rebecca zahau
Rebecca Zahau. Photo via Wikipedia

A civil case stemming from the death of 32-year-old Rebecca Zahau, whose bound and nude body was found hanging from a balcony at a historic Coronado mansion more than seven years ago, was dismissed with prejudice Wednesday following a settlement reached between her family and insurers.

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

Despite law enforcement’s findings that she committed suicide, a civil jury found Adam Shacknai, the brother of Zahau’s boyfriend, liable for her death and awarded Zahau’s mother more than $5 million in damages last April. Zahau’s family claimed that Shacknai confronted and attacked her because his nephew suffered an ultimately fatal fall while in her care.

Shacknai sought to have the jury’s verdict overturned, but the Zahau family’s lawyer, Keith Greer, asked that the case be dismissed. Judge Katherine Bacal, who previously issued a tentative ruling indicating she would deny a retrial, granted the request.

Terms of the settlement were not disclosed, with Greer electing to only say, “The case has been resolved.”

Outside the courtroom, Shacknai, who not involved with the settlement, maintained his innocence and told reporters that Zahau’s family “did this partially for the money, but partially so they did not have to show up in church, and have people look at them and think `Our daughter committed suicide.”‘

Shacknai reiterated that law enforcement ruled the woman’s death a suicide, and had harsh words for the civil court system regarding the trial and Wednesday’s result.

“Started out as just a family matter. You’re cleared by law enforcement, then all of a sudden, a civil court comes up, and you’re five miles behind, and you’re behind the eight ball because of not speaking out in the media beforehand, and choosing just to stay out of it, which was not easy to do,” Shacknai said.

Shacknai alleged the case against him was “a hoax perpetuated by Keith Greer” and also accused Bacal of having an agenda.

“I still feel like there was something going on between her and law enforcement that didn’t have anything to do with me or this case,” he said.

When asked if he killed Zahau, Shacknai answered emphatically, “Hell (expletive) no. I wouldn’t (expletive) waste my time killing Rebecca Zahau,” while also saying he regarded her with no ill will, even in the wake of his nephew’s injury and eventual death.

“When she was alive, she was OK. I was probably the only person that thought she was OK, by the way,” Shacknai said, noting that Zahau “was taking a lot of flack from the community, from my brother’s friends. She was not accepted.”

Shacknai’s attorney, Seth Weisburst, called the jury’s verdict and subsequent proceedings “a gross miscarriage of justice.”

Weisburst said the dismissal closed off Shacknai’s legal avenues, but said he’d been prepared to argue that the verdict should be overturned because “this case was entirely built on circumstantial evidence. The circumstantial evidence pointed to by the court adds up to nothing and in no way ties Mr. Shacknai to being in the room where we all agree Rebecca Zahau died. There’s no evidence that he was ever there, because he wasn’t there.”

Weisburst said the silver lining was that the dismissal vacated the jury’s verdict.

“There is no legal judgment, which is as it should be, saying that Mr. Shacknai did anything wrong,” he said.

Two days before Zahau’s body was discovered, her boyfriend’s 6-year- old son, Max, was 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 she 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, claiming that he sexually assaulted and killed Zahau the day after his nephew’s fatal fall.

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 Shacknai.

The defendant, who had traveled to San Diego from his home in Memphis to be with his brother after his nephew’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 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.

Zahau’s boyfriend, pharmaceuticals tycoon 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.

After less than a day of deliberations, the jurors found that the then 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.

Investigators concluded that the evidence failed to support the jury’s verdict, stating that wounds found on Zahau’s forehead were more superficial than the type of serious, debilitating trauma described by the Zahau family’s lawyer, nor was there any indication of a sexual assault.

“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),” San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore told reporters in December. “In addition, we found no evidence that would dispute or be inconsistent with the … finding that (her) manner of death was suicide.”

Updated at 12:15 p.m. Feb. 6, 2019

— City News Service

Chris Jennewein

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