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. William Shatner

    Is this case weird or what?

    I don't think the husband did it. If he wanted to kill his wife, he would have just drowned her in the pool.

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

      Sounds like the kid may have said something that made the girlfriend snap where she thereafter shoved the kid down stairs to his death. Remorseful, she then offed herself.

      October 27, 2011 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bvanman

      Yeah Scarf, it could be something crazy like that. Women do very theatrical things when they commit suicide but man...tied up and hang herself? Thats alot ot take in for suicide

      October 27, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • AJ

      I do suspect she had some blame in the boy's death, but I always figured the biological mother of the boy hired out the job of getting rid of her.

      October 27, 2011 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
  2. HZ

    The only way it could not be murder is if the woman was trying to frame someone else BUT if she was trying to do that she would have left lots of evidence pointing at whoever she wanted to take the blame like telling stories to all of her friends, writing something and sending it to where the accused can't find it before the cops, etc. So I really doubt it was suicide.

    Also, if the cops found a naked woman tied up and dead in my home I would be in prison after a 1 day trial. It pays to be rich!

    October 27, 2011 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rob

      C'mon, the trial would last at least 2 days...unless you're black.

      October 27, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bvanman

      I am thinking the ex wife, mother of the child that died while this woman was watching him has something to do with it..or the uncle. NO WAY A SUICIDE! I seen the press conference where the police said they were classifieng it as a suicide. i was shocked..i hope he had his fingers crossed behind his back.

      October 27, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bvanman

      Yeah, money does helpd slow the wheels of justice. it doesn't always stop it though..and i agree, the cops wouldn't have waited 30 seconds to toss my ass in jail for w few years awaiting my trial, where i would be guilty from the beginning...then get my death penalty

      October 27, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Sylvia

    I am SO glad this isn't over because it wreaks of foul play. Law enforcement was so quick to brush this under the rug, but hopefully now, justice will prevail.

    October 27, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Ferdinand

    California does not have enough medical examiners and frequently hires people who have been shady pasts and who have been fired for incompetence in other states. California ruled an elderly man's death "natural causes," and then the family ordered an independent autopsy that proved the man had been beaten to death by an excon who had been hired at the nursing home in question; the beating was witnessed by the staff but covered up by administrators. They found multiple breaks in the man's chest, hands, legs; even his toes and fingers were broken. He died a miserable death. And nothing has changed in California; people are living in giant homeless camps, working men and women have to sign up for free dental services because they can't afford their own coverage. I feel sorry for Californians; the poor ones I mean, not the 1%.

    October 27, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Report abuse |
  5. D

    I wonder where Jonah's brother was while Jonah was at the hospital with his son. Practicing the knots he learned in boy scouts is my guess.

    October 27, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      his brother was out the house, discovering the body and cutting it down, but not leaving any foot or finger prints–that takes time....

      October 28, 2011 at 12:08 am | Report abuse |
  6. koolgrl97

    The knots were fairly complicated knots. Not sure if she would know how to tie them. The boyfriend's brother (the same guy who found her body) had a job where he would have known how to tie these knots (not sure if he was a sailor?). While I don't think the boyfriend did it – I think other members of the family could have had motive and opportunity to do it. I agree the fact she was naked points to someone wanting to embarass and humiliate her (the ex-wife?). Also, most women do not commit suicide by hanging. The writing on the wall was also weird and her family members said it wasn't her handwriting.

    October 27, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • EmeraldCity

      I think that both the ex-wife (it is, after all, her son), the boyfriend and his brother (who found her) should be looked at or investigated more closely. If the boy was at the hospital and she was (conveniently) by herself, it might be that she was at a disadvantage, simply because no one was at the house. The killer, of course knowing what was going on, would make it look like a suicide.

      October 27, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Report abuse |
  7. turtle soup

    There was a reinactment and it was shown that she would have been able to bind herself in the manner that the knots were tied. It is also possible for her to have hit her head while she was stumbling around while bound, climbing over the balcony, and in the jump. None of those things are impossible.

    The thing that has me questioning, is that if the husband or someone else killed her and wanted to make it look like suicide, why would they strip her nude and bind her? Makes no sense. People who are suicidal are not in a right frame of mind. Who knows what she could have been thinking or why she would have bound herself, but it could happen.

    October 27, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      how did she climb the 3 feet over the balcony with bound feet. Bind your feet together and see how high you jump–especially with your hands bound so you cannot use them as any momentum. Good luck getting 8 inches off the ground before falling on your face–(but not the top of your head where you will get 4 bruises from hitting the air at various angles on the way down) wind shear?

      October 27, 2011 at 10:07 pm | Report abuse |
  8. arod

    This girl was murdered.

    There is a huge amount of bribery in San Diego and around the country in America, perhaps even more than in the courts of any other country in the world. Nearly all bribes are given to the judges by lawyers; this is considered the safe way to bribe a judge. Bribery is rarely spoken about, just understood. People pay huge amounts of money to law firms with connections, the lawyers walk around with a certain amount of cash in their jacket, and they pass it to the judges in their quiet moments together. It is mostly all cash of course. Sometimes the bribery is blatantly obvious, because of the other crimes that lawyers and judges commit in broad daylight together. In the courtrooms you can see the judges being extremely friendly to their rich lawyer friends who pay big bribes.

    In America, government-appointed lawyers are the means by which hundreds of thousands of poor people are railroaded into prison. It is the job of the victim's lawyer to "sell the deal" that the judge has decided will happen. This is Star Chamber justice.

    A 1996 San Diego Superior Court corruption case in which three judges and a lawyer were convicted of taking bribes or influence peddling. Since neither county nor state would prosecute, federal prosecutors had to do the job under the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) statute. Former San Diego Judge Michael Greer admitted taking $75,000 in bribes in exchange for having given a lawyer preferential treatment. Greer was placed on suspension after pleading guilty. Judges G. Dennis Adams, James A. Malkus and attorney Patrick R. Frega were convicted under the RICO statute. But in June of this year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned racketeering charges against Adams and Malkus, claiming the jury had been given inaccurate instructions. All of these men have remained free since 1996 as they appeal their cases.

    October 27, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • jon

      What a great country – anything for a buck! What a bunch of hypocrites we are. Not really surprising I guess.

      October 27, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • amused

      What does bribing a judge have to do with whether or not she committed suicide? I find it hilarious that because you read about one case of corruption in the US justice system, you have made the leap that the US has the most bribery cases of any in the world. It is these sorts of hyperbolized, grandiose statements that have no place in the blogosphere.

      October 27, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Maddox

      Gigantic leaps and strange sorts of hyperbolized, grandiose statements are a trademark of one frequent poster on This Just In, have you never been here before?

      October 27, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      Well, I know that in my civil case, the judge let the plaintiff's attorney have all the evidence instead of the court retaining it–that way, when the case was appealed, the plaintiff (who lost) refused to turn over the evidence and the court did not make them. In other news–my lawyer was found to be working with the plaintiffs attorney trying to get the case he won for us thrown out. The reason? Over half a million in real estate and from what we hear bribes being handed out (that the plaintiff later complained about having to pay)

      October 27, 2011 at 10:10 pm | Report abuse |
  9. boocat9

    This woman DID NOT commit suicide. The San Diego police department and the cororner ARE INCOMPETENT.

    October 27, 2011 at 4:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • RedRooster

      The incompetence label actually belongs to the Sheriff's Dep. They investigated this one.

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

      Please explain why the San Diego Police Department is incompetent in this case. It DID NOT investigate this case, you moron.

      October 27, 2011 at 8:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      Not incompetent, corrupt–there is a difference.

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

    How do you tie your hands behind your back and call it a suicide?

    October 27, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Report abuse |
  11. GRS62

    Great... as long as Dr. Phildo is involved, we can all rest asured that the results will be shocking! Come on, Zahau family...get to the truth without turning it into a ratings grabbing sideshow. Dr. Phildo sould be ashamed of taking advantage of a family's grief to further his television show (translation: $$$).

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

      The police closed the case and the AG REFUSED to investigate–the ONLY way to get some kind of response was to turn it into a media sideshow to cast the spotlight of the public on the entire mess. If that means selling the show to the Dr Phil pimp–then that is what they had to do–other wise with law enforcement with jurisdiction REFUSING to do more–they were left with few choices.

      October 27, 2011 at 10:13 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Bvanman

    wow! I thoght this was weird..wasn't her hands and feet tied when they found her?

    October 27, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Doug

    I don't know how anyone could conclude she killed herself.. This is like saying we found her with ten shots to the head and determine it's suicide.. I hope the family finds who did this because clearly someone killed her and got away with it..

    October 27, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Comment

    Where were all of the servants? A house that big takes a lot of upkeep; not to mention having to wait on the employer and his guests. No one saw or heard ANYTHING?

    October 27, 2011 at 4:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      All not there at the time just like no one there besides the girl friend (supposedly) when the son was killed. All rather convenient isn't it?

      October 27, 2011 at 10:14 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Jennifer NYC

    Thank you Cyril Wecht! I am so happy to read this. You know she was murdered...I never believed it was suicide..poor lovely thing.

    October 27, 2011 at 4:18 pm | Report abuse |
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