

    How sad. Dr. Phil should have his sow cancelled and his career destroyed for not letting this poor family rest in peace. Shame on you.

    October 28, 2011 at 12:22 am | Report abuse |
  3. RUFFNUTT (kcmo resident and smoker of fine purple kush)

    ZOMBIES ARE COMMING SOON...

    October 28, 2011 at 12:24 am | Report abuse |
  4. thebigman205

    This will not bring her back. Sorry. And I speak this because I been through it.

    October 28, 2011 at 12:33 am | Report abuse |
    • hillman

      it sounds like a murder or murders accured and the people need to be brought to justice i dont buy that she hung herself not one bit and i dont buy that the lil boy jus happend to fall down a flight of stairs and end up with the same type of injuries as this woman did no way not know how.

      October 28, 2011 at 12:40 am | Report abuse |
  5. Ryan

    So she tied the rope around her wrists in front of her, took one hand out, and then after putting her hands behind her back, redid the knot. Um, yeah, don't think so. And if her feet were bound, how did she manage to climb up on the railing, if her hands were behind her back. No way she could have put the rope around her neck, after tying her feet, climbed the railing, and been standing stable enough to do her hands. Has anyone tried walking on a raling before? Unless she had perfect balance, and was able to climb with her feet bound, this was a homicide.

    As for Dr. Phil. Is it really his job to make the announcement? All the announcements that I've ever heard of have always been done by either medical or legal authorities, not some "doctor" who makes a living from television shows. If I were part of the family I would tell him no thank you. This should be a private matter and released throught the PROPER people, like the family.

    October 28, 2011 at 1:08 am | Report abuse |
  6. Lisade

    Sounds like they have to get it on TV just for anybody to listen to them, I don't blame them for using Wecht and getting it on TV b/c this hasn't looked right from day one.

    October 28, 2011 at 1:21 am | Report abuse |
  7. JUSTICE WILL PREVAIL

    THIS STORY THAT HAS PORTRAYED THE EVENT THAT OCCURED IN THE HOUSE WHERE THE WIFE & SON HAVE PASSED, DOESNT SOUND CREDIBLE. WHEN I READ THE ARTICLE I WAS APPAULED! JUSTICE SHOULD BE SOUGHT FOR THE BOY AND THE WOMEN LET NO STONE GO UNTURNED!

    October 28, 2011 at 1:47 am | Report abuse |
  8. use the right word

    The body of a woman found hanged <<<<(it's hunged past tense) She was hanged the moment it happened moments later looking back we say she was HUNG

    October 28, 2011 at 1:48 am | Report abuse |
    • FragmentFour

      You're expecting too much from a set of writers who belong to the texting generation. I brought a similar error to the attention of the editors a year ago and was quickly informed that "busted" was the correct usage in a sentence running, "... The window was busted..."

      October 28, 2011 at 2:54 am | Report abuse |
    • The Frogs of Aristophanes

      Hanged is proper past tense when referring to executions/suicides. When referring to anything else (pictures, posters, severed animal heads), you're correct with hung.

      October 28, 2011 at 3:13 am | Report abuse |
    • Matt

      First there is no such word as hunged. Second, when speaking about death by hanging, hanged is actually the correct word. However, it is not incorrect to use hung in place of hanged. I invite you to go to dictionary.com and search "hanged."

      October 28, 2011 at 3:19 am | Report abuse |
    • Oedipa

      Jesus, you're pretty stupid AND self-righteous, aren't you? Hanged is fine, as others have already pointed out. Now go find a job you can actually do.

      October 28, 2011 at 3:48 am | Report abuse |
  9. TEABAGGING TEABAGGERS OF THE TEE'D OFF TEA BAGGING PRONE T PARTY PAY TREE UTS ARE FOULING THE AIR AROUND MY SEPTIC TANK

    hang 10

    October 28, 2011 at 1:48 am | Report abuse |
  10. Dan NC

    Does her death sound fishy. Sure. However, I think it's irresponsible and reckless to automatically slam the investigation based on opinion and knee jerk reaction without having any contradicting evidence (or having had the opportunity to review the evidence). Posters such as queenbee(you sound like 1st year law student) who automatically assuming a botched investigation or police conspiracy have every right to their opinion (this is the comment section)...I have been practicing law for quite a while and have been involved first hand with capital murder cases; here is something to consider: it is uncommon for a woman to bind her own arms and legs, hobble to the banister naked and hang herself. We can all agree on that. Doesn't look like a suicide, looks like murder as a lot of you suggest, right? Then why on earth would an intelligent CEO (cognizant that this looks like murder) kill his girlfriend by hanging her and making it look like murder. If he killed her don't you think he would make it look like a suicide, not a murder? The family certainly has doubts and has every right to privately investigate this further. At this point it is ruled a suicide based on the evidence...again, based on the evidence. If further evidence does in fact come to light to overturn the findings of the initial investigation then heads should roll. Until then it is a suicide no matter what emotions may say otherwise.

    October 28, 2011 at 1:53 am | Report abuse |
    • Choyce2020

      I Isn't there a possibility that the intelligent CEO wants his girlfriend dead for some reason? And perhaps the brother thought he would be helping his CEO brother out by getting rid of the CEO's girlfriend? Could it be the CEO & the brother hands are both dirty?

      Even if you are as beautiful a woman as Ms. Zahau was I find it difficult to believe any normal woman would completely disrobe before hanging herself. Undoubtly, she was very beautiful but being totally undressed doesn't seem like something a woman thinks of doing. IMO, her nudity seems more like one of the final insults a sick male murderer would commit against her to cause her more shame & embarrassment before her hanging. Looking forward to the new investigative results...as for Dr. Phil being involved perhaps he helped bring this story to light as this case was already closed according to the law enforcement officials in the city of Coronado, CA. The story just doesn't make sense of this woman having hanged herself in this manner. Stay tuned.

      October 28, 2011 at 4:05 am | Report abuse |
  11. Mauser

    Dumb.

    October 28, 2011 at 2:17 am | Report abuse |
  12. Erick Ngeno

    Sorry for what happend. Even though i never & dont wish to be in that Situation. I just pray that u take heart

    October 28, 2011 at 2:38 am | Report abuse |
  13. Jude

    Such a sad story ~~ and the topper is Dr. Phil. He should be ashamed of himself for exploiting this poor family. There is probably much more going on here than any of US need to know. That's what they have detectives for. Dr. Phil: go powder your forehead and move on to telling all of us parents out here what screw ups we are!

    October 28, 2011 at 3:27 am | Report abuse |
  14. Diane Roses

    2 interesting comments above to consider: Both victims had "head injuries, fell over a banister or railing of sorts", same type of injuries. The house has an energy pattern (think Matrix, but haunted Matrix) that caused this from the past that they somehow "stepped into" and became the victim of. The outcome was determined once they entered the problematic energy pattern that created the outcome of two deaths, probably repeated from the past. Someone MUST find out the history of this house. Maybe it's time to rebuild!!

    October 28, 2011 at 3:33 am | Report abuse |
  15. xnay

    The police were probably more interested in getting it over with so they could get back to the coffee shop.

    October 28, 2011 at 4:01 am | Report abuse |
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