The Strange Death of Rebecca Zahau

32-year-old Rebecca Zahau was discovered dead on July 13, 2011 at her live-in boyfriend Medicis Pharmaceutical CEO Jonah Shacknai’s mansion.  Her death occurred just 2 days after the death of Shacknai’s 6-year-old son, Max, who fell from a staircase banister at the same house.  The police determined that Zahau’s death was a suicide and that the younger Shacknai’s death was an accident.

On July 11, 2011, Zahau and Max Shacknai were at the mansion along with Zahau’s younger sister, Xena, when Max fell over a 2nd floor banister.  Investigators believe that he tripped over something.  He fell face-first and sustained spinal injuries.  Zahau stated she had been in the bathroom at the time.  Her younger sister called 911.  Max died a few days later from brain damage.

The day before Zahau’s death, she went to the airport to drop off her sister for her flight back to Missouri.  She then picked up Shacknai’s brother, Adam, who had just arrived from Memphis.  Zahau, Adam, Jonah, and a friend, dined that evening.  Adam Shacknai stayed in the mansion’s guest house.  There were reports of loud music coming from the mansion.  Jonah Shacknai was at the hospital with Max’s mother Dina Romano.

Adam Shacknai said he found Zahau nude, hanging from the balcony, with her wrists and ankles bound, at about 6:45 in the morning.  He called 911 and then texted his brother.

In addition, Zahau was gagged with a blue, long sleeve T-shirt wrapped around her head with the sleeves double knotted and stuffed in her mouth.

Medics attempted to resuscitate her, but she was pronounced dead at the scene.  Investigators were unable to find any forensic evidence in the case.

At about 8 p.m. until 10 p.m., Zahau texted her older sister off and on to confirm her younger sister arrived safely.  At about 10:48 p.m., Zahau received a text from Max’s mother’s twin sister stating that she wanted to stop by and speak with her about the accident.  At about 12:50 a.m., Zahau checked her voicemail.  The police stated that the message was about Max’s prognosis.

Zahau’s autopsy revealed that she had at least 4 instances of head trauma.  The San Diego Medical Examiner Jonathan Lucas stated “because there was evidence that she went over the balcony in a non-vertical position, she may have struck her head on the balcony on the way down.”

Many people including Zahau’s family have expressed suspicions that her death was not a suicide given her bindings, the message written on the door, and the fact that Zahau was never previously suicidal, nor was she suffering from depression.  She was upset about Max’s accident, but she did not express anything that led those around her to believe she would kill herself.

San Diego County Sheriff Roy Frank stated that there are documented incidents were some people who commit suicide will bind themselves to prevent them from changing their mind.  Police videotaped a re-enactment of how they believe Zahau committed suicide.

The police would not confirm that a painted message was found on the door leading out to the balcony.  Sheriff Gore did say there was “not a clear suicide note.”  The note allegedly read, “She saved him, can he save her.”  Her family has contended that the message did not match her handwriting.

Her death drew intense public and media attention.  Shacknai’s corporation had a sharp decline in its stock price following the incident.  The family has been increasingly critical of the investigation.  Everyone close to Rebecca Zahau has denied that she would have ever committed suicide.

Sheriff Gore responded, “We laid out the case extensively to them in Missouri to answer their questions, and it’s unfortunate [they] can’t accept the results.”

Jonah Shacknai wrote a letter to the California Attorney General Kamala Harris requesting a state review of the case.  Shacknai stated he did not doubt the findings, but hoped the review could bring “confidence” to the investigators’ conclusions.  The Attorney General’s Office has declined to re-investigate or even review the case.

The family continues their quest for justice.  Even 4 years later, investigators stand by their controversial conclusions, but her family members remain convinced she was murdered and that the police either were swayed by wealth and influence or dropped the ball because of the media spotlight.  The family believes that Zahau may have been murdered as revenge for the death of Max.

The Zahau family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Adam Shacknai, Nina Romano, and Dina (Romano) Shacknai.

“The only reason to gag somebody is to keep them quiet obviously, and if Rebeca is doing this herself she knows that when she jumps off, she will have a noose around her neck, and it will cut off her air and she will not be able to scream,” said Keith Greer, the family’s attorney.

“It really appears like any piece of evidence that supported murder and didn’t support a suicide theme was ignored.”

Dina (Romano) Shacknai, Jonah’s ex-wife and the mother of Max, said that the allegations “make no sense”.   In a strange twist, some of the Shacknai family members believe that Max’s death was a homicide.

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