Some of the greatest mysteries start out rather innocuously. Things were going pretty well for Rebecca Zahau. Although she had had some hard times with a divorce, she had started dating a hot shot CEO by the name of Jonah Shacknai, of the company Medicis Pharmaceutical, and spent a lot of time at his opulent mansion in in Coronado, California. This is where she was in the summer of 2011, when on July 11 she was at Shacknai’s mansion, called the Spreckels Estate, along with her younger sister Xena and Jonah’s 6-year-old son, Max, who he had from a previous marriage. Jonah had stepped out to go to the gym and it seemed to be just a normal day until Zahau was in the bathroom and heard a loud band and went to investigate. And thus would begin a series of events that would become a bizarre unsolved crime that has various weird clues and far-reaching talk of conspiracies and cover-ups.
She would find little Max lying face down at the foot of the stairs with a large chandelier crashed down on the floor beside him. Since he was not moving and unresponsive an ambulance was called and he was taken to the hospital. It would appear that the boy had somehow fallen from the second story bannister and landed face down, severely injuring his spinal cord and face, and his condition was not considered good. Jonah would end up spending nearly all of his time visiting his ailing son at the hospital along with his ex-wife and Max’s mother, Dina Romano, while Zahau mostly stayed at the mansion with Jonah’s brother Adam, who was visiting from Tennessee. It was Adam who would make a rather grim discovery on the morning of July 13, 2011, which would go on to propel this further into one of the strangest cases around.
As he walked across the courtyard from his guest house to the main house, Adam looked up and was shocked to see what appeared to be a naked woman hanging from a balcony. On closer inspection it turned out to be Zahau, nude, her hands tightly bound behind her back, and her mouth gagged with a blue long-sleeved t-shirt. For the second time that week an ambulance was called out to the property, but this time they would arrive to find Rebecca Zahau very dead. Police were also called onto the scene and would find some further little clues, such as that there was some sort of tape residue on her legs, black paint, brushes and knives in her bedroom, and strangest of all a message that had been painted across the door of the room that read in crude capital letters “SHE SAVED HIM. CAN YOU SAVE HER,” scrawled out in that black paint that had been found.
Zahau’s family would later claim that that bizarre note was not in her handwriting, and it was very bizarre indeed. Also quite weird was that Adam had already cut down the hanging body before police had arrived, which messed up their crime scene a bit, and there was also the matter that an autopsy showed that she had received four instances of head trauma before death. Considering the state of the body and the spooky note scrawled on the door, it was immediately treated as a possible homicide, yet suspects were few and far between. Jonah and his ex-wife had an alibi, in that they had been at the hospital at the time, and that left Adam. However, he adamantly insisted that he had been in the guestroom the whole morning, and there were also no fingerprints or DNA in the bedroom other than Zahau’s own. Under questioning, Adam would say that she had probably committed suicide after falling into guilt after Max was injured on her watch.
In the end, Max would die a few days later on July 16 from brain damage sustained in his fall, but there would be some intriguing evidence turned up later. Although the boy’s death had been deemed accidental, a trauma expert voiced his concern that the injuries from the fall were likely due to cardiac arrest and brain swelling, and he theorized that Max had actually been strangled before the tragic accident. In the meantime, the investigation of Rebecca Zahau’s death continued, and in the void of any evidence of foul play it was ruled on September 2 that she had committed suicide. It was an announcement that would immediately be met with opposition. Zahau’s family and her boyfriend Jonah vehemently denied that she had any suicidal tendencies, but that was the least of the things that didn’t add up with the official statement. There was also the fact that her mouth had been gagged and her hands bound behind her back before she hanged, so how and why would she do that on her own? What about the head trauma she had sustained? And what about the note written in what the family insists was unfamiliar handwriting? Why was it written and by who? How did this fit in with a suicide?
For their part, the police went through the arguments point by point, demonstrating how a person could bind their own hands and explaining that many suicide victims did this to keep themselves from changing their minds. They came up with an answer to ever point brought up against them. The head trauma was explained away as having come from her having hit her head against the balcony as she came down. The note was waved off as just being the suicidal ramblings of a woman who had gone off the deep end, and one police sergeant Derrick Levasseur would later say of that note:
I think she was talking to God. I think she was at a moment where she knew what she was going to do and she knew who she was about to meet. And it wasn’t anybody on this earth… I think that was her saying, ‘she saved [Max] can you save her’… I don’t know who else she would have written that to.
Of course, this did not convince a lot of people, least of all Zahau’s family. They tried to get the case reopened but were denied, and so they would end up launching their own private investigation into the death and turn up some interesting new evidence. They hired a crew of experts and private investigators to look into it further, and even ordered a second autopsy done by pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht. This second autopsy would turn up evidence of what Wecht believed to be injury by manual strangulation, as well as evidence that she may have been sexually assaulted before her death, none of which had been in the original official autopsy report, and which certainly doesn’t fit the suicide prognosis. He also highly doubted that the type of head trauma seen could have been caused by the victim’s body hitting the balcony as her body fell during a suicide. In Wecht’s opinion, this had not been a suicide by hanging, but rather a murder. The attorney that the Zahaus hired, Seattle based attorney Anne Bremner, would concur, saying “This would be the first case in the history of the world that a woman killed herself like this … It’s ridiculous on the face of it.”
In the end, authorities have stuck by their insistence that this was a suicide, but the Zahau family would launch a $10 million wrongful death lawsuit against Jonah Shacknai’s brother Adam in 2013. The trial for this suit would ultimately find Adam to be responsible for the death of Rebecca Zahau, to the tune of $5 million, which he adamantly denied and fought back against with an argument of procedural errors and juror misconduct. The trial would finally end with a settlement of $600,000 resulting in the civil case being dismissed and Adam Shacknai not officially charged with anything. The official stance on the case remains that it was a suicide, despite the many who say otherwise and the myriad pieces of evidence that point towards a homicide. What really happened to Rebecca Zahau, and what, if any connection does it have to the death of Max Shacknai? Did Adam Shacknai kill her, as many seem to think? Was this a simple suicide, as the authorities would really like every one to believe, or was it a murder and cover up? If so, why? The pieces have still never really fallen into place, and it is a mysterious death that will likely be discussed for some time to come.