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. anonymous

    the San Diego Sheriff Department, the Coronado Police Department and the San Diego Medical Examiner did not want to investigate this case, so they called it suicide.

    October 27, 2011 at 7:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • cobracat

      You haven't a clue about this case! It is, was and will always be a suicide. Exhume all you want. Re-investigate all you want. Some suicides don't fit into a nice round hole for public acceptance; this is one of them. And to insinuate - or outright accuse - the law enforcement agencies of accepting bribes or of other criminal conduct is insulting, at the least. You may not be able to accept the findings, but it doesn't make them less true or accurate.

      October 27, 2011 at 7:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ann

      cobra, It is NOT suicide it IS murder.............

      October 27, 2011 at 8:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Paul

      Three people in this thread who are sure of something that can't be known for sure. Love the internet.

      October 27, 2011 at 8:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • kasey

      Cobra, and what makes YOU know so much about this case? Were you there? Did you do the autopsy? Are you a forensic pathologist? If you answered no to any of these, then you are no more of an authority than anyone else. Even I have to admit that a woman hanging with her hands tied sounds a little fishy, and I try to back the police investigations when I can. I've also personally seen cases (of people close to me) that were ruled suicide when they appeared to be anything but, with the police refusing to honor family requests for further investigation.

      October 27, 2011 at 8:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hellotiki

      Round up the usual suspects!

      October 27, 2011 at 8:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • NanookoftheNorth

      That's bull and you know it 'Mouse' !
      Everyone in San Diego feels badly for Ms. Zahau's family...but a suicide is a suicide and badmouthing the authorities isn't
      gonna' change it.

      October 27, 2011 at 8:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jonathan


      Keep up the good work. There'll be something extra in your paycheck this month.

      October 27, 2011 at 9:11 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Ida

    She also had taken a shower beforehand....who in the heck takes a shower before they commit suicide? If you are that despondent, you aren't carrying an ounce of vanity as to your smell, etc...very weird and I am very happy they are looking into this.

    October 27, 2011 at 7:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Marc

      Are you sure about that? Often before suicides men get dressed up in their nicest suit. It is not a far stretch to believe a woman may bath first.

      October 27, 2011 at 8:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ann

      It was not suicide, that's why she took a shower.

      October 27, 2011 at 8:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jeanette

      and how often do women strip naked before hanging themselves?

      October 27, 2011 at 8:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      Marc "men get dressed in their nicest suits" but a woman washes herself then binds her feet and hands then hits herself in the head 4 times then does a vertical 3 foot jump without the benefit of momentum from her arms just for vanity while "suiciding" what kind of people are paid to spin such ridiculous conjecture? The boards are 4 to 1 in favor of there being something fishy–odds are a Grand jury would be too.

      to keep this from a Grand Jury the case had to be ruled a suicide to stop investigations. And why will the police not return personal belongings of this suicide? What do they need the "evidence" for since it was self perpetrated?

      October 27, 2011 at 10:52 pm | Report abuse |
  3. RUFFNUTT (kcmo resident and smoker of fine purple kush)

    zombies... this is how it starts!!!

    October 27, 2011 at 7:20 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Lewy

    Cyril Wecht is a bigger media hound than Gloria Allred.

    October 27, 2011 at 7:30 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Babydoc

    So many people posting who really have no actual information and yet know the complete unpublished details of a murder!

    October 27, 2011 at 7:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • kasey

      Most of the things I've seen posted, as far as details of the body and the case, were published by several news sources throughout the investigation.

      October 27, 2011 at 8:53 pm | Report abuse |
  6. unowhoitsme

    How much did the rich man pay them to say "suicide"? Police budget is a little tight.

    October 27, 2011 at 7:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • ER

      My thought too....Sound like he might have blamed her for the sons accident and had her killed. Just a thought.....

      October 27, 2011 at 7:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Paul

      Can't fool you!

      October 27, 2011 at 8:49 pm | Report abuse |
  7. J

    Uh maybe the SD police need to look into who is leaving hateful messages about Rebecca Zahau and her family on RadarOnline (see link). Is it just some random nutjob or someone who's involved in this case? Either way, they seem really determined to discredit her and smear her character despite the horrible way she died.....

    October 27, 2011 at 7:51 pm | Report abuse |
  8. the Prophet

    hi ruffnut how are you long time ...anyway she is beautiful lady definitely she was murdered by her partner, he was jealous possessive and phycotic my friend told me

    October 27, 2011 at 7:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • NanookoftheNorth

      Does your 'friend' work for RadarOnLine ?

      October 27, 2011 at 8:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jonathan


      You seem to have a real interest in commenting on every thought that maybe this wasn't a suicide and in setting the record straight. If I didn't know better, I'd think you might have a financial interest in making sure that no one questions the suicide ruling. It's almost like you're on the payroll of someone who might benefit from avoiding continued publicity about this case.

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

    @queenbee- you are way off ! I doubt the father would kill his son! Either the girlfriend pushed him, her 13 yr old sister and he simply fell. The point is it happened under her care so either the dad had someone kill her for the tragedy of his son or better yet the ex-wife did it or had someone do it!!!! Hello us women are crazy and I prob would kill someone if something like that happened to him under her care!!!!

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

      I know. We have sooooo much evidence that people in this country do not kill their kids and blame others. Years and years of data prove that when children are molested or abused or murdered–the majority of the times it was a parent–and a parent who did this and was rich would want to stifle ANY hint that they were involved. A Grand jury would indict and the average person (not on the payroll of the rich would convict) so to protect the rich guy it is ruled as a "suicide and the case closed–but the facts do not support suicide–if for no other reason than how difficult it is to jump 3 feet into the air with bound feet and those 4 blunt trauma hits to the top of her head which could not have been explained by falling unless there were 4 things for her to slam into on the way down–and even then the trajectory would not be the top of her head in 4 different places.

      October 27, 2011 at 10:57 pm | Report abuse |
  10. UrFist

    What mother would bound herself like this and kill herself - she has children. Nobody could ever do something like this to themselves. This is murder. The child was thrown down the stairs. The mom was bound and hung. There is a third person. Somebody is getting paid off. Makes u sick.

    October 27, 2011 at 8:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • NanookoftheNorth

      Ms. Zahau did not have any children of her own.

      October 27, 2011 at 9:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      Daddy killed his son? Girlfriend lied about the timing then said she was going to go to police and tell the truth? Daddy says oh no you don't so has sailor brother tie hanging knots and kill girlfriend to shut her up? Or was it a suicide? And if it was a suicide why won't the police return the personal effects to the family? What is THAT all about?

      Finally think it would be suicide verdict if the boyfriend was poor or a black guy?

      October 27, 2011 at 11:00 pm | Report abuse |
  11. B.

    A woman with suicide on her mind simply would not put in all of that effort beforehand: bind wrists and feet, stuff mouth, use bedsheets, disrobe completely, write a note, and hop over to toss herself off...entirely too fanatical. However, the statement, "No one who was that pretty would commit suicide like that or want to be found that way," is patently irrational and illogical. A suicide is a drastic measure, very few are "planned" to the extent this woman would have to have done, and the timing is grossl suspect. The statement regarding obtaining even minor fractures to the skull from opening a cabinet door is insane...actually stupid. If these "minor" fractures had even one day to heal, a competently performed autopsy would have provided that information. Murder is the only conclusion given the facts provided. The family will win a civil suit against the city (police), county (coroner), and "boyfriend." Why has no one questioned whether she had life insurance benefitting the boyfriend? A friend of mine living with her boyfriend for 5 years named him as beneficiar, and when she left him, forgot to change that fact. She died and he got $250k. Also, I have serious doubts about the brother...quite odd. Perhaps he was having an affair with her and she was going to confess to the boyfriend? Hmmm...? Too man unanswered questions here, or the police could not be bothered to do a pro job in this case.

    October 27, 2011 at 8:27 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Me

    Her. Family members say he was jealous and controling maybe she wanted payback by killing herself n making it seem like he did it... She probably hit her head a few times so that it didnt look like a suicide. Her plan failed..

    October 27, 2011 at 8:48 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Sheila

    You don't bind your own hands if you're going to kill yourself. Never in a million, trillion years. This is MURDER.

    October 27, 2011 at 8:51 pm | Report abuse |
  14. MC

    That is why it is being investigated!!!! No one knows what happened!

    October 27, 2011 at 8:52 pm | Report abuse |
  15. merif

    one step closer to catching a rat . if this was my family she would never have been buried in the first place . i would not feel safe in a county where the cops cant figure out the obvious , this could happen to any of us poor folk . i hope there is enough evidence feds get involved , put the murderer in jail and fire all those responsible for this coverup .

    October 27, 2011 at 8:52 pm | Report abuse |
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