Call her the Zahau whisperer.
Short of law enforcement, nobody has plumbed the depths of Coronado’s greatest mystery as much as Caitlin Rother — the only journalist to attend every day of a related civil trial and score interviews with all key players.
But what the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department won’t reveal about the 2011 Rebecca Zahau murder-or-suicide case, the former Union-Tribune reporter will and does.
Rother’s “Death on Ocean Boulevard: Inside the Coronado Mansion Case,” publishing Tuesday, goes light years beyond the shorthand recitation of the debate: Did the 32-year-old “Burmese beauty” and girlfriend of pharmaceutical exec Jonah Shacknai really tie her hands behind her back, bind her feet, stuff a shirt in her mouth and rope-hang herself naked from an outdoor balcony at the Spreckels Mansion?
Zahau’s failed marriage and fraught personal history are deeply explored, as well as the life of Adam Shacknai — Jonah’s brother and suspect in Rebecca’s death.
So expert was Rother that an attorney for Adam asked her advice on whether to use a lifelike sex doll mannequin of Zahau in the Shacknai wrongful-death trial, where a 2018 jury found Adam liable for her demise.
And even though the longtime San Diegan twice was barred from press conferences in the case, she says she gained access to sheriff’s investigative files with material never made public.
But the public mind has long been made up despite the sheriff twice declaring the Zahau death a suicide.
- See and hear: Rother book tour schedule for “Death on Ocean Boulevard”
In Websleuths, she noted, an estimated 90% of people posting on the site’s Zahau forums thought Rebecca had been murdered.
Still, Rother doesn’t take sides publicly except to say Zahau’s death was staged. It was either a homicide made to look like a suicide or a suicide designed to appear a homicide, she contends.
But she speculates on why the Sheriff’s Department stuck to its suicide finding — it “had placed itself into a box from which it couldn’t escape without losing face.”
Rother, a 58-year-old graduate of La Jolla High School, usually balks at writing about cases that haven’t gone to criminal trial (for legal reasons). But this one was different.
This one was personal.
In her 14th book overall, “I actually become a character in the story,” she told Times of San Diego.
“I not only wanted to show my interactions with some of the people I interviewed, such as Adam Shacknai, but I also wanted to offer my impressions in a more personal and in-depth way than usual,” she said.
(Adam — who gave Rother a 3 1/2-hour interview — also sent her 40 harassing emails as she wrote the book, prompting reports to law enforcement, she says.)
She has deeper insights thanks to experience with her husband’s 1999 suicide — detailed in “Secrets, Lies, and Shoelaces” — and “also my professional knowledge gathered from years of writing about suicides, both at the newspaper and, subsequently, in my books.”
In 384-page “Death,” Rother writes: “While researching this book, I was given plenty of crazy ‘leads,’ heard a lot of conspiracy theories, and went down many a rabbit hole.”
One is supernatural.
She tells how private investigator Bill Garcia acquired the bed Rebecca’s rope was tied to. He invited medium and healer Jackie Bensinger to feel “the bed’s energy.”
It was “almost as if it were electrified,” Rother related. “She felt an even stronger charge when she touched its legs, sensing the placement of the rope that had been tied there.”
Rebecca Zahau reputedly communicated with Bensinger, suggesting she died from choking.
“Bensinger had to take several breaks during the reading, in between bouts of coughing and shaking all over,” Rother writes. “It took me a bit to recover. … It definitely wasn’t a suicide.”
Bensinger also said Jonah’s 6-year-old son Max from a failed marriage showed her how “he was taken down, that he was murdered … Somebody was behind him and basically threw him over” the indoor railing.
“She felt it was two men: one who was short and balding, with a little black hair, and one who was taller,” Rother writes, quoting Bensinger.
Another “scenario” involved a New York prison inmate Rother calls ”Vincent Bruno,” who claimed young Max was killed by an assassin. “Bruno specifically cited Jonah’s parents by name as other possible victims, and asked to meet with Jonah.”
Rother also cops to a journalistic no-no, writing that she met privately with a sheriff’s sergeant after not being allowed into a press conference.
“In a three-hour meeting … I did something I’ve never done in my thirtyplus years as a journalist and author: I shared some of my investigative leads and findings with law enforcement. Explaining my own personal and legal safety concerns, I suggested that the [department] explore some of my leads, because I didn’t have subpoena power to compel anyone to talk to me or to produce documents.”
This interview was conducted via email:
Times of San Diego: This book appears more self-referential than others, given your experience with a suicidal spouse. Besides books in which you described your feelings interviewing key characters — such as killer-rapist John Gardner in “Lost Girls” — has any book contained so much info about your own role in the case?
Caitlin Rother: No. Although I have put myself into several of my books, I’ve always limited that to one or two chapters in which I’m interviewing a murder defendant in jail before sentencing or a convicted killer, like John Gardner, in prison.
I like to include those scenes so readers can absorb information that the defendant or killer conveys to me in his/her own words and in real time, so readers can make an assessment what they want to believe.
But I don’t spell out my “feelings” or opinions. I describe the scene and analyze or interpret what’s going on, offering context to help the reader determine what to make of the conversation and whether people are lying.
These chapters or sections are written differently from the rest of the book, because when I interview other characters, the information I gather generally ends up getting woven into the narrative.
But this book is different. … I actually become a character in the story. I not only wanted to show my interactions with some of the people I interviewed, such as Adam Shacknai, but I also wanted to offer my impressions in a more personal and in-depth way than usual, because I have some unique insights into this case due to my intimate experience with my husband’s suicide and also my professional knowledge gathered from years of writing about suicides, both at the newspaper and, subsequently, in my books.
Even though you share facts and insights not previously reported, you admit to hitting roadblocks. What questions still need to be answered? Might the Zahau public-records-act lawsuit reveal this information?
There are too many unanswered — or unsatisfactorily answered — questions to even list here, but I describe many of them in the book. As Judge [Katherine ] Bacal said in her ruling, the sheriff’s investigation raised as many questions as it answered.
Some could still be answered and resolved, but others never will be because too much time has passed. Such as: What exactly did Jonah say in his voice mail? The Zahaus are right in saying we have no proof but his word, because detectives couldn’t access the message after it was deleted, so we’ll never know for sure.
Whose DNA is on the several items with a mix of profiles, at least one of which was unidentified, but was not Adam’s? Why weren’t these items, along with those with “insufficient” DNA, not retested using more modern and sensitive testing technology?
If Rebecca did commit suicide, then why did she do it this way, involving bondage and such an angry, taunting message, written in the third person? [“SHE SAVED HIM/CAN YOU SAVE HER”] “Was she leaving Jonah a message that only he could understand? He acknowledges that as a theory he’s heard before, but says he has no idea why she’d be angry at him.
As for your second question: I know from experience that the Sheriff’s Department doesn’t typically release the kind of information the Zahaus are seeking in their lawsuit, because the county doesn’t consider them public records.
Law enforcement agencies in California generally consider investigative materials to be protected. So it would surprise me if a judge forced the sheriff to release these materials, because I think that would set a new legal precedent.
I do think, however, that it’s a valid question to ask why the agency didn’t seize or examine Adam Shacknai’s cell phone or obtain his phone records, to at least back up his story, as they did with Jonah Shacknai and Rebecca.
I don’t know if we’ll get any more answers as a result of the lawsuit, but it will be interesting to see what happens. This case still has legs, that’s for sure, and the public interest in it hasn’t flagged even a decade later.
Given the evolving nature of the case, might you someday update the book with new info? Have you done this on earlier books?
Yes, I have done updates on several previous books when they were warranted, and I would think that is a good possibility in this case as well. If, say, a new sheriff is elected and he/she reopens the criminal investigation, or if there is an arrest or some significant court action as a result of the Zahaus’ second lawsuit, then I would definitely want to update the book.
How many publishers rejected the Zahau book proposal before Kensington/Citadel Press picked it up? Do you have a sense yet (via pre-orders or industry chatter) how successful this book will be? What is your biggest selling or money-making book to this point?
I don’t share this kind of private information about rejections or income on my books. To date, my biggest selling book is “Poisoned Love,” about the Kristin Rossum case, which was my first book published, and another San Diego story. It went to a second printing in a matter of weeks.
“Death” is my 14th book, so I have a bigger national readership these days, but having to do a book launch and tour online because of COVID has been a challenge. I have no idea how well this book will do as a result, but I thought it was promising that three TV stations asked me to do interviews as soon as I got a book deal before, and that I’ve never had this much excitement and anticipation from readers before.
How did you decide who to believe in the story? Why did you include the seance scene involving the anchor bed at the mansion?
As I always do, I choose my material for its credibility, but also for reader interest, and to present a range of different opinions or theories. Just because I include certain information or scenes doesn’t mean that I “believe” they are true or that one of the characters isn’t lying.
I don’t call someone a liar or say someone is telling the truth, I just present the information, with added context, and let the reader decide what to make of it. All the major players in this case have their own agenda and narrative they want to control. I don’t. I just want to find the truth about what happened. That’s why I’m remaining neutral, and not taking a position on whether this was a murder or suicide.
Per your second question, the scene to which you’re referring was not a séance. Jackie Bensinger does energy readings on items, like she did with the bed from the mansion, and she also says she can communicate with people who have died by doing so.
Police agencies and district attorneys sometimes consult with mediums in their investigations. Remember the TV show “Medium”? It was based on a real person. The agencies just don’t publicize this. So why not include that scene?
How was researching and writing this book different from others — especially during the pandemic?
It didn’t really affect me, because I was mostly done with the book by the time the lockdown hit, except for one very important part. I had basically written the entire book, and was starting to tighten it up when Jonah Shacknai got in touch with me. (My manuscripts are always on the long side, and it’s part of my usual process to cut words when I’m finished writing.)
I’d been trying to reach Jonah through his former PR firm, but it took a while for him to get the message. As it turned out, we did eight lengthy phone interviews by Skype, so I had to quickly rewrite and add entirely new sections of the book, then tighten it up even more.
Jonah hadn’t spoken in detail to any media before, other than a very limited interview with “20/20,” so I felt it was very important to get that information into the book to give a broader perspective on Rebecca and their relationship, Adam, the trial, the investigation and the case in general. He gave me a lot of new information, which I think readers will find very interesting.
You’ve had up and down relations with the Sheriff’s Department, but this book highlights your being stonewalled on access to press conferences. What policy changes would you suggest that would allow you and fellow freelancers to have the same access to info as established media journalists?
This has been very frustrating for me. It also set off my hinky meter, because I was allowed to attend a news conference in the John Gardner case, but not in this one, and it’s not because the sheriff doesn’t know who I am.
I was told I wasn’t allowed in because I no longer have a press pass, which I lost once I left daily journalism. To get a press pass now, I’m told I have to be regularly published in local media or have a popular and frequent blog, or be on TV with one specific outlet.
Well, in between books, I’m a freelancer and consultant, so I do work for multiple outlets, not just one, and I blog, but only when I have something to say. I can’t and don’t want to compete with daily news outlets.
I often get interviewed for various documentaries that air on national cable networks, such as Investigation Discovery or REELZ or A&E. But most of the time I’m on local TV, it’s during a trial to give commentary as I did for KUSI, or if I’m promoting one of my books.
I interviewed Sheriff Gore for “Lost Girls,” in which I actually painted his department in a pretty positive light. He initially declined to do an interview on this case even after I was prevented from attending the two news conferences.
That said, a detective sergeant did sit down with me for several hours to answer my questions, and Gore ultimately agreed to do a face-to-face interview. I’m not sure other freelancers, who may not have the same history in town as I do, would have been given the same chance, but I still missed the chance to listen to the Q&A the detectives did with media during the news conferences, which was omitted when the Sheriff’s Department posted the session on its website.
What other crimes would you like to write about? Any local ones on your radar?
I’ve been following the McStay case since the family went missing in 2010, and am working on a book proposal about it. COVID has affected that project far more than the Zahau case.
For example, it took several months just to get a court order from the judge to view and copy the exhibits, which would normally take a week. It’s also been difficult to get people to return calls or emails during COVID, with so many people on furlough at courthouses or public agencies, and people working from home.
I also haven’t wanted to go to the courthouse in San Bernardino to go through court records and documents until I was fully vaccinated, so I’ve really only been able to chip away at that project. So, instead, I focused on writing a second crime novel, which I’m now editing.
It kept me sane during the lockdown to have something to work on safely every day while I was stuck at home. This book is a sequel to my one and only mystery novel, “Naked Addiction,” which is about sex, drugs and murder in La Jolla and Pacific Beach. The sequel, which is a biotech mystery, has similar themes, and is set in La Jolla Farms and Coronado, with scenes at Balboa Park, Mr. A’s and Windansea.
What were the biggest revelations about the Zahau case in your book? Your biggest scoops?
My nonfiction crime books are all true, but they’re written using fiction-storytelling techniques, which means they always have surprises and “reveals” toward the end. If I give them away here, it would ruin the book for people.
But in general, a lot of new details are woven throughout the book from my interviews with Jonah, Rebecca’s former boyfriend Michael Berger, Adam and his girlfriend Mary, and from detective interviews with her sisters and ex-husband Neil Nalepa, and court records in both California and Arizona.
I also have the sheriff’s investigative file, much of which didn’t come out in court during the civil trial, and has not been made public. I thought that the emails Rebecca wrote to Michael were of particular interest, because if she committed suicide, the language and content serve as a good comparison for the message painted on the door. (Also, because Gore said he wasn’t able to gather enough of her writings to submit to the FBI for a behavioral analysis.)
Details on the settlement discussions and how Adam paid for his defense were previously a matter of much speculation, so I explain those. And I included a description of what went on in the jury room during deliberations.
These were all good “gets” that I’d proud of, but I’m mostly proud that readers will come away from reading this book knowing a lot more about all of the characters, including Rebecca, and what really happened, than they did before.