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. Josepha

    Rebecca Zahau, aka Rebecca Nalepa, did not commit suicide and her death certificate should be corrected and state that the manner of death is either Undetermined or Homicide.

    October 28, 2011 at 7:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      I love all of the conspiracy theorist on here all stating how dumb everyone is for saying this was a suicide!! Wht do any of you turds know about the case? You know nothing but the junk that is on the news, and that is usually about a third of the actuall evidence or information of a crime. Maybe you guys are the idiots for always believing in conspiracy theories and fairy tales!!

      November 3, 2011 at 9:57 am | Report abuse |
  2. Helen

    what's the rush to close this case. why did they insist on having this case closed. It is abvious Rebecca Zahau did not commit suicide. why did they reanact only the hands tie, but not the entire suicide as they claim it was done. why did they try to prove us so hard it was suicide with their reenactmen. why did they bother to reenact it to begin with.

    Rebecca Zahau deserve justice.

    October 28, 2011 at 7:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • MidMoMedic

      Helen, they did the reenactment to try and silence the critics. They only needed to do that hands because she would have had to have done her feet first and then her hands. I am not claiming one way or the other here...but often times the family can't and won't believe that their loved one would take their own life. Seen it and I can tell you, families of patients that I have treated assume that we must have missed something if the patient dies. Just telling them that there was nothing we could do seldom cuts it. So then they get lawyers to look it over to tell them the same thing....and yet they continue with the belief that something is not as it seems.

      October 29, 2011 at 5:54 am | Report abuse |
    • Norma

      why did they have to silence the critics. why did they anticipated there would be critics. they knew they were not telling the truth. they were protecting the perpetrator(s) who immediately layered up with the lawyer who had the connection and knew how to close this case by calling it suicide. initially the police admitted this was a brutal death but as soon as this lawyer came aboard, which was on the first day of Rebecca's death, the police called it suicide, without doing any investigation. by the time Rebecca's family arrived at the scene in San Diego, they were told it was suicide.

      why can't they leave the case open. they could put on the death certificate manner of death Undetermined. what was the rush to close this case except to protect the perpetrator.

      October 29, 2011 at 11:39 am | Report abuse |
    • kitty chi

      MidMoMedic: Re-enactment my foot!!! First of all, they used a different type of rope. Second, the woman in the video was a trained policewoman. They never said how long she had to practice to get that knot right. They never addressed how she painted the cryptic message on the door much higher than someone her height would have painted it, not in her handwriting by the way, per the family. They never showed or explained how she could tie the complex nautical knot on the bed post. You also forgot that she was gagged. So after wriiting the note, tying her feet and hands, then she had to wrap a tee shirt tightly around her neck 3 times and gag herself. THEN she had to hop, hop, hop, hop, hop, hop without falling down, to the balcony, close the door behind her, and then hurl herself over the balcony rail. There was no re-enactment at all of any of this. Yup, the family does not accept that it was a suicide and neigher do I.

      October 31, 2011 at 9:05 am | Report abuse |
    • kitty chi

      I would like to add that Rebecca Zahau's unclothed body laid for 13 hours openly in the courtyard of that mansion while helicopters flew above and neighbor boys gawked. No canopy over her body, no protection, nothing. Waiting for the ME who was at a symposium all day. Seriously??? The whole thing stinks to high heaven.

      October 31, 2011 at 9:10 am | Report abuse |
  3. gilda

    "A case for "Unsolved Mysteries"...the truth is out there, and it will prevail".

    October 29, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Report abuse |
  4. gilda

    they rushed to close this case by calling is suicide. this is cover up.

    October 29, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Lalhmangaihzuala Airawn

    Pl study this bizarre case very carefully, how can you say she killed herself. Use your brain very seriously. God be with them to uncover the truth.

    October 30, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Report abuse |
  6. vince

    to those people who feel a need to disparage anyone who questions the sheriff investigation of rebecca zahau,should read the following article ( please click the link) it would also be instructive for all the honest cops of america to digest how one cop stood his ground, got fired from his job but kept the oath he took when he first became an officer.


    October 30, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Report abuse |
  7. PC.Lalthazama

    I read it again and again and again, and I really not satisfied with how they treat her. It is very cleared that she did killed herself. IT IS NOT POSSIBLE AT ALL.

    October 30, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
  8. PC.Lalthazama

    * did not

    October 30, 2011 at 4:34 pm | Report abuse |
  9. PC.Lalthazama

    Only fool can say she killed herself.

    October 30, 2011 at 5:12 pm | Report abuse |
  10. kitty chi

    You must be one of the trolls on the Sitrick PR company's payroll, paid to post disparaging things about the deceased woman. Hope that is a good check for you since you're been around a lot of sites spewing your BS.

    October 31, 2011 at 9:13 am | Report abuse |
  11. sonnyv102687

    maybe you should kill yourself, based on your comment your just tired of your crapy ass life.

    October 31, 2011 at 10:57 am | Report abuse |
    • Sherri

      I think you mean you're not your. Different word entirely.

      November 20, 2011 at 2:59 pm | Report abuse |
  12. i.y.n

    I looked up this story for more information and it's appalling. There's no way she was able to jump off of that little balcony with her hands and feet bound. Shame on the police that were there, leaving her nude body in the lawn hours after they discovered her. I hope they find more information with this new autopsy and pin the person who did this. Too many inconsistencies.

    October 31, 2011 at 9:38 pm | Report abuse |
  13. T.T.

    Rich man = coverup.
    Look for a trail of money going into the hands of persons involved in ruling this a suicide.

    November 1, 2011 at 8:19 pm | Report abuse |
  14. SP

    We hear about the father but no one's mentioned where was the boy's mother at the time. What's her story? Was the mother angry at Rebecca for the boy's fall? Maybe someone was paid to do this and a cover-up in high places. Why the rush to close this case? I think this needs an independent investigation outside of the local PD and more media attention. For Rebecca and her family I hope we learn the truth one day.

    November 4, 2011 at 2:46 am | Report abuse |
  15. Heather Richards

    She was murdered. No doubt about it! Any moron can read this story (and I'm sure it's one sided of sorts) and see that this was clearly murder. I think the gentleman with the mansion paid some people off. This beautiful lady was murdered as was the son would be my guess.

    November 4, 2011 at 6:46 am | Report abuse |
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