An investigation conducted in preparation for an Oxygen TV special revealed that there was evidence of sexual assault in a death that had been previously ruled a suicide.
On July 13, 2011, authorities found the body of 32-year-old Rebecca Zahau naked and tied with rope at the Spreckels Mansion, where she lived with her boyfriend, multi-millionaire pharmaceutical CEO Jonah Shacknai. Her hands and feet were tied with red polypropylene rope, which was tied to a bed frame in her bedroom.
Her boyfriend’s brother, Adam, claimed to have found Zahau hanging from the second-story balcony. He told authorities that he had cut her down and gave her CPR.
According to the sheriff’s report, Adam Shacknai was the only other person on the property when Zahau died. Authorities concluded that Zahau had committed suicide. They believed that she was upset after her boyfriend’s 6-year-old son fell to his death while in her care.
Civil Wrongful Death Suit
Zahau’s family never accepted that she committed suicide. In 2013, they hired attorney Keith Greer to look into Zahau’s death further.
Zahau’s family sued Adam Shacknai for her wrongful death. A civil jury found that Shacknai was responsible for Zahau’s death. Shacknai’s insurer settled the case for $600,000. Shacknai maintains that the settlement happened without his knowledge or involvement.
The Civil Investigation
A team that worked on a TV special for the Oxygen Network, Death At The Mansion: Rebecca Zahau, looked over the evidence that Greer collected. This team included old case investigator Paul Holes, former prosecutor Loni Coombs, and crime journalist Billy Jensen.
Holes told the producers of the show that the lack of severe damage to Zahau’s neck was a “red flag.” He said, “For me, the biggest thing in my mind that I really want to dig into further is the amount of damage to her neck. … If this was this true long-drop execution hanging, I would expect a lot more trauma, if not near-decapitation — broken neck, internal decapitation or full decapitation, after this victim had dropped nine to 10 feet.”
Holes told the show’s team that he believed that Zahau was killed and that her killer lowered her body from the balcony. He said, “Just know that she did not take full force of a nine-foot fall … nine-foot drop, as hanging goes, is considered a long drop — devastating injury to the neck. But, she has minor damage to cartilage in the neck; no injury to the vertebrae anywhere on her neck.”
Holes also noted that Zahau’s hyoid bone and larynx, or voice box, were fractured. Holes said that a hyoid fracture is often “used as a diagnostic for manual strangulation.”
Forensic pathologist Dr. Rebecca Hsu agreed. She explained that the hyoid is high up in the neck, protected behind the glandular structure and neck muscles. “It’s not an easy thing to break with ligature. … It’s much easier to break if you have a manual strangulation, where fingers are going in and up.” She continued, “I can tell you — I have seen quite a few hangings, and I don’t see fractures.”
Additionally, investigators believe that Zahau had been sexually assaulted. Forensic specialist Lisa DeMeo testified at the civil trial that Zahau’s menstrual blood was found on all four sides of a knife handle that was found at the scene of the crime. Greer argued that the only way that the blood could have gotten on the knife handle was if she was sexually assaulted. DiMeo also opined that the mark of blood on Rebecca’s inner thigh was a transfer stain from a sexual assault with a knife handle.
Law enforcement agencies reviewed the case following the civil trial. At a news conference following the review, Rich Williams of the San Diego sheriff’s department homicide unit announced that no evidence of sexual assault was found in either autopsy.