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. Gloria

    Looking forward to the 2nd autopsy results!

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

      "Mansion hanging woman"????????
      CNN....fire these morons you have writing for you.

      October 27, 2011 at 4:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • georgecarlin

      Of course she was murdered...the real question is who corrupted the police dept and why aren't they being charged with obstruction of justice and other crimes. The police are the criminals now.

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

    It is possible to bind your hands in front of you and then pull them over your legs and feet so they are behind your back if you are limber enough so not impossible that she did it. It is also possible that she fell over a few times before she was able to toss herself over the balcony edge. That would explain the multiple bruises to the head,particularly if the railing is separated because it would hit on 2 different points. I am not saying that it wasn't foul play, but there is certainly a reasonable explination.

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

      It's possible for pigs to fly...when you shoot them from a cannon.

      October 27, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Norm

      Are somehow related to the husband that paid off the cops to call this a suicide?

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

      Yeah right.

      October 27, 2011 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • DeeNYC

      Are you married or widowed? just wondering.

      October 27, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike Urciolo

      It sounds more like something within the realm of possibility – not a reasonable explanation.

      October 27, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • HuH?

      It's also possible that someone else did it; and a lot more likely. Most people don't take their own clothes off before publicly hanging themselves. She fell over and hit her own head four times, indicating that she is a klutz, yet she still managed to tie herself up and get off the balcony?

      October 27, 2011 at 5:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bet

      You wouldn't even have to pull them over your legs and feet, as demonstrated by the police video. And bound suicides DO occur – well before reading about this incident, I read about a suicide victim found on the Appalachian Trail – hung, hands bound, no evidence of foul play. It is supposedly so that they can't panic and try, in vain, to save themselves. While not extremely common, it's also not at all unheard of.

      And as the family member of someone who committed suicide – I have to agree that there is both a certain "shame" some families feel over having a "weak" relative, and also a desire to believe that the person was very happy and would never have killed themselves.

      October 27, 2011 at 5:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bet

      Huh – first of all, it wasn't "publicly" hanging herself. Second, has it ever occurred to you that she fell over and hit her head AFTER binding her hands and feet? She wouldn't need to be a "klutz" to fall in that case.

      October 27, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Vanilla Wins

      If the boyfriend was not white and rich, the police would already have taken him out back and shot him 50 times whether they had evidence he did it or not. Its obvious he bought off the cops.

      October 27, 2011 at 5:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      NOTE TO ALL SINGLE WOMEN–stay away from Pharmaceutical moguls who may want to date you–they have amazingly poor luck with children and girlfriends surviving...

      October 27, 2011 at 10:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      feet bound too–so did she tie her feet up first then she could not have pulled her hands behind her back or did she do the back hand trick first which does not explain how her feet got tied–see the problem with NOT THINKING sheet through?

      October 27, 2011 at 10:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      Then again..suicide is a way for a police dept to justify NOT expending the energy or monetary resources to investigate–they are especially fiscally responsible like this when it comes to investigating the rich.

      October 27, 2011 at 10:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      people who fall over do not hit the TOP of their head–they hit the sides. the only way to hit the top is to fall ON the head–the only way to get 4 blunt force trauma marks on the TOP of the head is to repeatedly be hit in the head or to repeatedly fall on top of ones head (as in bouncing up and down 4 times) And the only way to get those 4 BFt's in separate places is to either repeatedly hit the top of a head or as the head is repeatedly falling and landing on something the head is twisting.
      Fact is –unless the rope was rubber–and short, it is not likely that the woman's head bounced 4 times against anything and if momentum swung her body into a wall, it would not hit the TOP of her head but the side. Physics 101. Nice try. Thanks for playing.

      October 28, 2011 at 12:21 am | Report abuse |
  3. the king

    well that's there tale and i am sittin on mine

    October 27, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
  4. jimmymax

    Sounds like maybe she pushed the boy down the stairs and then offed herself. Or, the whole thing was meticulously set up by the bf, and it would have to be very well done to not provide a single piece of evidence contrary to the suicide theory.

    October 27, 2011 at 4:27 pm | Report abuse |
  5. LaJollaRich

    They won't get away with murder. They tried but failed.

    October 27, 2011 at 4:35 pm | Report abuse |
  6. nathaniel

    Who's the Jedi that found her hands bound behind her back, while hanging, and came up with suicide?

    October 27, 2011 at 4:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Norm

      All they have to do is a check a few bank accounts to see who was paid off to call it a suicide and where the money came from.

      October 27, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      The brother, who also cut the body down but left no foot or finger prints at the scene (according to police)

      October 28, 2011 at 12:22 am | Report abuse |
  7. glo

    The boys father had his brother fly out to Ca during this time This is when the girlfriend supposely committed I heard about this last summer jonah's brother dates a womanm I used to be acquainted with I don'tknow but what I understand is he is by her account a nice person I am very open about my opinion concerning this case io felt it was odd in the beginning ooking at it from the outside in maybe someone blamed her for the boys accident and took revenge I don't think she committed suicide

    October 27, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • bla bla

      can be off one sail hands brother someone for the donkey rabbit fondue pretending like some keeping my toes erect was without my slttery compounded mostlestange for probably won't eat the ropes without her teeth and can be bobblehead dolls when my back aches in the morning

      October 27, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • cranberries

      um...grammar much? if you would add a few periods and a comma or two, maybe we could understand what you were saying.

      October 27, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • glob

      if that go with her didnt die killed potato fables wont you i dont think when she at my work stop giving that police made it not real for goober sammich home lop sided garbled goo goo.

      October 27, 2011 at 5:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Yoda

      Different Speech yoda's own. Speak Different he once did. grammar too hard Yoda thinks.
      Yoda needs train so he no time for learn grammar.

      Then he train anakin. and use bad grammar he did. Anakin misunderstand yes? Anakin go bad. Yoda cry. cry alot. desert world Dagobah turn into swamp because of tears from Yoda.

      Yoda grief, yet wet is his house. Clean and scrub he must. no time to learn Grammar.

      Therefore speak funny Yoda does.
      Thus is the way of the force

      October 27, 2011 at 5:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • breck5

      bla bla....that made my evening. 🙂

      October 27, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Report abuse |
  8. James

    Dr. Phil is only famous because he's Oprah's B$tch !

    October 27, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
  9. John Brown

    The boyfriend son died because of the accident! The father were so mad at his GF. He beat her up and hanged her. It sounds like a movie. The killer is still out there. Driving around with his fancy Car!

    October 27, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • who

      During the summer I read about this woman and I thought then and I believe now she was murdered. This was definitely a revenge killing by the way the body was found. Probably by a man considering she had naked. I think it was the father or the boy's mother who hired a hit . It was a terrible accident for the boy and maybe he wasn't being supervised properly, but revenge is not the way to go.

      October 27, 2011 at 5:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      Child died AFTER girlfriend was dead Kilroy. F-

      October 28, 2011 at 12:24 am | Report abuse |
  10. chuckrhymeswith

    What a waste. Rebecca was an utterly gorgeous woman, and so young! I hope they bring justice to whomever was actually at fault.

    October 27, 2011 at 4:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Will

      Were she ugly it would've been less tragic, right?

      October 27, 2011 at 5:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      So..if she were ugly we would not care if she was murdered? Just trying to follow YOUR logic.

      October 27, 2011 at 10:29 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Jamie from Riverside

    Sounds an awful lot like the story reported last week about 50 or so Ghadffi loyalists discovered last week in Libya who had committed suicide by shooting themselves in the back of thier heads and coincidentally enough, also had their hands bound behind their backs.

    October 27, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      We hear that it iS possible for Ghadafi loyalist to tie their hands behind their backs then shoot themselves in the back of the head–the way they do it is the first guy gets shot then by the next guy then the guy behind him ties his hands–the last guy is the most flexible of the bunch but there is a video out there that shows this is a common occurrence...losing factions of dictators often bind their own hands behind their backs before committing suicide by shooting their own back of their own skulls off–nothing to see there....LOL

      October 27, 2011 at 10:32 pm | Report abuse |
  12. KillTheCopKillers

    Ive investigated suicides where the person bound their hands before hanging. It is not that uncommon. All forensics point to Zahau.

    October 27, 2011 at 5:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      It is not uncommon for police to either fudge or not do an investigation due to the social status of perps–in which case it is not uncommon for them to close the case by calling it a suicide. If OJ had been white–then Nicole most definitely would have been found to have run herself through with the samurai sword. Happens all the time. That is how Stacy Peterson's hubby kept getting away with murder–THAT happens all the time too.

      October 27, 2011 at 10:34 pm | Report abuse |
  13. KillTheCopKillers

    Many people can not accept their family members suicide. I hade several cases where the family removed the suicide note.

    October 27, 2011 at 5:09 pm | Report abuse |
  14. T-pod

    so glad Dr Phil will broadcast the results between commercial breaks. Take a tragedy, add TV and a cash payment to some nebulous "fund set up by the Zahau family" and you have what passes for entertainment today. Utterly disgusting.

    October 27, 2011 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Jay

    Says: "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". Police said no foul play. ARE THEY NUTS?? NO WAY a person could tie themselves up like that then hang themselves, no foul play, if it wasn't so henious, it would almost be funny. So very sorry for her family and her. Horrible, I hope they find who did this, isn't the boyfriend a possibility, it was his house and son that died also. Too very weird. What is the world went on in that house?

    October 27, 2011 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |
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