The mysterious death of Rebecca Zahau: Sexually motivated murder?
The death of Rebecca Zahau was a bewildering one. Some lament that the murder wouldn’t have been as sensationalized as it was had she not been so pretty. Some remark at the audacity of authorities in ruling her death a suicide, even though it looked so plainly to be a homicide.
Here’s a mental picture of the scene that Rebecca’s body was found in:
The rope Rebecca supposedly used to hang herself was so long that it was tied all the way to a bedpost in her bedroom, and then draped over the balcony she was found hanging off of. Rebecca was found with her hands and feet bound by a thick red rope. Rebecca’s mouth was gagged by a blue t-shirt that was wrapped around her neck. Rebecca was hanged naked.
Does this sound like the scene of a woman who committed suicide?
It’s so bizarre a situation that it raises the question as to whether it was a sexually motivated murder. After all, she was completely naked, and whoever had tied the noose had gone out of their way to tie it to a bedpost. Whoever has even heard of a person committing suicide by hanging themselves naked?
Here is some background and baffling details on the entire horrible incident.
What happened before Rebecca Zahau’s death?
Rebecca was a Burmese immigrant, having fled Burma with her family. She was raised Protestant and married a nursing student in 2002, but they divorced nine years later. Rebecca went on to become an ophthalmic technician in Arizona. It was at this job examining people’s eyes that Rebecca would lock eyes with Jonah Shacknai.
Rebecca began dating Jonah in 2009, about two years before she and her husband divorced. At first, Rebecca had no idea that Jonah Shacknai was the CEO of Medicis Pharmaceutical, a multimillion-dollar medical cosmetics company.
Rebecca’s sister, Mary Zahau-Loehner, said that their parents were a little trepidatious about the relationship (perhaps because of their conservative background), but there was no bad blood between them per se.
Rebecca had been becoming close to Jonah’s son, Max. Max was a child from Jonah’s second marriage and Rebecca and he had developed a very warm relationship. While Max’s mother wasn’t exactly keen on her ex-husband’s girlfriend being close with her son (and sometimes made it difficult), she didn’t forbid it.
The tragic accident that may have precipitated Rebecca’s death
On July 11, 2011, a terrible accident occurred in Jonah’s Coronado, California mansion. Rebecca and her teenage sister Xena were babysitting Max. Rebecca emerged from a room in the house to find that Max had somehow plummeted off the second-floor railing. Rebecca discovered him face-down on the floor not breathing, so she alerted her sister and called 9-1-1.
Max sustained injuries to his spinal cord and facial bones, but doctors were able to bring him into a coma state. Rebecca was beside herself. Her sister Mary recalls Rebecca freaking out about how mad Max’s mother would be. “She’s gonna kill me,” Mary said Rebecca repeated.
Two days later Rebecca was found dead, hanging nude by her neck off a balcony, but Max’s mother had been holding vigil by her son’s bedside at the night of Rebecca’s death. Five days later Max passed away due to brain damage.
Finding Rebecca Zahau’s body
Max’s death was officially ruled an accident on July 26, 2011, but the question now was what on Earth had happened to Rebecca.
The only people in the house on the night of Rebecca’s death were Rebecca herself and Jonah’s brother, Adam Shacknai. Adam had flown in from Tennessee to support his brother Jonah during such a trying time. Jonah said that Rebecca and Adam didn’t know each other well, but that they were both still “exceedingly cordial” to one another. If this really was the case, it begs the question of how Rebecca died the way she did.
Adam had called 9-1-1 at 6:48 the morning after Rebecca had died to inform them of her condition. “I got a girl, hung herself,” he reported to emergency operators. He proceeded to let them know that he didn’t think she was breathing but that he was performing CPR.
A neighbor later reported that they had heard a woman screaming for help the night before. Adam had been staying in the estate’s guest house, and said that when he noticed Rebecca’s body hanging from the balcony that morning, that he cut her down to try to help her.
Despite the fact that Rebecca’s corpse was found completely bound and gagged, police ruled Rebecca’s death a suicide. They even went as far as re-enacting how one might possibly go about binding themselves before jumping to their deaths by hanging to prove it was possible.
On one of the doors in the house had been written, “She saved him, can he save her” in black paint. Officials were hesitant to confirm this information at first and investigators chose to view it as a suicide note. Rebecca Zahau’s family maintains that the message was not written in Rebecca’s handwriting and that it didn’t sound like something she would write.
When professionals examined Rebecca’s body they found evidence of sexual assault, as well as four instances of trauma to the head. The theory of Rebecca’s head being hit as she dangled from the rope after jumping was posited, but it was noted that it would be unlikely for her body to have rebounded that many times.
The fallout of Rebecca Zahau’s death
The Zahau family are extremely grieved by the loss of their daughter and sister and very intent on getting justice on Rebecca’s behalf. They sued Adam Shacknai, alleging that he had sexually assaulted Rebecca, murdered her, and then tried to stage it as a suicide.
Because it was a civil case instead of a criminal one, the nine to three ruling by jury decided the verdict of holding Adam Shacknai responsible for Rebecca’s death, but Adam is not allowed to be officially charged with murder. Rebecca’s family was awarded a 5 million dollar judgment in damages.
Zahau’s sister Mary Zahau-Loehner said to KGTV News outside the courtroom, “For seven years we had to fight to make it known she didn’t commit suicide, even though we knew she didn’t. It has been a struggle.”
Adam planned on appealing the verdict, but the Zahau family reached a $600,000 settlement with his insurance company. Adam said the insurance company did so without his knowledge and that he was considering suing the San Diego Sheriff Department, as well as petitioning the medical examiner’s office to change Rebecca’s cause of death to suicide.
The 2019 documentary Rebecca Zahau: An ID Murder Mystery takes a look at Rebecca’s case.
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