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. huh

    Who hangs themselves with their wrists tied behind their back? How is that even possible? I'm trying to imagine it and can't. Obviously someone paid off the cops/detectives.

    October 27, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • cobracat

      Exactly how many suicides have you investigated? Murders? I didn't think so.

      October 27, 2011 at 8:02 pm | Report abuse |
  2. EmeraldCity

    I've always felt that this was a homicide. Also there is clearly a s3xual element to the whole thing. As Alex noted above, there was no reason to demean herself by getting undressed and then binding her own hands. Someone messed with her before this "suicide" and then attempted to make it look like such and got a thrill out of doing this to her. The blunt force head trauma proves it was no suicide.

    I'm glad to see the family is taking such steps and hope that they can find the perpetrator.

    October 27, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Fiona

      You have a twisted mind. Any "thrill" in this is yours. Sick.

      October 27, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • EmeraldCity

      So, anyone who applies critical thinking to this episode is "sick," right Fiona? It is a homicide that was s3xual in nature or made to look so. You're an idiot or a troll or both.

      October 27, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • babwa

      Being naked is not demeaning, unless you are extremely conservative. You ASSUME it was s3xual in nature, but, how well can you related to a woman who was one of two adults in a house when her husband's son suffered critical injuries? Or, how well can you relate to someone who is ready to take their own life?

      October 27, 2011 at 11:01 pm | Report abuse |
  3. kirk

    this is murder pure and simple look real hard at the father

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

      The father who was at the hospital at the time?

      October 27, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • EmeraldCity

      Big Fan – I guess you've never heard of a hit?

      October 27, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      Maybe the father owed money or favors to the mafia or something and someone else killed both the son and the girl-or...maybe the dad did it. I know if I ever want to kill someone , I will try to make sure I have an airtight alibi or at least what looks like one. Maybe her boyfriend had her killed to keep her quiet about what really happened because now–we only have his version to go on–how convenient.

      October 27, 2011 at 9:58 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Yeah I said it

    I hate Dr. Phil. What an opportunistic slimebag. If he was a real doctor who cared about his patients he wouldn't be airing out their dirty laundry for money on national television. PIG

    October 27, 2011 at 3:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Phil

      I am a doctor. I have a a doctorate in physics. Simply because I do not have a medical degree does not mean that I'm not a doctor.

      Phil McGraw's degree is a Doctor of Philosophy in clinical psychology...still a doctor.

      October 27, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
  5. F Dr Phil

    Dr. Phil should go F himself. Also, his son is a pimp – look it up.

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

    How do you tie your own hands behind your back? Or even in front?

    October 27, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Sencho

    All you armchair forensic scientists really do need to turn of NCIS, etc. every now and then. You're spouting TV "science", and it looks like some of you are actually starting to believe your own ill-informed theories.

    October 27, 2011 at 3:38 pm | Report abuse |
  8. r.ortiz

    this is surely a strange case, i believe there is more to this i do not think she killed herself some one helped her.

    October 27, 2011 at 3:41 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Portland Tony

    Holy crime lab. The Butler did it! We don't need no stinkin detectives...We got CNN's crime bloggers.

    October 27, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Yavanna

    I'm surprised that no one has mentioned this (that I've read) but the four 'tiny' bruises could have been from the rope swinging and dinging her head against the wall of the house. From the ME report the size of the bruising was very small and was not indicative of someone bashing her on the head. I can't picture how you could jump off the balcony like that without swinging. The suicide note on the outside of the bedroom door referenced her saving the boy (who was in the hospital at the time of her death) and would anyone save her meant to me that she was distraught over his injury, possibly blaming herself for it happening, and her boyfriend wasn't comforting her. He was with his son at the hospital and ignoring her. I expect she saw that as the end of her cushy lavish life with her millionaire boyfriend and was depressed about it.

    October 27, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • fearlessdude

      Yes, it happens. People bang their heads on the concrete floor repeatedly until they die. It used to happen in New Jersey a lot. Bullets cause too much mess.

      October 27, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • EmeraldCity

      The fabric in the mouth, the bizarre note on the door (referencing "she" instead of "I" or "me") and the tape residue found on her left thigh and right leg are all red flags. And don't make sense. And those bruises were found on top of her head and evidently point the fact that she would've been hit 4 different times.

      October 27, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      .on the TOP of her head? and the lack of fingerprints of the man's brother who just happened to come in from out of town, and found the body and cut it down but left no prints? All the while the boyfriend makes sure EVERYONE sees him and his alibi at the bed of his comatose son? All wrapped up and you don't see the inconsistencies–I hope you are under 30–have to be some excuse for the failure to deduce things based on what was reported.

      October 28, 2011 at 12:04 am | Report abuse |
  11. fridayet

    Maybe she killed the boy... they wanted to handle the justice internally within the family. The family can't say that she killed the boy, or else they will be suspected of her "suicide". This will make for a great episode of "Behind Mansion Walls" in about 2 years.

    October 27, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • jodi psych nurse

      I believe it was an elobrate attempt to frame the boyfriend.I work in a psych hospital, I see so much smoke and mirrors in people,she hung herself to frame her boyfriend. So sad the lengths people will go

      October 27, 2011 at 11:46 pm | Report abuse |
  12. SMK

    How could she have tied herself up and then got undressed? Obama in 2012!

    October 27, 2011 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
  13. JennyT

    So glad they're having her body exhumed and re-examined. I know people can do things we can't imagine or understand; but stripping yourself naked, tying a rope around your bed to your neck, and then binding your own feet and then your hands (is that even possible?) and then what? She hopped over to the balcony and what, jumped really high to get over it? She bumped her head in 4 different places on the way down? Seems like quite a feat to kill yourself in such a manner. I think it much more likely that she was forced to leave a written message and then murdered.

    October 27, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • jodi psych nurse

      No way she did it to frame the boyfriend.You can balance on a balcony ties your feet then hands and jump.ever been to see a cirque de sola show. it can be done

      October 27, 2011 at 11:48 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Jess79

    The thing that gets me is the original ME was quoted as saying that she hit her head on the way down.... IN 4 DIFFERENT PLACES?!?!?!?!? I'm sorry but unless she used a bungee cord I highly doubt that's possible. I've been reading about this since it happened in July and something always struck me a fisy with this story. I was shocked when her death was ruled as a suicide because everything they told the media pointed to the possibility that she was murdered. And who knows that the investigators didn't tell the media!!!

    October 27, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Denis Sullivan

    Lots of speculation in these comments. That's all just pure speculation.

    October 27, 2011 at 3:48 pm | Report abuse |
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