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. Bimbo the Birthday Clown

    I'll grant you, that if you went to the trouble, you could probably do it. But why behind your back specifically? I won't say it's impossible, but it raises my eyebrows at least.

    I would scan in a picture of raised eyebrows, if I could.

    October 27, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      Most people who kill themselves do not do so to frame the people they leave behind. This reminds me of the case of two police officers who picked up a prior juvenile defender, beat him up then put him in the car (all witnessed to and admitted to by the police men) but according to later believed testimony despite having his handcuffs behind his back, this youth found a gun in his shoe and shot himself in the temple–try to do that with your hands behind your back sometime–be sure to get that gun to be perpendicular to your temple after you remove a hidden gun the police frisked for and did not find–the policemen were acquitted–Indianapolis 1997–of course the teen was black so what did it matter? Well.. now it looks like the cases of the privileged and powerful getting away with murder has come full circle–so be careful who you make angry–never know when they have some ropes. a stool and a nice suicide note and when stupid people either police or a biased jury will believe that you really did want to off yourself.

      MY TAKE? The girl was a loose end. She knew how the son really died and her "lover" wanted to make sure she could not and would not break down and rat him out–so suicide–er fake suicide. Somebody else killed her and the odds are high it was done to make sure she could not talk about the other death.

      October 27, 2011 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      CORRECTION: prior juvenile OFFENDER

      October 27, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      The KEY here is the blunt force trauma. The original investigation tried to explain it as she must have hit her head as she fell from teh balcony in a nonvertical position. BUT ...4 separate areas were found–so unless she pingponged from one blunt object in the way after another–LUCAS (the first ME) better come up with another reason why he dismissed so much trauma and accepted the suicide while bound theory. $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$ cha–chinggggggg!!!!

      October 27, 2011 at 3:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joy

      Queenbee nailed it! Shes 100% right, how the hell did they get a "suicide" out of all this! OH.............money talks! Jonah hired the help!

      October 27, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
  2. dowdotica

    i am a flexible person? I can bind my feet. i can bind my hands behind my back. i can make a noose and get it over my neck. i can wiggle across the balcony and get myself up on the rail. i can jump off. good by....ow! that hurt, after all that i forgot to tie the rope to something...uh can somebody call a paramedic? THE LADY DID NOT COMMIT SUICIDE. DUH!

    October 27, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bimbo the Birthday Clown

      I, on the other hand, am not that flexible. I can barely manage to get three icecubes into my rum and eggnog after work.

      October 27, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      not only that, if she has 4 blunt trauma injuries dismissed as her hitting herself on the way down, they need to find the 4 things she hit or why her head stayed in one area taking numerous hits from one object in her way –in 4 separate places on her head. COVER UP.

      October 27, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
  3. WTHH

    Wow, I can't wait to watch the results on Dr. Phil! TACKY.

    October 27, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kana

      "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" ... publicty wh0r3

      October 27, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
  4. newt

    she killed the boy, threw him down the stairs. Then later killed herself either out of remorse or to frame the boys father who had figured it out and was either going to leave her or expose her, so she framed him for her suicide.

    October 27, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mrs. Minniver

      Do you also think she beat herself in the head? Sheesh.

      October 27, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • JC

      Sounds like she was blamed for the boy's death, and his dad threw her off the balcony after beating her up. But I prefer to let actual police determine things like that.

      October 27, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      More likely the dad killed his son–probably on accident (like he slapped or pushed him and he fell down the stairs) but the girl was hysterical and hysterical people are not stable–he could not depend on her to keep her mouth shut. He's rich–he could not afford to be accused of even negligent homicide or be arrested as that would hurt both his career and his stock–but he's rich so the police automatically took his word for stuff and covered it up–happens all the time. My family is wealthy–a relative was involved in a death that was later ruled a homicide –but even though my relative was at the scene and was the one fighting with the other kid–he was automatically ruled out of being accused of the crime due to the family's standing in that town. Happens ALL the time. So who went down for the murder of the other kid? Well, once my relative was dismissed or not held liable (not even as a suspect, person of interest or even a witness) the case was closed–no one paid for a woman losing her 16 year old son and we do not know the real story to this day (the relative still maintains his innocence. I will always think he knows something –and my position is why we do not communicate and have not for over a decade.

      October 27, 2011 at 2:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jason, Chicago IL

      I love the theories implicating the boy's father even though he wasn't present in either case. It's a very strange case, but which makes more sense, to blame the person who was there both times or the person who wasn't there either time? Screw it, just blame the guy who wasn't there because if it doesn't make any sense at all, it must be true.

      October 27, 2011 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • newt

      If you were murdering someone would you leave them bound? No, if you had had to bind them somewhat to subdue them you would remove all that so suicide would look more obvious. If you want to implicate someone you make it look like you couldnt have done it yourself. Those very minor bruises on her head could be from a kitchen cabinet or banging ones head on a table while retrieving a lost thing from the floor. The police did their work when the scene was still fresh and they came to the conclusion based on all the evidence, which none of us have, that she killed herself.

      October 27, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • ladys

      @newt: Except, of course, that there would be ligature marks left by the bindings - and if the police found someone hanging with ligature marks on their wrists but no rope, isn't that an even STRONGER indication that it wasn't suicide?

      October 27, 2011 at 4:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      Hey newt and Jason–the boyfriends brother came in from out of town, found the body and took it down. But the police say no one's fingerprints were at the scene besides the girlfriend. So the brother of the boyfriend came in -moved the body, messed up a potential crime scene and left no finger prints? And she got blunt force trauma to the TOP of her head from falling? 4 separate areas? Must have been some really hard air she hit–and ricocheted off of.

      October 27, 2011 at 11:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • tahini

      I bet the dad threw her down the stairs l to 'show her how it felt' after suspecting her....and then hanged her off the balcony to cover up the possible broken neck or whatever.

      October 28, 2011 at 1:13 am | Report abuse |
  5. Sunflower

    Maybe the boys death was considered her fault, and the dad paid someone to exact revenge??????

    October 27, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      So according to the official report–"she must have struck her head as she fell in a non vertical position–yeah–must have bounced around and hit 4 things in that position since they found 4 separate bruises in 4 separate areas. If they find malfeasance they should fire that entire police force including the ME and maybe the AG too–take it out of the state–corruption usually knows no bounds when someone is rich enough.

      "“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.”

      October 27, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      ..but she was killed before the boy died. –Extract revenge for what?

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

      queenbee – good point but by that logic – why would she kill herself when the boy hadn't died yet?

      October 28, 2011 at 1:17 am | Report abuse |
  6. Kevin O.

    Really? Dr Phil? How very white trash.

    October 27, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      when people are desperate to get their story out there, they will use any venue–look at Amanda Knox's family and how many carried and championed her story. Though I do think Dr. Phil is a quack and one of Oprahs many dupes.

      October 27, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
  7. doubler

    "Dr. Phil." Now, there's a laugher. What kind of medical professional goes by his first name?

    October 27, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dr Drew

      HEY! What are you saying?

      October 27, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • clever

      LOL! Dr. Drew...good one ;).

      October 27, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jason

      You can earn doctorates in several other fields than the medical field.

      October 28, 2011 at 6:11 am | Report abuse |
  8. ja

    the woman must have been a magican, to have tied her self, then kill herself, money in america can still get desired results

    October 27, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • JC

      The key word here is "mansion."

      October 27, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
  9. gary

    Chuck Norris did it

    October 27, 2011 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nick

      Those bruises on her head are from the roundhouse kick.

      October 27, 2011 at 6:38 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Kerry

    This was a very dramatic death, whomever is responsible. I can understand the families need to prove it further. Hard to believe she would do this. Especially since the boy was still alive at the time. I wonder if the investigator did a reenactment of this crime to prove it was even possible? In theory maybe, in reality doubtful.

    October 27, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Chartreuxe

    Self-bound suicides are neither uncommon nor unknown in Asian cultures. It's shocking in the US because it's not common nor well-known here.

    October 27, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      Evidently so is gagging oneself before the suicide, hitting yourself in the head and when anyone comes to take down thebody, Asian traditions mean they will never leave any finger prints (man's brother came in from out of town while dad was at hospital establishing air tight alibi–and the brother took the body down but police say no prints there but the girls–where were the prints of the man who took her body down? INVISIBLE MAN? Doi......

      October 27, 2011 at 11:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kathleen McKenna

      The thiing I have the most trouble with are the tape traces on her legs. It stretches credulity to think that on top of all the other over elaborate preparations for this weird way to die that she went down got a roll of duct tape, duct taped her legs then decided what? It looks funny, I'll just take it off and use rope instead so it matches my wrists. And then where did the duct tape go to, I cant say for sure of course but this seems like way too much work and multi tasking for a self inflicted death.

      October 28, 2011 at 12:02 am | Report abuse |
    • Jason

      Are suicides in the buff also common trait in Asian cultures?
      It sure as hell isn't in Western cultures.

      October 28, 2011 at 6:13 am | Report abuse |
    • From Asia

      I lived 38 years in Asia. I have never heard someone hung himself / herself with hands and feet tied. Even we set that aside, killing oneself after getting NUDE is definitely NOT an Asian culture.

      October 29, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Report abuse |
  12. JomoDaMusicMan

    Everybody know that it was suicide especially when she's the girlfriend of a Super Rich White Male found dead with her hands tied behind her back and because of the boy friends status in America, there is no need for investigation. YA'LL KNOW DAT

    October 27, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • JC

      Back off, man, he's a JOB CREATOR. He already made work for some cops and a pathologist.

      October 27, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
  13. FormerNYer

    Sorry I don't care how flexible you are you can't tie your hands and feet, put a noose over your head AND Climb over a balcony. And conveniently the other son was away that day? Give me a break.

    They were "satisfied" with the investigation? No wonder OJ got away with murder in that town.

    October 27, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rob

      In "that town"? OJ was 2 hours away up in Los Angeles......Coronado is a little island across from downtown San Diego.

      October 27, 2011 at 6:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jumper

      Climb over the railing? You act like she had to be spiderman in order to get herself over a railing that was probably all of 3 feet tall. It is called jumping

      October 27, 2011 at 7:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      Jumper: don't forget her feet were also bound–now tell us how she climbed over the railing–how did she do that? Her hands were behind her back so how does she get 3 feet over a railing with her hands behind her back and her feet bound? Even Jesse Owens or an Olympic hurdler could not do that–but oh yeah and woman with her hands and feet bound and lumps on her head could –so she offed herself before the boy even died?

      October 27, 2011 at 9:55 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Frank

    People of the United States of America,
    It will be very interesting to see if the independent autopsy comes up with a different conculsion than the country coroner.

    October 27, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Joey Isotta-Fraschini

    Chartreuxe, I think that the Asian binding before suicide, at least in Ja-
    pan, is for decorum. Sopranos singing MADAMA BUTTERFLY learn the reason for this binding from the best directors.

    October 27, 2011 at 2:47 pm | Report abuse |
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