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. Wisconsinite

    yep, feet bound and hands tied behind her back, but she was agile enough to do a flip and fling herself into the noose and actually make it! Wow, this I would like to see re-enacted... Something smells here and I hope her family can find justice!

    October 27, 2011 at 5:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • KellyinBoston

      No, what they are saying is that she put the noose around her neck first, then bound her hands in some sort of slip-knot, so that she wouldn't be able to change her mind. This isn't unheard of in suicides. But no matter what happened, its very sad-She was too young to die.

      October 27, 2011 at 5:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • classic

      i think she just proved your point... ridiculous explanation

      October 27, 2011 at 6:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Todd

      Yes, and the brother who worked on a boat and was probably an expert with knots just walks away scot-free. Never any mention that any tapes were checked to back where the boyfriend said he was at the time, either. Ner do well brother with no future just walks into town and takes care of business. SDPD was dumb enough to buy the suicide theory. Hopefully the truth will come out.

      October 27, 2011 at 6:09 pm | Report abuse |
  2. KillTheCopKillers

    Jay your are just speculating. I have watched arrestees slip their handcuffed wrists from front to back with ease. Especially a thin agile woman can do this. She was just bound with cloth.
    1) secure noose around neck and to bed for anchor
    2) bind feet
    3) bind hands in front
    4) slip legs through bound arms to bring hands behind back
    4) JUMP

    You sound as though she did some impossible seet. You would never make it in law enforcement. People do crazy stuff.

    October 27, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • humanity

      but why naked?

      October 27, 2011 at 6:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jonathan

      How did she know how long to make the rope? Why didn't she leave an actual suicide note rather than a cryptic message? Why would she gag herself?

      October 27, 2011 at 9:28 pm | Report abuse |
  3. KillTheCopKillers

    You really need to thin more logically Wisconsinite. She would put the noose on first. No back flips necesaary.
    I have had cases where people bound their hands before hanging themselves. They figure it will prevent them from having a second thought and grabbing the rope when the jump.
    Not that unusual.

    October 27, 2011 at 5:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • classic

      seriously...why naked though? over a visible balcony? the message on the wall? i'm not saying one way or the other, but all options should have been left for investigation

      October 27, 2011 at 6:15 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Rider3

    " Zahau was found hanging – naked, with feet bound, and wrists bound behind her back ."

    Oh, really? Suicide? She's one hell of a trickster.

    October 27, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Report abuse |
  5. KillTheCopKillers

    It hard to accept when a family emmber commits an unrational act like suicide. They are not rational. I cant begin to tell you the things I have investigated that were complete shockers but when you are irrational you dont act like a rational person.

    October 27, 2011 at 5:45 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Fritz

    My gut always told me that this must've been foul play. And according the CSI, that means I must be right! At least CNN commentators are always good for a laugh.

    October 27, 2011 at 5:45 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Jane Doe

    What if she was murdered because she was a witness to a previous crime committed.

    October 27, 2011 at 5:49 pm | Report abuse |
  8. KillTheCopKillers

    This isnt even close to being tricky. You watch too much CSI.
    Tricky is when they hit themselves in the head with a hammer multiple times until finally they die froma good blow. Or keep stabbing themselves until they finally get an artery. Or they shoot themselves, but flinch and only wound themsleves so they do it again.
    Those are tricky. Not immediatley obvious as a suicide.
    My understanding is that this was a clear case of suicide and the hand binding doesnt mean much as a I said previously people can bind in front and then slip arms over feet to bring arms in back.

    October 27, 2011 at 5:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      Don't forget she hit herself in the head in various places 4 times and bound her feet and jumped over 3 feet in the air to get over the balcony–which came first, bound feet of bound hands and how did she jump from a stationary position like that?

      October 27, 2011 at 10:38 pm | Report abuse |
  9. KillTheCopKillers

    Yes, Jane and what if aliens beamed down and did this.
    <Maybe if you were privvy to the evidence you would make such far out speculation.

    October 27, 2011 at 5:53 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Reynolds

    I think it is possible for a person to end their life in the manner described. This poor lady may have felt so bad for the loss of her boyfriend's son that she punished herself in a very horrible way.
    I had a friend who tried to kill himself (he refered to it not as suicide but self execution) after causing a traffic accident that didn't result in any loss of life. However, that accident brought up painful memories of a much earlier event in his life. Although we thought he got help he needed, he did try again to end his life and unfortunately did succeed. Very sad for those who new him because he was a decent and kind person who was well liked by his friends.
    Very sorry for the families of Rebecca Zahau and Max Shacknai. I do hope you find the peace you are seeking.

    October 27, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Hi


    October 27, 2011 at 5:58 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Reynolds

    As per post. I am not saying she had anything to do with Max's death.

    October 27, 2011 at 5:59 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Hardrain77

    Women almost never hang themselves if suicidal. It's more of a males' way to off yourself. Women take pills or may even use a bullet, but almost never hang themselves. The DC madam was also found hanged as she was set to face trial and name names.

    October 27, 2011 at 6:01 pm | Report abuse |
  14. the truth

    $100 million dollars: That would be guess as to how much he would save by killing her, or having her killed, vs divorcing her. Does that seem in about the right ball-park? Any other estimates?

    October 27, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      She was a girlfriend NOT a wife, so NO divorce.. Reading comprehension is a beautiful thing.

      October 27, 2011 at 10:41 pm | Report abuse |
  15. anonymous

    in previous reports it stated that Max Shacknai's half sister, Gabby Shacknai, was also at the mansion when Max fell and she was the one who called 911 to report of his fall on 7/11/2011.

    October 27, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Report abuse |
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