5 Things To Know About the Mysterious Hanging Death Of Rebecca Zahau
Zahau's death occurred two days after Jonah Shacknai's six-year-old son, Max, took a fatal fall from the same beachfront mansion.
On July 13, 2011, 32-year-old Rebecca Zahau was found dead under strange circumstances at the Spreckels Mansion in Coronado, California — the home she shared with her multimillionaire boyfriend, Jonah Shacknai.
Here are five things you need to know to try to make sense of the strange circumstances surrounding the crime scene and the case, and the Zahau family’s quest to answer the question: What happened to Rebecca?
1. Her death was the second mysterious death that occurred in the home.
Zahau's death occurred just two days after Shacknai's six-year-old son, Max, took a fatal fall within the same beachfront mansion. On July 11, 2011, Zahau, Max, and Zahau's teenaged sister Xena were at home when Max reportedly fell face-first over a second-floor banister.
Investigators later speculated that the boy may have tripped over a ball or the dog. Zahau said she was in the bathroom at the time and didn't find him until moments after the incident.
Max died a few days later in the hospital from his injuries. A trauma doctor who examined Max prior to his death and autopsy told police that he did not believe Max's visible injuries from his fall were consistent with the injuries the doctor observed, and suggested that Max may have suffocated prior to his fall. But July 26, investigators ruled that the boy’s death had been an accident.
2. Rebecca’s crime scene was bizarre.
Jonah's brother Adam Shacknai, who was staying at the mansion at the time of Zahau’s death, claimed that he discovered Zahau nude, hanging from a balcony, with her wrists and ankles bound and her hands behind her back in the early morning hours of July 13.
He told police that he found the body at 6:45 AM and called 911 at 6:48 AM, and then sent a text message to his brother to tell him what happened. He allegedly cut Zahau's body down before police arrived on the scene.
Police reportedly found a strange message written in black paint on her bedroom door. It read: “She saved him can you save her.” It was later reported that Zahau had been gagged with a blue, long-sleeve T-shirt that was wrapped around her head with the sleeves.
3. Her family believes that she was murdered.
Zahau was born in Falam, a small town in the Chin Hills of Myanmar, according to the San Diego Reader.
She worked as an ophthalmic technician, but after meeting Jonah, who was the CEO of the Medicis Pharmaceutical Corporation, she quit in 2010. According to her family, Zahau was devoted to Jonah and Max.
Her sister Mary Zahau-Loehner said that for Rebecca to have taken her own life was out of character, and said that in fact, Rebecca had made detailed plans for the day she died. She told the San Diego Reader that her sister "had two detailed plans for the next day: to take things for Jonah [to the hospital where he was tending to Max] to fix something for him to eat."
“This was a staged crime scene,” Zahau-Loehner attested to Dr. Phil. Despite the strange circumstances, police have stated that after an exhaustive investigation they determined that the death was indeed a suicide.
The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department posted details of their findings on the department’s website. As part of their investigation, police made a reenactment video to show how a person could have bound and hanged themselves in the manner that they believe Rebecca did. “After nearly two months of intensive investigation by these four reputable law-enforcement agencies, it was conclusively determined that Max’s death was an accident, and Rebecca Zahau’s death was a suicide, likely triggered by overwhelming guilt and depression over Max’s imminent death,” Lawyer Roy Black wrote for The Daily Beast. He added that her killer would have had to have worn “some type of space suit and levitated over the scene” in order to avoid leaving footprints or DNA.
4. Rebecca's cell phone became central to the case.
Zahau’s cell phone logs, which showed activity in the hours before her hanging death, became central to the mystery.
According to two pages of AT&T billing logs obtained by CBS 8, Zahau listened to her voicemail for two minutes at 12:50 A.M. on July 13, about two hours before her estimated time of death.
Officials said the voicemail, which was reportedly left by Jonah and advised Zahau of the boy's deteriorating condition, was the catalyst that pushed Zahau over the edge. "We know from the investigation that [voicemail] message that was left on her phone was to inform Rebecca of Maxie's grave condition and imminent death," San Diego County Sheriff's Sergeant Dave Nemeth said at a press conference.
Zahau family attorney Anne Bremner told the news channel: "They're pinning this entire suicide conclusion on a phone message that no one has ever heard." The logs also reportedly showed that Zahau spoke to and texted her sister, and received a text message at 10:41 P.M. from Nina Romano, the twin sister of Max’s mother, Dina Shacknai. Romano told News 8 that she sent the text message to ask if she could come by the mansion, but said that Rebecca never responded.
San Diego County Sheriff's Department investigators said that they have investigated Zahau's cell phone, which was a newer model that they were reportedly not familiar with, multiple times.
They stated that they did not uncover any additional information from the device, and said they would soon return the phone to Zahau's family.
5. Jonah Shacknai's brother Adam was found liable for Zahau's death in a civil trial.
Members of Zahau's family disputed the finding that her death was suicide and filed a $10 million wrongful-death lawsuit against Jonah Shacknai's brother Adam. A San Diego jury civil trial found Adam Shacknai responsible for Zahau's death and granted her family a $5 million judgment for loss of love and companionship as well as an additional $167,000 for the loss of the financial support Zahau would have provided her mother and siblings.
In 2019, Adam told NBC 7 that his lawyer informed him that he had settled with the family in the amount of $600,000. Adam denied having anything to do with Zahau’s death. He told reporters that his insurance company believed in his innocence, but was "tired of throwing money" at his legal defense.
Watch the all-new special Rebecca Zahau: An ID Murder Mystery at 9/8c on Monday, May 27, on Investigation Discovery!