Rebecca Zahau, 32, was found hanged on July 13, 2011, at a mansion in Coronado, California, where she was living for the summer with her boyfriend Jonah Shacknai, the wealthy CEO of a pharmaceutical company, and his six-year-old son. Investigators deemed her death a suicide, ABC News reported, but mystery plagued the case for months and years afterward due to a fatal incident involving her boyfriend’s son two days before her death and the mysterious circumstances around her own death.
It all began two days before, on July 11, when Zahau was the only adult at the mansion babysitting six-year-old Max Shacknai and her 13-year-old sister, Town & Country wrote. Zahau reported that she was in the downstairs bathroom and her sister was in another bathroom having a shower when she heard a crash in the house. She found Max Shacknai at the bottom of the grand staircase, suffering from serious injuries, and it looked like he’d fallen from the second floor.
The young boy was hospitalized in critical condition and died of brain injuries five days later; however, three days before he died, Zahau herself was found dead at the house. What did the investigation into her death conclude?
An Initial Investigation Revealed That She Died by Suicide & Was Found by Her Boyfriend’s Brother, Adam Shacknai
Zahau was found hanged on July 13, 2011, naked and bound, from a second-floor balcony at the mansion. She was found by her boyfriend’s brother Adam Shacknai who had flown in after Max’s accident and was staying in the guesthouse. According to Town & Country, he called 911 early in the morning and said, “I got a girl, hung herself. Same place you got the kid.” When authorities arrived, Zahau’s body was on the lawn and Adam Shacknai told them he’d cut her down and removed a t-shirt that was in her mouth, ABC News wrote.
In September 2011, authorities concluded the investigation and ruled her death a suicide but information revealed during that press conference raised doubts among some that there was no foul play. According to ABC News, the sheriff said that a cryptic message was found painted on a bedroom door near the scene of Zahau’s hanging that said, “She saved him can you save her?”
The autopsy report showed that the 32-year-old had hemorrhages under her scalp, blood and tape residue on her legs and she had a t-shirt wrapped around her neck that was also stuffed in her mouth. Zahau’s family lawyer said, according to ABC News:
The single most important thing is there has never been a reported suicide of a female like this. Bound hands and feet. Gagged. A noose around her neck. Naked. Blood down her legs. A shirt wrapped three times around her neck. Tied to a bed with neat slip knots and square knots.
The Zahau Family Hired an Attorney & Filed a Civil Lawsuit Against Adam Shacknai
Zahau’s family disputed the Coronado Police Department’s findings as soon as they were announced and filed a civil lawsuit for wrongful death against Adam Shacknai, the brother of Zahau’s boyfriend who was staying at the house the night of her death while her boyfriend was in the hospital, according to AZ Central.
In 2018, after a trial that lasted over a month, the jury found Shacknai responsible for Zahau’s death and awarded her family more than $5 million in damages, AZ Central wrote. The civil trial meant that there was no unanimous verdict needed and 9 out of 12 jurors agreed that Shacknai was responsible. There was no DNA evidence linking Shacknai to Zahau but Zahau’s family lawyers argued that he was the only person at the mansion that night.
After the civil verdict, a second investigation into Zahau’s death was launched with a new team from the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, the Coronado Police Department and the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office and it again ruled Zahau’s death a suicide. According to AZ Central, the sheriff said:
After conducting this review, the case team found no evidence that would lead us to believe that Rebecca Zahau died at the hands of another. In addition, we found no evidence that would dispute or be inconsistent with the medical examiner’s finding that Rebecca Zahau’s manner of death was suicide.
In 2019, the guilty verdict in civil court and the financial judgment were dismissed once Zahau’s family and Shacknai’s insurance company reached a settlement. No details were made public but Zahau’s lawyer said “the case has been resolved,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Since the civil trial was vacated, Shacknai and his lawyers have dropped the appeals.