A San Diego jury Wednesday awarded more than $5 million in damages to the mother of a woman who authorities said committed suicide by hanging herself at a Coronado mansion in 2011, determining that the brother of her boyfriend was liable for her death.
Rebecca Zahau, 32, was found dead two days after her boyfriend Jonah Shacknai’s 6-year-old son, Max, fell from a second-story landing at the Spreckels mansion. The boy died five days later.
Zahau’s mother, Pari Zahau, and older sister, Mary Zahau-Loehner, rejected the suicide finding and filed a wrongful death lawsuit in 2013 against Shacknai’s brother, Adam, claiming the defendant confronted and battered Zahau the day after his nephew fell.
The attorney for the plaintiffs, Keith Greer, alleged that Adam Shacknai delivered four blows to Zahau’s head, rendering her partially or fully unconscious. Greer also claimed the defendant sexually assaulted Zahau, tied her hands and feet, put a noose around her neck and threw her body off a second- story balcony.
Greer said a phrase scrawled on a bedroom door with black paint that read “She saved him, can he save her,” was written by Adam Shacknai.
After less than a day of deliberations, jurors found that the 54-year- old defendant touched and battered Zahau before her death with the intent of harming her.
Jurors awarded Pari Zahau more than $5 million for loss of comfort and companionship and loss of money that the victim would have given to support her mother.
Greer said a second phase of trial in which the jury would consider punitive damages might not be necessary.
The attorney called on the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department to reopen its investigation into Zahau’s death.
“We know that Rebecca did not commit suicide,” Greer said outside court. “We knew right away.”
A statement released late Wednesday afternoon by the department asserts that it “stands by the findings of the Medical Examiner’s Office and our investigators.”
“These findings were supported by forensic evidence and medical examinations,” the statement said.
However, it adds that sheriff’s officials “are always open to reviewing any evidence that could impact our conclusions” and are “willing to meet with the Zahau family to look at any new evidence that came out of the civil trial.”
The Zahau family’s attorney described those court proceedings as a way to get the truth in front of the public.
“It’s not about money,” he said. “It’s never been about the money.”
Zahau-Loehner told reporters she was in “shock” upon hearing the verdict.
“For seven years, we had to fight to prove she didn’t commit suicide,” she said. “My sister was brutally murdered.”
Zahau-Loehner said she is holding out hope that someday Adam Shacknai will be criminally charged in the case.
The defendant testified that he had nothing to do with Zahau’s death. He said he was staying in the guest house at his brother’s mansion the night of July 12, 2011, after traveling to San Diego from his home in Memphis to be with his brother after Max’s accident.
Adam Shacknai said he emerged from his room early the next morning and saw Zahau’s nude body hanging from the balcony. He said he called 911, cut Zahau down and tried to give her CPR, then called his brother to tell him his girlfriend was dead.
Jonah Shacknai — a pharmaceuticals tycoon from Arizona — testified during the six-week trial that it was “inconceivable” that his younger brother had anything to do with Zahau’s death.
–City News Service