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. vernelle burkins

    Why would she kill self she didnt kill the boy what would be the reason

    October 27, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jason, Chicago IL

      How do you know she didn't?

      The entire situation is creepy and weird, so to say that it definitely happened one way or another without having been there is a bit naive.

      October 27, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jimmy

      Why in god's name if you killed someone and were trying to make it look like a suicide would you leave her hands and feet tied?? YOU WOULDNT!! You would cut them off so it looks like a suicide. Logic says this was a suicide because nobody would do that on purpose.

      October 27, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      Jimmy–if you cut her hands and feet off it would not look like a suicide and if you unbound her hands and feet she still would have blood torpor which would show she had been tied up and then untied after circulation had stopped-even worse evidence of foul play. Of course.. I find the brother's timing in arriving to see and untie the body and move it to be interesting especially since the police did not find his fingerprints anywhere at the scene despite him handling the body. AMAZING

      October 27, 2011 at 11:54 pm | Report abuse |
  2. volksmaniac

    It sounds like Dr. Phil is getting desperate for show material . Maybe he should think about going into another line of work . He could always return to the medical profession ....... Oh wait , he's not really a doctor is he ? Tacky .. Cyral Wect is as bad as Dr. Phil , he is now reduced to finding something to get his name in the news . Pitiful .

    October 27, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Todd

      Sounds like you're completely ignorant of the facts of the case. You should do your research for one, such as how a human being could possibly tie themselves on their own in that manner. That's just ONE thing out of 50. Again, try reading several articles about the case, you may come off looking less like a moron, but I doubt it.

      October 27, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • huh

      Dr. Phil is an embarrassment to psychology and not a doctor at all, but that doesn't change the fact that this case should be re-examined.

      October 27, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • JimboJones

      Wecht, Dr. Phil and others of their ilk who profit from the deaths of others are all ghouls.

      October 27, 2011 at 3:34 pm | Report abuse |
  3. however

    Maybe she slipped on a bar of soap.

    October 27, 2011 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      yeah and when she slipped she hit her head in 4 different places (really hard) then jumped over a balcony.

      October 27, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jason

      No, she was hit 4 times over the head with a banana and, subsequently, slipped in the peel.
      The Keystone Cops of San Diego are still investigating what happened to the rest of the banana.

      October 28, 2011 at 6:26 am | Report abuse |
  4. Alex

    A woman who prided herself on her good looks would never leave behind her naked, dead, hanging body. No one who was that pretty would commit suicide like that or want to be found that way.

    October 27, 2011 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • myviewtoo

      Alex I totally agree 99% of us women will not leave our bodies nude for the world to see no matter what act we have committed it would be total embarrassment in even to our ghost. I believe the young child fell the boyfriend blamed her for not watching him better and he killed her and with his large amount of monies he got away with it.

      October 27, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • EmeraldCity

      I totally agree with this. Had more to say but CNN would not accept language in the comment.

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


      Great point, totally agree. Even beyond that, she was of Burmese descent. Like many Asians, she came from a conservative, close family and I doubt she would want to be found nude or cause any humiliation for her family.

      Then there's the matter of the "suicide note" painted on the guest room door saying "She saved him, can you save her". If she had written it, surely it would have been in first person and there would be no need to disguise the handwriting.

      All very creepy...

      October 27, 2011 at 6:40 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Kyle

    What a shame, she was hot.

    October 27, 2011 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • deadasadoornail

      Now she's really cold

      October 27, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Joey Isotta-Fraschini

    @ Alex:
    Nobody knows what a beautiful person wants except that particular beautiful person.

    October 27, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
  7. 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. $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

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

      It seems like investigators did not so much explain the evidence as try to explain it away with some way out theory. If you did not walk into a rich drug executive's mansion and find a dead body right while his son was in a coma from blunt force trauma, you might think – my God, someone murdered this woman! But if you want to make the case go away by closing it, then you tack together a string of improbabilities and claim you have solved it. This works, as you see with many people posting here, and they weren't even paid off to say so (as far as we know). But that may not be case with the police investigators – or they may fear a hassle from the rich guy more than they lust for pay-offs. Whichever it is, the case needs to be reopened, and I don't care if P. T. Barnum says so. Common sense requires that we discard the goofy theory of the police.

      October 27, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
  8. fannyallred

    According to the police report she tied her hands and feet and gagged her mouth. Then was able to hop onto the balconey railing then jump. I don't think the world's greatest gymnast could even do that.

    October 27, 2011 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Debra

    Maybe I have no imagination – but how do you tie your own hands behind your back? I know I don't have that kind of dexterity.

    October 27, 2011 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jason, Chicago IL

      Tie them in from of you, then sit down and slip your legs between the rope so your hands are behind your back. Then lean forward onto your knees and stand up. Unless you're obese it shouldn't be that difficult to do.

      October 27, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • musings

      You forgot a few things Jason – hit your head in four places to knock yourself out, then put a tape over your mouth so that if you come to, you won't bring help. With all that, you're good to go.

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

      Jason, Chicago IL

      Tie them in from of you, then sit down and slip your legs between the rope so your hands are behind your back. Then lean forward onto your knees and stand up. Unless you're obese it shouldn't be that difficult to do." NO jason–because her feet were bound–unable to lift them up like you described UNLESS she tied her hands first–if so, then explain how she tied her feet–and don't describe any method using teeth–because her mouth was stuffed with a rag...
      Now–after you explain THAT–tell us how the brother came in from out of town just in time to cut down the body and how come police only found her prints and not the brother's since he was there and should at least have prints on the body and the rope?

      October 27, 2011 at 11:59 pm | Report abuse |
  10. John

    "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." Every time I see this, I think..."Seriously? Seriously?" How many people had to be paid off for this conclusion to stick?

    October 27, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • deadasadoornail

      OMG, THANK YOU, JOHN!!! This is so bloody laughable!! I'm sure they have plenty of other suicide cases on file where the victim was shot in the head TWICE.

      October 27, 2011 at 3:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sheva

      @deadasadorrnail – I once witnessed a corpse found in a car with a revolver in his lap. Later published autopsy showed 12 wounds. Gun could hold six bullets. Official ruling was that this was a suicide – which means he had to have reloaded the gun. True story – other interesting fact is that he wasn't too nice of a guy and lots of people including the cops would have been happy he was no longer around. This convinced me that autopsy results are sometimes clouded by bias. Don't know if that was going on in this case or not – just speaking from personal experience that conclusions can be influenced by outside factors.

      October 27, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      Well, although not likely, its possible to shoot yourself in the head twice, you know, perhaps you flinch on the first go and miss the kill...but NEVER have I EVER heard of anyone bounding their feet and their wrists behind their back and then hanging themselves. Its illogical.

      October 27, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Trish ```````````````~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    Hey guys, will you visit HelpFaye.ORG , a friend of mine is fighting for her life... Thanks

    October 27, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bimbo the Birthday Clown

      Oh God, isn't Faye dead yet?

      October 27, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Obvious

    Duh. The Tea Partiers killed her. She was about to get a job, and the TP'ers are afraid of economic recovery.

    October 27, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Sunshine1167

    A woman here committed suicide by shooting herself in the head...twice. I found that interesting. (Her husband was present.)

    October 27, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
  14. JomoDaMusicMan

    It was suicide because I was there & watched as she tied her hands behind her back, then hit her head in several places and jumped off the balcony. I then immediately went over to aid Ruth & Bernie Madoff committ suicide. I watched them each take two tylenols and a bayer aspirin with a glass of wine. I was as surprised as each of you when they awoke from this suicide attempt.

    October 27, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
  15. James K.

    This woman definitely did not kill herself.

    October 27, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Report abuse |
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