A Superior Court judge has set an October hearing date that the family of Rebecca Zahau hopes will lead to evidence of homicide in her headline-grabbing 2011 Coronado death — and force authorities to revisit the case.
The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department has twice declared that Zahau, the 32-year-old girlfriend of pharmaceutical executive Jonah Shacknai, committed suicide. She was found hanged at the Spreckels Mansion — naked, gagged and with wrists tied behind her back.
On Friday, Judge Timothy Taylor agreed to hear arguments from Zahau’s sister, mother and brother-in-law that the Sheriff’s Department should turn over more details in the case. They sued Sheriff Bill Gore under the California Public Records Act.
Doug Loehner, husband of Rebecca’s sister Mary, said Tuesday that “our whole goal” is having the case reopened.
In April 2018, the Zahaus won a wrongful death case — a civil jury finding that Jonah’s brother Adam, staying in the guest house of the Ocean Boulevard mansion, was responsible for Rebecca’s death. (Eventually, the suit was settled with a $600,000 payout.)
Adam Shacknai maintained his innocence and told reporters in February 2019 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.’”
Rebecca’s death came two days after Jonah’s 6-year-old son, Max, suffered fatal injuries in a still-mysterious fall. The case drew worldwide attention, including TV specials and a book near publication.
Loehner, a retired police detective, told Times of San Diego from Kansas City that the Sheriff’s Department “keeps saying that they gave us everything that was in the case file. Well, that’s a lie.”
He said his side learned in court that the Sheriff’s Department gave Adam Shacknai’s defense team “more case files than what we had.”
The Sheriff’s Department, which hasn’t yet filed an answer to the Zahaus’ motion, declined to comment on the latest development because of “pending litigation.” But spokeswoman Amber Baggs shared a web page devoted to evidence in the case.
A lawyer for the Zahaus wasn’t immediately available for comment.
Regarding the “merits hearing” set Oct. 15 in downtown court, Loehner said: “I’m trying not to get my hopes up yet. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
On Jan. 25, 2019, in response to Adam Shacknai’s legal team filing a motion to have the jury’s verdict set aside for lack of evidence, Judge Katherine Bacal issued a tentative ruling against Adam that faulted the Sheriff’s Department.
“The Court feels remiss if it does not state that the sheriff’s investigation leaves almost as many unanswered questions as it answered,” she wrote, citing a cryptic scrawl on a bedroom door: “SHE SAVED HIM CAN YOU SAVE HER.”
Bacal said the evidence showed that Rebecca “wrote extensively about herself in the first person. She was a painter, who was comfortable painting letters as well as figures. Given these facts alone, common sense says that Rebecca did not paint the amateurishly painted message on the door. And if she did not, someone else did.”
Determining who wrote the message “would certainly be circumstantial evidence pointing to who killed Rebecca Zahau,” Bacal wrote. “This was only one of numerous pieces of circumstantial evidence that puts the sheriff’s conclusion into question. As a result, it is not unreasonable to still ask, ‘Who killed Rebecca Zahau?'”
On March 2, 2020, the Zahaus sent a CPRA request to Gore seeking records reflecting correspondence between officers involved in the investigation of Rebecca’s death and “all interdepartmental memorandums, detective notes, detective binders and detective workbooks.”
Ten days later, the Sheriff’s Department sent the Zahaus a letter saying the requested documents were exempt from disclosure. On May 13, the Zahaus sent a CPRA request seeking records “reflecting why the sheriff did not endeavor to obtain the cell phone records of Adam Shacknai, but did get the records of several other individuals, including Jonah Shacknai, Nina Romano [twin sister of Jonah’s ex-wife Dina] and Rebecca Zahau.”
Two weeks later, the Department again said the requested documents were exempt from disclosure.
Finally, on July 16, 2020, Rebecca’s mother Pari Zahau and Mary and Douglas Loehner sued Gore and the Sheriff’s Department, demanding materials they were denied and seeking attorneys’ fees and costs.
A 144-page brief, including exhibits, alleges that all the released materials were “selectively chosen” by the sheriff in a bid to persuade a “very skeptical public” that the suicide finding was proper, “despite the existence of substantial evidence and facts giving the appearance that Rebecca was murdered, and to cover up analysis and opinions of investigating officers that were contrary to his finding of suicide.”
The brief added: “Petitioners assert that this covert effort by the sheriff violates the policies of transparency and open government underlying the CPRA and should not be condoned.”
The Zahaus argue — through Rancho Bernardo attorneys C. Keith Greer, Jonathan Berger and C. Tyler Greer — that the court should decide it is improper for the sheriff to use the exemption privilege as a “sword rather than a shield.”
Loehner, Rebecca’s brother-in-law, said in a phone interview that the CrimeDoor phone app has a section devoted to the Zahau case — including an hour-long video he contends shows evidence of homicide.
“It’s extremely accurate,” he said.