Rebecca Zahau
Rebecca Zahau. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Sheriff Bill Gore announced Friday that his department stands by its conclusion that the death of a woman whose bound and nude body was found hanging from a balcony at a historic Coronado mansion seven years ago was a suicide, despite a civil jury’s verdict that she was slain.

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department reopened its investigation into the death of 32-year-old Rebecca Zahau last spring, following the courthouse ruling that she had been sexually assaulted and killed at the century-old manor by the younger brother of her boyfriend, pharmaceuticals tycoon Jonah Shacknai.

“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 (person),” Gore told reporters Friday afternoon. “In addition, we found no evidence that would dispute or be inconsistent with the … finding that (her) manner of death was suicide.”

On July 13, 2011, Zahau was found dead, naked and hanging by her neck above a rear courtyard at her boyfriend’s beachfront summer home. She was gagged, her ankles bound and her wrists tied behind her back.

Two days earlier, Shacknai’s 6-year-old son, Max, had been gravely injured in a fall over a second-story stairway banister inside the stately Ocean Boulevard home, known locally as the Spreckels Mansion. The boy died five days after the accident, which occurred while he was under Zahau’s care.

Following a seven-week investigation into Zahau’s death, the Sheriff’s Department and the county Medical Examiner’s Office ruled that Zahau had killed herself in an unusual but not implausible or unheard-of manner — by tying a rope around a bed, wrapping the other end of it around her neck, binding her feet and hands, and throwing herself off a second-floor balcony.

Authorities have suggested that Zahau took her own life out of remorse and sorrow over Max’s accident and his resulting grim prognosis.

Her mother and older sister rejected that conclusion out of hand and filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in 2013 against Shacknai’s brother, Adam, claiming that he confronted and attacked Zahau the day after Max’s fatal fall, sexually assaulting and killing her.

Eight months ago, jurors awarded more than $5 million in damages to Zahau’s mother, determining that Adam Shacknai was liable for her death.

The attorney for the plaintiffs, Keith Greer, alleged that the defendant delivered four blows to Zahau’s head, rendering her partially or fully unconscious, molested her, tied her hands and feet, put a noose around her neck and pushed her off the balcony.

Greer told the civil jury a cryptic phrase found scrawled on a bedroom door at the mansion in black paint — “She saved him, can he save her” — had been put there by Adam Shacknai.

The defendant, who had traveled to San Diego from his home in Memphis to be with his brother after Max’s accident. insisted that he had nothing to do with Zahau’s death. At trial, he described emerging early in the morning from the guest house where he was staying on the grounds of his brother’s estate and finding Zahau’s lifeless body hanging from the second-floor landing.

He told the civil jury he called 911, cut Zahau down and tried to give her CPR, then called his brother to break the news that Zahau was dead.

Jonah Shacknai testified during the six-week trial that it was “inconceivable” that his younger brother had been involved in Zahau’s death in any way.

Nonetheless, after less than a day of deliberations, the jurors found that the 54-year old defendant violated and battered Zahau, leading to her death.

Two weeks after that decision, the sheriff’s department reopened its investigation in the case “in the spirit of transparency and open- mindedness,” assigning the task to in-house homicide investigators and members of the Coronado Police Department.

“It should be noted that no one on the review team was part of the original investigation, and they had no prior connections to the case,” Gore said during Friday afternoon’s briefing at sheriff’s headquarters in Kearny Mesa.

Noting that civil verdict requirements are less strict that those that apply to criminal cases, sheriff’s Lt. Rich Williams told reporters that the evidence in the case fails to support the jury verdict.

The review team delved into the case “from scratch,” going over the clues first collected and analyzed by law enforcement seven years ago and reaching out the Zahau family’s lawyer for any new evidence, Williams said.

“We asked for all the materials we could from that trial, and we began poring through that and looking at each theory offered to see if there was, in fact, any new evidence that we could utilize to help us learn more and see if we had this thing (right) initially or if anything new came to light,” the lieutenant told news crews. “And, in fact, we found that there was no new evidence offered or presented at that civil trial that would help us.”

Among its key findings, the review team concluded that wounds found on Zahau’s forehead were “more consistent” with the original autopsy findings — that they were superficial — than the type of serious, debilitating trauma described by the Zahau family’s lawyer.

The secondary probe in the case also turned up no evidence that Zahau had been sexually assaulted — an attack that, according to a theory presented by the plaintiffs at the civil trial, involved the victim’s being violated by the handle of a steak knife.

The review reached an unavoidable conclusion, according to Williams — that “the initial investigation was handled properly.”

“There’s many theories out there, but all of the evidence points to one logical conclusion, and that’s a suicide,” he said.

Updated at 5:10 p.m. Dec. 7, 2018

— City News Service

Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.