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. Elle

    I am really glad that they are relooking at this case. From the beginning, it just didn't make any sense. I am sure this poor girl was blamed for the son falling down the steps. Even if she had nothing to do with it, I know she was blamed. Do I think the boyfriend was angry enough to kill her, you bet!

    November 5, 2011 at 10:15 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Bobbi

    You Are a F***ing Idiot!!!..... " 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" !!!

    November 6, 2011 at 11:06 am | Report abuse |
  3. Terry

    One possible scenario is that Rebecca was responsible for the death of the boy, and killed herself because of the guilt. Another possibility is that the boyfriend (who was apparently at the hospital at the time of her death) believed she was responsible for his son's death, and he had her killed. Based on the evidence gathered SO FAR, either of these seems possible. Shame on anyone who's convinced of ANYTHING at this point. You don't have enough information to form a reasonable opinion, let alone judge someone else who doesn't subscribe to your theory.

    November 7, 2011 at 11:58 am | Report abuse |
    • Playjojo

      Exactly. For people who say it was definitely suicide because of the evidence, she also could have been forced to do it. So many scenarios. Never jump to conclusions. They certainly don't tell the public everything.

      November 10, 2011 at 3:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • vince

      the manner of rebecca's death tells me she was murdered. the manner of evidence presented by the investigator to the public tells me it was a cover up, the manner of haste in closing this case supports the cover up theory and the fact that the zahau family was treated disrespectfully by the investigator tells me there was injustice done simply because they do not have the wealth the actors in this game has. these are the scenarios most people believe, including myself and they are the most probable scenarios based on common sense 101.

      November 10, 2011 at 9:55 pm | Report abuse |
  4. notguilty

    One thing is clear: she died because the boy died.

    November 7, 2011 at 11:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • vince

      a qualification in your statement: she died before the boy died.

      November 14, 2011 at 5:33 pm | Report abuse |
  5. notguilty

    The poor boy's death was a terrible, earth-shattering accident. Maybe Rebecca felt so guilty because he had been in her care at the time that she practically tortured herself to death because she was so mentally tortured. Sometimes mental anguish can be worse than any physical pain. I think Rebecca went to take care of Max in the after-life. May God bless them both, the little boy's family and her family. This is a real Greek tragedy. But that's all. No murder, just tragedy all around. Why is it so hard for people to believe that sometimes REALLY BAD THINGS do happen to people who don't deserve them? May they rest in peace and may their families know peace once again.

    November 7, 2011 at 11:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sherri

      People don't bind their own feet and bind their own hands behind their own backs when killing themselves. Someone else had to have done this. There is no way she could/would. Something else is going on here. Not suicide.

      November 20, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
  6. zulu

    Man..tough summer. Life is a have money and successful career...yet your mansion is a hell hole. Most people have it the other way around – including me and I think I'll stick with that.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
  7. lizzie

    I don't think Rebecca had enough time to plan this elaborate suicide. She was killed because Dr. Peterson said little Max was suffocated prior to the fall in the staircase. I hope the doctor had plenty of evidence to even suggest this suffocation because it is the trigger to Rebecca's death. Max's parents probably knew Max will die very early on. He had brainstem injury, the part that controls that breathing and heartbeat. I don't think the doctor will wait 2 days before telling them the grim news. As a parent, I would react differently if it was an accident or a premeditated suffocation. My opinion....

    November 13, 2011 at 1:00 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Philosophy

    November 14, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Im Slow but Not Stupid

    I saw the video so let me get this right..She tied hands behind her back then tied her feet put another rope around her neck bunny hop across the room got on the bacony and jump. Either those cops are very very stupid or they were paid off by somebody(boyfriend) Im not mentioning any names(boyfriend) but soneone killed her(boyfriend).

    November 18, 2011 at 2:36 am | Report abuse |
  10. Gabe

    Perhaps the boyfriend has a powerful enemy that killed his son and then his girlfriend, but he's too afraid of getting killed himself to go public with it. The note left behind in her handwriting (forced) says "she saved him (the son who had been thrown over the railing, and who was still alive in the hospital at the time of her death), can you save her?"

    November 26, 2011 at 11:59 am | Report abuse |
  11. Wash

    In San Diego, they call this town now "Murder-ado"

    January 3, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Report abuse |

    January 10, 2012 at 6:23 am | Report abuse |
  13. Stella

    What a load of sh**t! This investigation into Zahau's murder could be a skit on Saturday Night Live. Anyone who believes this was a suicide is beyond stupid. When you consider the vast amount of wealth involved, the rage over the boy's death and possible quest for retribution, not to mention the past history of the key players: the
    father, ex-wife, uncle, etc.........each of whom could have had their own motive and agenda. The question is – who is trying to sweep this under the rug??? And why???

    May 29, 2012 at 12:27 am | Report abuse |
  14. Mikolaf Broeckelh

    I really enjoy looking through on this web site , it contains excellent blog posts. "The secret of eternal youth is arrested development." by Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

    July 11, 2012 at 9:42 am | Report abuse |
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