On the palm-lined grounds of a mansion near San Diego, the sun rose one morning upon a grim tableau in the courtyard. “Unspeakable and crazy,” a man who saw it would later tell a courtroom. It seemed to defy explanation.
Rebecca Zahau, who lived in the Coronado mansion with her boyfriend, was hanging from a balcony, naked and dead. There was a T-shirt in her mouth. Red rope curled around her neck; other strands bound her feet and her wrists behind her back.
Flecks of black paint dotted the 32-year-old’s body, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. Inside the guesthouse, someone had used the same paint to write on a door: “She saved him can you save her.”
If the circumstances of Zahau’s death in 2011 were hard to understand, the official explanation for it a few months later proved impossible to accept for many — especially her relatives and spectators who treated the investigation like a game of “Clue.”
Zahau had done it all herself, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and medical examiner announced. The T-shirt, the message, the hanging, everything. She had been depressed and especially distraught for two days before her death — after her boyfriend’s 6-year-old son fell from a staircase in the same mansion, sustaining injuries that would kill him.
Police have never wavered from that conclusion. And yet seven years later, the case continues to resist explanation. On Wednesday, a jury in a wrongful-death suit decided that authorities were wrong.
Zahau did not kill herself, the civil jury said. She was killed by the man who found her body.
That man is Adam Shacknai, a Mississippi riverboat captain who was visiting with his wealthy brother and Zahau at their mansion in July 2011.
The reasons for Shacknai’s visit were not pleasant. His brother’s young son had fallen from the staircase landing on July 11, the Union-Tribune reported, and was slowly dying in a hospital.
Zahau picked Shacknai up from the airport the day after the fall, according to the newspaper. That evening, the two left Jonah Shacknai to spend the night with his son at the hospital, and returned to the mansion.
Adam Shacknai would later say they parted ways upon arrival: that he slept alone in the guesthouse and found Zahau hanging in the courtyard the next morning, July 13, as he walked outside to get coffee.
“I got a girl hung herself in the guesthouse,” he told a 911 dispatcher, the Union-Tribune wrote. “It’s on Ocean Boulevard across from the hotel — the same place you just came and got the kid yesterday.”
Shacknai stood on a table and cut Zahau down with a kitchen knife, which to police explained why a knife lay near her body when they arrived.
Investigators would later discover traces of menstrual blood on the knife’s handle, the Union-Tribune wrote. But an autopsy had found the same between Zahau’s legs.
Detectives found no sign of trauma or a struggle, no blood or bruising that could not be explained by a woman who noosed herself, gagged herself, bound her own hands and feet and jumped off a balcony.
The sheriff announced her death as a suicide in September 2011.
A few days later, the department had to release a second statement:
“The interminable allure of this tragedy by a small faction of the media only prolongs the unspeakable loss shared by two families,” it said.
But it wasn’t only a small faction of the media that was second-guessing the police.
The case was a sensation. Multipart Reddit threads obsessed over every stray detail in the saga — every contradictory quote in a newspaper and line of background conversation in 911 audio. The sheriff’s department, under constant public pressure, created a Web page devoted entirely to the concluded investigation. It included a video demonstrating how someone could tie her own hands behind her back.
All this only provided more fodder for amateur detectives.
Finally, the Tribune wrote, it was Zahau’s mother, sister and their lawyers who convinced a jury the police got it wrong.
The wrongful-death lawsuit against Adam Shacknai, which went to court last month, was in some ways nearly as strange and macabre as the scene at Zahau’s death.
Her family’s attorney openly accused Shacknai of “murder” in closing arguments this week, the Associated Press reported: of beating her around the head, sexually assaulting her with the knife handle, strangling her to death and staging the hanging.
As photographed by the Union-Tribune, a family lawyer even re-created the woman’s hanging inside the courtroom — complete with a mannequin and a replica of the bizarrely painted bedroom door: “She saved him can you save her.”
In contrast, the paper reported, a sheriff’s detective testified, “There is no suggestion of a homicide in this case. None.”
Forensics experts and official autopsy reports backed him up.
Shacknai testified himself, rebutting the family’s allegations: “I was never in the house. … I never hit Rebecca on the head or anywhere else. … I never tied her up.”
Zahau had suffered molestation and domestic abuse in her life, a psychologist testified for the defense, and was depressed even before her boyfriend’s son fell from the landing.
The child’s fall was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” the psychologist said, according to the Union-Tribune. Zahau performed CPR on him and thought at first she saved his life — but was then asked not to visit him as his condition worsened in a hospital, lest she upset the child’s mother.
Shortly before Zahau’s death, the Union-Tribune reported, her boyfriend called her to tell her the child would probably not recover, possibly tipping her toward her dramatic suicide.
On Wednesday, however, the jury decided 9 to 3 that Shacknai had intentionally battered Zahau and caused her death. Unlike criminal trials, civil trial jury decisions in California only require three-quarters of the jurors to agree.
No explanation was given for how they reached the decision, but Shacknai was ordered to pay Zahau’s family $5 million “for the loss of her love and companionship,” the Associated Press reported.
“Shacknai hung his head as the verdicts were being read,” the newspaper wrote.
After the decision was announced, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department released a statement standing by its conclusions but also offering to meet with the family “to look at any new evidence that came out of the civil trial.”
The dead woman’s sister, Mary Zahau-Loehner, stood in front of reporters outside the courtroom and wept.
“She was murdered, and she doesn’t deserve to be treated the way the sheriff’s department treated her,” Zahau-Loehner said. “For seven years, we had to fight to just prove that she didn’t commit suicide. It’s been a long time.”
Zahau attorney and family members address the media about today’s verdict. UPDATES: https://bit.ly/2EiTGfa
Posted by 10News – ABC San Diego KGTV on Wednesday, April 4, 2018
This story has been updated to note the police demonstration of how someone could tie her own hands behind her back before committing suicide.