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. SomeGuy

    Dr. Cyril Wecht is a weirdo but this case needs to be investigated.

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

    I assume such a body would be in a pretty poor state given a previous carving and burial and consequently would give doubts to any new evidence being produced by Patholigist number 2 as in a crime scene contamination.

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

    call CSI it might be a great help.

    October 28, 2011 at 4:41 am | Report abuse |
  4. Mad Gramma

    This woman did "not" commit suicide. In the first place a woman wouldn't get Naked before she killed herself. Second, How the H**l does she tie her own hands behind her back & her feet. Cops believe money bags boyfriend? Didn't some one hear fighting just before this also.

    October 28, 2011 at 8:57 am | Report abuse |
  5. Forizzle

    Not to be a grammar Nazi, but who checks these before they release them? 4th graders?

    October 28, 2011 at 9:41 am | Report abuse |
  6. harley

    she killed herself cuz she killed the kid...threw him down stairs cuz of jealousy...dont find her attractive at all...but I dont think to many asian chicks are that good looking anyways...aint my thing

    October 28, 2011 at 10:15 am | Report abuse |
    • GeeVee

      my thoughts exactly...i think she killed the kid then killed her self out of guilt...to kill her self in the midst of things going on with her boyfriend's son...shaddyyyyyy....hmmm

      October 28, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Big Harley

      You are ugly yourself. I have seen your face. I am giving you a honest opinon. Sorry.

      October 28, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
  7. bunny

    If she bound her hands and legs, she would have to lean over the balcony to fall- she would not be able to get on the railing with bound feet and her hands behind her. If so, she would fall forward, somersaulting. Watch divers as they jump. She would be head first in the air, and if she fell on the next story, she would hit with her back, not her head! The alternative is that she climbed onto the balcony THEN, balancing there, bent over to bind her feet and then went through all sorts of machinations (watch the tape) to bind her hands...STILL BALANCING...and jumped- but then she would hit with her feet, unless she dove- but then she would fall straight down and have have one massive contusion on her head. And the message on the wall? That seems meaningless as a suicide note- who would write on a wall???If she was sorry for what had happened she wouldn't deface a wall. That would be insult to injury. I think someone is targeting the boyfriend- or making it seem that way.. Plus, since the son wasn't dead when she died- why would she commit suicide if he was still alive? The officials here need to wake up and pay attention!

    October 28, 2011 at 11:09 am | Report abuse |
  8. jroll1

    Anyone who actually believes this woman, bound her hands and feet, hands behind her back, and then threw herself over a balcony....CALL ME, I HAVE SOME GREAT BEACH FRONT PROPERTY IN PHOENIX FOR SALE!!!!!!!

    October 28, 2011 at 11:26 am | Report abuse |
  9. anyone

    Transcripts of the Coronado PD’s investigation.

    Homicide detective: “Poor girl, looks like she was murdered.”

    Patrolmen: “Ah, detective. This is the home of Jonah Shacknai the pharmaceutical billionaire.”

    Homicide detective: “Really?!!..Well this sure looks like a suicide to me. Ok everyone lets wrap this up…Hey, anyone up for a doughnut?”

    October 28, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Gort01

    ya think........... maybe to get smart and see that it is a murder ....no woman strips nude, ties her hands and feet , then jumps off balcony so the whole world can see her naked, dead body swaying on a rope.....cmon people.

    October 28, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Report abuse |
  11. San Diego

    Leave it alone… the women hung herself, hit her head after going over the railing and when the brother cut the rope she most likely hit her head. She is responsible for the boy's death because she was in the house and not watching him, police need to interview the 13 year old on that situation… the truth was never told!
    She killed herself because she was about to loose everything… think about it!

    The family needs to stop and move on. The boy is the victim here lets not forget that Dr. Phil.

    October 28, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
  12. totzmom

    seriously WHO BINDS THEMSELVES before killing themselves? Nobody, that's who. How it was ruled a suicide is beyond me. I just pray her family gets justice!!!! Who the heck was working this case and what kind of connections does the guy have?

    October 28, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Report abuse |
  13. anonymous

    on 7/13/2011, the day Rebecca Zahau's body was found, Paul Pfingst confirmed that he had been hired to represent someone connected with this case, although he would not specify who his client was, rumors were that he was hired to represent Adam Shacknai, the brother of Jonah Shacknai.

    Paul Pfingst was the former San Diego County district attorney from 1995 to 2008.

    October 28, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • anonymous

      Within hours of the discovery of Rebecca Zahau's body — as news helicopters circled overhead — attorney Paul Pfingst, former two-term district attorney, now one of the region's top criminal defense attorneys, showed up at the mansion. Paul Pfingst would only say that he's been hired to represent someone in the case.

      October 28, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
  14. PC.Lalthazama

    It seems that there is some thing behind the burst. I really appreciate if truth can be find. Rest in peace Rebecca Zahau.

    October 28, 2011 at 6:04 pm | Report abuse |
  15. justine

    although law enforcement officially declared this to be a suicide seven weeks after Rebecca's death, the police told the family about their suicide conclusion upon their arrival to San Diego. the police already made up their mind it was a suicide two days after Rebecca 's death without any investigation.

    law enforcement called it a suicide so they could close this case.

    this case must be reopen. law enforcement are elected by the people to pursue justice. why do they insist on having this case closed. what are they trying to hide. some cases take years to be solved.

    October 28, 2011 at 7:11 pm | Report abuse |
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