Five years after her death, millionaire's brother found liable for girlfriend's alleged suicide by hanging
The death of 32-year-old Rebecca Zahau in 2011 was officially ruled as a suicide but puzzled investigators because of some of the inconsistencies that plagued her alleged suicide. Her family felt that Adam Shacknai, the brother of millionaire pharmaceutical tycoon Jonah Shacknai who she had been dating, was responsible for his death and were vindicated when a San Diego civil jury ruled that Shacknai was liable for Zahau's death.
They directed Shacknai to pay $5 million in damages to the family after finding him responsible for Zahau's death, also declaring that he should pay a further $167,000 because they had lost the financial support she could have given her mother and siblings, as well as for the loss of her love and companionship. Punitive damages are yet to be determined.
For those not privy to the details of the controversial case, Zahau was found dead on July 13, 2011, at the Spreckels Beach House in Coronado, California, just two days after Jonah's 6-year-old son, Max, took a fatal fall from a staircase banister in the same house.
Zahau had been the only adult at the home at the time of Max's death and many theorized that the 32-year-old had killed herself after being overcome by grief. San Diego Sheriff Bill Gore announced two months later that Zahau's death had been ruled as a suicide while Max's was the result of an accident; neither was the result of foul play.
Indeed, forensic and toxicology testing on her body as part of an autopsy to determine the cause of her death was unable to find any DNA at the scene beside Zahau's but her family was insistent that there was foul play involved, pointing the fingers at Shacknai and suing him for $10 million.
Their protests that Zahau's death had been unnatural was due to the odd circumstances surrounding her death. The 32-year-old was reportedly found by Shacknai, nude, hanging from the balcony, and with her wrists and ankles bound.
She was also gagged with a blue, long sleeve T-shirt wrapped around her head with the sleeves double knotted and stuffed into her mouth and had tape residue on her legs. An autopsy conducted by famed pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht confirmed that the fractures in Zahau's throat were caused by manual strangulation and not suicide; all clues indicating that she could not possibly have killed herself.
Numerous family members came out to state that Zahau was not the type of person who committed suicide, citing her staunch belief in the Christian faith and the wrongness of taking one's own life. Her elder sister wrote in a statement: "Rebecca valued her life and lived her life to its fullest.
Rebecca loved God, her family, and life," with her former trainer similarly stating: "She was always happy [and] always smiling when she came in. I didn't see a problem or anything like that."
The Zahau Family's lawyer expressed derision at the medical examiner's conclusions that the death was a suicide and said: "This would be the first case in the history of the world that a woman killed herself like this ... It's ridiculous on the face of it."
But Shacknai had his supporters as well. A column written by trial lawyer Roy Black and published in the Daily Beast criticized so-called 'halfbaked theories' about Zahau's death. He said that it was incredulous Shacknai could be accused of murder, writing: "How could anyone do all this without leaving behind a scintilla of microscopic evidence? They would have to have been wearing a full rubber suit or some type of space suit and levitated over the scene."
Jonah Shacknai seemed affected by the indecision as well, writing a letter to California Attorney General Kamala Harris requesting a state review of the investigation. He said that while he did not doubt the authenticity of the findings, he hoped a review would bring 'confidence, comfort and resolution' to others close to Zahau. The request was denied the next day.
A wrongful death suit was filed in court in 2013 to challenge the ruling that a death was a suicide and alleged that Shacknai sexually assaulted Zahau, killed her, and then staged her hanging, all as revenge for his nephew's death.
Now five years later, Shacknai has finally been found liable for the death and put the family's mind at ease. Zahau's older sister, Mary Zahau-Loehner, was seen wiping away her tears and their lawyer, Keith Greer, proclaimed that the case was 'not about the money' but rather a way to pressure the sheriff's department to reopen the criminal case.
The jurors were reportedly asked to answer two questions: Did Adam Shacknai touch Rebecca Zahau before her death with the intent to harm her? Did that touching cause the death of Rebecca Zahau? They voted 'yes' in both instances.
In their closing arguments, the defense argued that there was no physical evidence linking Shacknai to the crime scene and that none of the 29 witnesses who testified in the case said he was at the home the night Zahau died. The argument fell on deaf ears and Shacknai was pictured hanging his head dejectedly after the verdict.