A nude woman’s body, bound and gagged. An oceanfront mansion in an idyllic community. An appalling tragedy involving a child.
All of the circumstances surrounding Rebecca Zahau’s death one decade ago add up to an enduring mystery that continues to ensnare her family, investigators and armchair sleuths who are drawn in anew. Even now, yet another court hearing looms in 10 days.
Zahau – an immigrant from Myanmar whose body was found early on July 13, 2011 – officially died by her own hand. Her sisters don’t buy it and have long pressed their point, waging battles both with authorities and possible suspects.
The characters in the case, now a mainstay of cable true crime programs, include Zahau, 32, her former boyfriend, a pharmaceuticals executive, Jonah Shacknai, his ill-fated son, Max, his brother Adam, and San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore. Curious details – bruises on Zahau’s head and a message scrawled in paint on a door – continue to raise questions.
And everything started in Coronado 10 years ago Tuesday. Here’s a timeline of events since the summer of 2011:
July 13, 2011 – Zahau, a medical technician, is found bound and gagged below a balcony at the storied seaside Sprecklels mansion by Adam Shacknai, the brother of her boyfriend Jonah. Her nude body remains uncovered on the grounds of the mansion for long enough that helicopters easily capture images. Coronado police refer the case to the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, as they lack a full-time homicide unit.
July 16 2011 – Max Shacknai, 6, Jonah’s son, dies at Rady Children’s Hospital following a fall at the mansion on July 11. Zahau had been watching him. The boy’s mother, Adam and other family arrived in Coronado in the hours preceding Zahau’s death.
Sept. 2, 2011 – Gore hosts a pre-Labor Day weekend news conference to release Zahau’s autopsy, and declare that investigators have found that she hung herself. They determined that she tied her own elaborate bindings and propelled herself from the balcony.
Nov. 14, 2011 – The “Dr. Phil” show takes on the case, including results of an independent autopsy following exhumation of Zahau’s body. It’s the first of many attempts by media to examine her death, on networks from CNN to Oxygen. The investigation also has spawned numerous podcasts, web debates and books. The latest, by San Diego true-crime author Caitlin Rother, was published in April.
June 2013 – The mansion where Zahau died sells for $9 million, far less than the asking price. Realtor.com reports the property, much altered since 2011, last sold in 2020 for $11 million.
July 2013 – Zahau’s family, who have consistently stepped out in public to deny the suicide finding, fail to persuade authorities, so they file a $10 million federal lawsuit. The court, though, refuses to take jurisdiction, forcing the wrongful-death case to be filed in state court.
February 2018 – Trial begins after various legal maneuvers that focus the case on Adam Shacknai, 54, a tugboat operator from Memphis. He’s accused of hitting Zahau in the head to disable and assault her, before eventually binding her and pushing her from the balcony. Young Max Shacknai’s death has long played a role for both sides in her case – Zahau’s family claims she was killed to avenge him, while others argue that her sorrow over his injuries led her to kill herself. Testifying in his own defense, Adam Shacknai answered, “Most certainly not,” when asked if he had anything to do with Zahau’s death.
April 2018 – Jurors vote 9-3, deciding that Adam Shacknai was liable in Zahau’s death, and award $5 million to her family. He vows he will appeal. One of her sisters, Mary Zahau-Loehner said Zahau “was brutally murdered,” and that she continues to hope that Adam Shacknai will face criminal charges.
December 2018 – Though the Sheriff’s department defends its investigation the day of the civil verdict, within two weeks officials agree to take a new look at the Zahau case. Eight months later, Gore announces that the department stands by the original finding of suicide. In an unusual move, the agency continues to maintain web pages devoted to her case, including slides showing evidence collected at the scene.
February 2019 – Zahau’s family works with insurers to settle the civil case for $600,000 and asks the court to dismiss it. Adam Shacknai, speaking to the media, said that though he bore her no ill will, he “wouldn’t (expletive) waste my time killing Rebecca Zahau.” His attorneys, who had planned to call for the verdict to be overturned, noted that the dismissal erased the jury’s decision. “There is no legal judgment, which is as it should be, saying that Mr. Shacknai did anything wrong,” one said.
August 2019 – The Zahau family offers a $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Adam Shacknai for her death.
March 2021 – Eight months after they sued Gore and the Sheriff’s Department over the agency’s denial of the family’s request for investigative records, a judge agrees to hear arguments in October. County attorneys, however, will appear in court in 10 days – on July 23 – in an attempt to block the case, filed under the California Public Records Act. The county contends that investigative records are exempt from the disclosure law.
And on Monday, according to published reports, attorneys for the family filed an amended complaint in response to the county.
Doug Loehner, Zahau’s brother-in-law, has said the family’s “whole goal” is still to have the case reopened. Ten years on, there will be many observers waiting to see what happens next.
“This case still has legs, that’s for sure, and the public interest in it hasn’t flagged even a decade later,” the author, Rother, told Times of San Diego.