Rebecca Zahau was found dead in her boyfriend’s southern California mansion just two days after his six-year-old son suffered a fatal fall down the stairs –when he was in Rebecca’s care. Authorities determined that her death was a suicide; reasoning, presumably, that she was overcome with guilt by that tragedy that ultimately took little Max Shacknai’s life.
Though the San Diego Sheriff Department announced in 2011, two months after she was found, that Zahau had died of suicide, her family has continued for years to insist that the beautiful 32-year-old surgical technician would never have taken her own life. This week, according to the San Diego Tribune, a wrongful death trial will begin in a San Diego court, focusing on the brother-in-law who found Zahau hanging.
Adam Shacknai is the brother of wealthy pharmaceutical mogul Jonah Shacknai, and the only person known to be at the Coronado residence around the time Rebecca died. It was July 13, 2011, and Max Shacknai was still in a medically-induced coma. Adam had flown to San Diego from Memphis to be with his family, and had stayed the night in the guest house of the mansion while his brother stayed at the hospital, along with his ex-wife Dina Shacknai, Max’s mother.
According to a report in Town & Country, Adam called 911 when he found Rebecca hanging from a second-story balcony, her hands bound behind her back.
“I got a girl, hung herself,” Adam reportedly said in the 911 call. “Same place you got the kid yesterday,” he said, though paramedics had responded to Max’s accident two days before.
Authorities arrived to find Rebecca dead, with a mysterious, chilling message written on the door of the second-story guest room, where one end of the rope was tied: “She saved him can you save her.”
While the civil case now focuses on Adam Shacknai alone — Jonah Shacknai and Rebecca’s ex-husband had solid alibis for the night of her death — Rebecca’s family had initially filed a wrongful death suit against Adam, Jonah’s ex-wife Dina, and Dina’s sister, Nina Romero, according to the San Diego Tribune. But both sisters were found to have been away from the mansion during any time it would have been possible for either to be involved in her death.
Though Adam Shacknai’s DNA reportedly told police that he cut Zahau down from where she was hanging, tests found only Rebecca’s DNA at the scene — prompting an accusation that Adam had removed DNA and fingerprint evidence. Rebecca had purportedly tied a rope around her hands in an intricate knot and stuffed a T-shirt in her mouth before hanging herself. Adam’s 911 call shows that he made efforts to revive Rebecca the morning he found her, though her body had already gone into rigor mortis by that time.
Jury selection is set to begin on Tuesday, and the San Diego Tribune report says that trial is expected to last a month.
Adam Shacknai’s lawyer Daniel Webb said in a statement obtained by the newspaper that he is confident a jury will find that his client is not responsible for the young woman’s death.
“We are confident that the trial in this case will conclusively vindicate Adam and finally bring closure to these outrageous allegations,” Webb said in the statement.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Adam Shacknai’s DNA was found at the scene, but investigators only found Rebecca Zahau’s.
[Feature image: Rebecca Zahau/Handout]