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. Mike

    The TRUTH is that this chick felt responsible for the death of the man's KID.

    October 27, 2011 at 6:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Poetess

      I was thinking the same.

      October 27, 2011 at 6:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • anonymous

      that's the lame excuse law enforcement gave to justify calling it suicide so they could close this case. however, she did not and could not commit suicide the way they say she did it. no one can do what they allege she did to herself. she died in the hands of somebody else.

      by insisting closing this case, it look more like a cover up.

      October 27, 2011 at 6:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Homey Don't Play Dat

      Strange "TRUTH" Mike, considering her death preceded the child's death by three days.

      July 11th: Kid gets hurt.
      July 13th: Woman "kills herself" over the guilt of the kid's death.
      July 16th: The kid actually died.

      October 27, 2011 at 7:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      Mike–the woman was found dead BEFORE the kid died–so maybe she killed herself because? Oh yeah, because she knew the kid would eventually die? So she bound her hands AND feet and popped herself in the head 4 times then jumped over a 3 foot high+ balcony with bound feet–yeah–makes PERFECT sense. NOT

      October 27, 2011 at 10:43 pm | Report abuse |
  2. M.A.

    Generally – women use poison or overdose on perscription pills. Female suicides are noted to be unobtrusive for reasons of vanity. Unusual for a woman, to A. – strip naked, knowing she would be on display, B. Bind herself to avoid second thoughts, when forensics states above her toe impressions were consistant to someone LEANING forward. That would suggest she thought about it before "rolling over" the balcony. If she was so committed – why bind herself? And how DO you dismiss 4 seperate bruises on her skull? – light or not – doesn't take much to knock someone unconcious.

    October 27, 2011 at 6:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Vmann

      I agree with you. Something doesnt add up here. I dont think she committed suicide.

      October 27, 2011 at 6:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • McSorley

      Excellent analysis M.A.

      October 27, 2011 at 7:14 pm | Report abuse |
  3. stef

    Very elaborate knots were in the ropes...she (according to her family) did NOT know how to tie knots like the ones found...however, her BF's brother who conveniently found her is a tugboat captain...

    October 27, 2011 at 6:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gregg

      LOL @ tugboat captain. Sounds funny but obviously is not. It is news to me that people sometimes bind themselves before hanging. The whole thing sounds fishy to me. I hope all this extra grief the family is going through will be somehow mitigated by the findings.

      October 27, 2011 at 6:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Elizabeth

      ah ha! I thought all along that he did it. They had been having an affair, the boy saw it and the captain tried to stop him, the kid ran down the stairs, falling to his death. The captain then wanted to silence the girlfriend before she told the brother, trying to make it look like a suicide. I knew all along, but finding out that the brother was a captain and knew how to tie those knots cinched it all for me. Anybody agree with me?

      October 27, 2011 at 7:24 pm | Report abuse |
  4. PGelsman

    How does a person tie her own wrists behind her back?

    October 27, 2011 at 6:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Annie

      It can be done. Read the article – the police taped a woman doing the whole thing by herself.

      October 27, 2011 at 7:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Homey Don't Play Dat

      Annie: That police proves nothing. It is false logic, meaningless, and only serves to manipulate. Does it prove this poor woman actually did it, or even that she was capable of doing it? No.

      October 27, 2011 at 7:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      Annie–parents have been found to kill their own kids and blame it on others-so by your logic–the dad may have killed his own son then silenced the girl friend so she could never tell–we know it has happened that way before–why not here? SEE how that works?

      October 27, 2011 at 10:46 pm | Report abuse |
  5. rh

    No foul play and she was tied up with her hands behind her back. Hmm. Kennedy must have shot himself.

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

    This is bizarre as the spit episode in Sienfeld. 'Inimitable laws of physics' do not seems in line here.

    October 27, 2011 at 6:46 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Publicola

    Dr. Jonathan Lucas of the San Diego County medical examiner’s office 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.

    I can understand that someone intent on suicide by hanging would try to tie his hands and contort them behind the back. But binding his legs? Seems to me that would hobble the suicide attempt.

    October 27, 2011 at 6:46 pm | Report abuse |
  8. hillman

    what is weird they both died the same way the woman and the kid sumthing is very fishy here and the police are coving sumthing up for this guy and his brother.

    October 27, 2011 at 6:49 pm | Report abuse |
  9. rayned

    how in the blue hell could she have hanged herself with her hands tied behind her back???? it's simply not possible.

    October 27, 2011 at 6:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • cobracat

      You're sure about that, Reyned? Based on your experience investigating homicides and suites?

      October 27, 2011 at 8:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jonathan

      Cobracat, I haven't investigate any "suites" but I have worked for a PR agency in the past and I recognize when someone is being paid to spin a story. You guys must have thought you only had to monitor the radaronline board, but now CNN is covering this as wellso you're going to have to work longer hours. On the plus side, you're billable hours will be way up.

      October 27, 2011 at 9:36 pm | Report abuse |
  10. anonymous

    the perpetrator is being protected and the victim is being wrongfully accused of killing herself.

    October 27, 2011 at 6:59 pm | Report abuse |
  11. kim

    I hope they find out what really happened because this is a very strange and sad story just sad. It could be a double murder case one out of revenge for the death of the child it would help if the whole truth comes out to give closure to this very strange case.

    October 27, 2011 at 7:06 pm | Report abuse |
  12. vero

    the boy died because he slid down the banister of a very steep staircase (his sister said) and fell off onto a marble floor.

    October 27, 2011 at 7:10 pm | Report abuse |
  13. longtooth

    A simple case. Filled with remorse because the young boy fell down the stairs and died, ( happens all the time ), the woman stripped herself naked, tied her hands and feet with complicated knots, whacked herself in the head four times in different spots, and leaped off a balcony to hang herself. Next case?

    October 27, 2011 at 7:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jonathan

      This is just like the Nicole Brown Simpson suicide.

      October 27, 2011 at 9:33 pm | Report abuse |
  14. anonymous

    the San Diego Sheriff Department, the Coronado Police Department and the San Diego Medical Examiner wanted to close this case, so they called it suicide.

    October 27, 2011 at 7:10 pm | Report abuse |
  15. anonymous

    smell more like cover up then suicide.

    October 27, 2011 at 7:11 pm | Report abuse |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15