The lawyer for the Rebecca Zahau family may have lost a bid to quiz former Sheriff Bill Gore under oath in a public-records case.
But at least the attorney, Keith Greer, won’t have to pay a fine related to a lawsuit on behalf of the dead woman’s mother, sister and brother-in-law.
A humbled Greer showed remorse Friday in San Diego Superior Court for failing to notify the clerk that a hearing had to be canceled.
“If someone comes in and falls on their sword and apologizes to the court … and says: ‘It was my fault and I’m sorry,’ that’s enough for me,” Judge Timothy Taylor said after Greer recounted his lapse.
With that issue dispensed, Taylor heard arguments from Greer and county counsel Timothy Deák on whether Gore and an unspecified “person with knowledge” should sit for depositions on what Gore told underlings about a review of the Zahau investigation.
In a tentative ruling Thursday, Taylor granted a county request to bar such interviews.
But Taylor on Friday said: “I’ll just be candid with you. I have sensed that all of this has been a stalking horse for waiting until the current sheriff is out of office. Am I misreading the situation here?”
He added that he was ready to soon decide the merits of this case.
“We seem to bog down in various demurrer, demurrer to the answer, discovery disputes,” Taylor said. “I mean: Let’s just get it on and get the issue resolved for the well-being of this family and so that the [current] sheriff can leave office well aware of the rules.”
Greer said he sought the extra material to “put more meat on the bones” of his case that certain files should be disclosed — and not withheld under the California Public Records Act’s “investigations” exemption.
“The [retired] sheriff … would have facts that would show that certain of these documents would fall over onto the side of disclosure,” he said. “Our position … is that it’s wrong, they’re lying…. This whole thing was a charade and it was all orchestrated.”
Said Taylor: “That’s ultimately a political question and not one that the CPRA was designed to address.”
Greer suspects that Gore, in preparation for a press conference, sent a memo to people that said: “Don’t say anything about the fact that this investigation wasn’t really wide-sweeping … Here’s my comment on what you can share.”
The Zahau family lawyer said the CPRA was designed to allow disclosure of documents that a public official was preparing to give false statements to the public about their finding that Zahau committed suicide.
Though Judge Taylor said he doubted such a memo exists, he asked county lawyer Deák if document of that kind could be deemed an investigatory file.
“As I stand here,” Deák said, “I know of no law one way or the other on that issue.”
But after Taylor pressed Deák about “this hypothetical directive,” the county counsel said he would argue that it is exempt from disclosure “because it relates to the investigation. … That’s the end of the story.”
Deák added: “Mr. Greer wants to prosecute some kind of corruption case here, and this is a Public Records Act request. He needs to find another cause of action.”
That led Taylor to say the Zahaus’ concern was “ultimately a political question: Did someone miscarry their responsibilities in office? It’s not the subject matter of the CPRA … a focused, narrow, statutory framework.”
Greer responded: “I think the documents we’re looking for here belong in that public disclosure area. They don’t interfere with the investigations itself or thought processes of the officers. We’re looking at what was disclosed to the public and … did the documentation show the public official was telling the truth or did they lie?”
On July 13, 2011, Zahau was found hanging by her neck above a rear courtyard at her boyfriend’s beachfront summer home in Coronado. She was gagged, with her ankles bound and her wrists tied behind her back.
Though never criminally charged, Adam Shacknai, the brother of Zahau’s boyfriend, was found liable in her death by a San Diego civil jury, which awarded Zahau’s family more than $5 million in damages.
Zahau’s family contends that Shacknai murdered her, possibly in retaliation for the death of his 6-year-old nephew Max, who suffered an ultimately fatal fall while in Zahau’s care, days before she was found dead.
In 2019, Zahau’s family announced it would offer a $100,000 reward for anyone offering new information that could lead to Shacknai’s arrest and conviction.
In the latest suit, Greer alleges the Sheriff’s Department selectively disclosed their investigatory files to the public, while withholding information in violation of the California Public Records Act.
County attorneys have argued the information Zahau’s family seeks, including Gore’s instructions to an independent panel of investigators who re-examined the case in 2018, are exempt from disclosure under the CPRA.
In Thursday’s tentative ruling, Taylor wrote that Zahau’s family had not shown the Sheriff’s Department is obligated to share those records or that it’s appropriate to depose Gore.
During oral arguments heard Friday, Greer said that in seeking records regarding what information could be publicly disclosed, the family’s position was that the information shared with the public was “a charade.”
Outside court, Greer called the 2018 re-examination of the case “a sham” that was undertaken “for political purposes to make it look like he was doing an investigation.”
The judge took the matter under submission following Friday’s arguments. Another hearing is set for July regarding the merits of the family’s case.
Asked by reporters whether he might go into the July 8 hearing with no ammunition, Greer conceded the suit might fail.
“The odds are against us,” he said. “Every battle has been uphill. …. [but] we are going to keep on going. I remain confident that our judicial process, in the end, fairness will prevail, justice will prevail.”
Updated at 11:32 p.m. March 25, 2022
City News Service contributed to this report.