It was a gruesome sight. A beautiful young woman hanging by a noose from the second-story balcony of the Spreckels Mansion. Her body was nude, making the red rope wrapped around her neck, and binding her arms behind her back, and feet even more prominent. A blue t-shirt was wrapped around her neck and a gag placed harshly in her mouth. It was the early morning hours of July 13, 2011, and Rebecca Zahau, just 32, was dead. It was the beginning of a case that would grow to sensational proportions and bring unending pain to those who loved her so.
Although her death was initially labeled “suspicious” the San Diego Sheriff’s Department and the San Diego Medical Examiner’s Office would within two months rule her death a suicide. Citing the lack of any fingerprints, DNA, or footprints belonging to anyone else other than Rebecca, the September 2, 2011 ruling was definitive. Rebecca’s heartbroken family, led by her sister Mary and mother, Pari were outraged, refusing to accept the decision for even a second. Rebecca’s love for her family and her strong Christian faith would preclude her from taking her own life they firmly believed. Rebecca was savagely murdered they concluded, and they would vindicate her. They started their own investigation, leaving no stone unturned and even removing Rebecca’s body from the deep earth for a second autopsy. But trying to prove Rebecca was murdered would be harder than they ever imagined. It would be seven long years of struggle.
Since the suicide ruling foreclosed any criminal trial, a wrongful death lawsuit was instead filed. Years of legal proceedings would follow before a trial at last began on February 28, 2018, in the San Diego courtroom of Judge Katherine Bacal. Called to defend himself against claims he battered and killed Rebecca, was tugboat captain, Adam Shacknai, the brother of Rebecca’s boyfriend Jonah. The defense, presumably funded by Jonah’s immense wealth as a pharmaceutical tycoon, brought in prominent attorneys from across the country, ready to set forth their best case. As the trial commenced, television cameras recorded every minute, their presence unmovable during the six-week trial.
The civil trial would differ from a criminal trial, which requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt and a unanimous verdict. Only proof of preponderance of the evidence was required in the civil court, meaning it was more likely than not that the fact was true, and only nine votes would be necessary to prevail. Neither was Adam’s liberty at stake, as only liability and damages in the form of monetary compensation would be at issue.
Would answers finally be revealed through the long awaited legal process? Could there at last be an explanation to the seemingly unexplainable? And would the meaning in the cryptic message SHE SAVED HIM CAN YOU SAVE HER, written in black paint on the door where Rebecca drew her last breath finally be revealed? Would Rebecca really write this message before plunging off a balcony to a nine-foot fall, or was it instead written by a hand committed to her final destruction?
Who Was Rebecca Zahau?
Rebecca’s sister, Mary and her mother, Pari were called as the first witnesses in the trial. Often through tears, they gave a picture of the Rebecca they loved. Rebecca was born in Burma, where the family lived without running water. The family became political refugees and moved to Nepal when Rebecca was two-years-old, and then found political asylum in Germany. Although the family was poor, they were rich in love and in their Christian faith. Rebecca went to bible college in Austria, where she met her husband. They moved to New York and Rebecca began her American life.
Rebecca worked as a surgical technician but was also an artist. She was described as a calm, caring, person, often putting other people’s needs before her own. She was committed to a healthy lifestyle, not touching drugs or alcohol, eating healthy and loving to exercise. Rebecca was religious, at once fully embracing the church. She eventually left organized religion, but her faith remained strong, praying every night for God’s help and guidance.
The Beginning Path to Two Heartbreaking Deaths: Max’s Tragic Accident
Rebecca and her boyfriend of two years, Jonah Shacknai, were spending the summer of 2011 at Jonah’s vacation home in Coronado. The beachfront home was the historic Spreckels Mansion, a 19,000 square foot property, boasting a main residence, guesthouse, and other amenities. It was paradise. Yet the unthinkable would happen.
July 11, 2011, began as a summer day that held plans of carefree fun at the beach or San Diego Zoo. In the morning, Jonah, drove his two older children to the airport as they were returning to their mother. His youngest son, from his second marriage, six-year old Max went along for the ride. Upon returning from the airport, Jonah dropped Max off at the mansion with Rebecca while he went to do a workout at a nearby gym. Rebecca’s young sister, Xena, who was 13, was visiting from Missouri. Later, they would all go to the zoo. Rebecca had taken care of Max many times, and she had grown to love him dearly. Jonah testified they shared a special relationship, and Rebecca was teaching Max how to draw and paint. At 10:00 a.m. that July day, their lives would change forever. Rebecca was in the bathroom when she heard a horrible crash. Max had fallen over the second story banister. As he fell, he grabbed ahold of the chandelier and they both crashed to the ground. Max hit his head as his little body came to rest, and he ceased to breathe.
Rebecca rushed to him and began CPR. She screamed to Zena to call 911. Medical first responders found Rebecca kneeling beside Max, weeping and calling out his name. Max was rushed to the hospital, where resuscitation efforts continued. The doctors at last where able to obtain a pulse, but Max had been without oxygen for 30 minutes. He was in grave condition. The family gathered at his bedside and held out hope he would recover. Breaking everyone’s hearts, it was not to be. His injury was too severe, and Max died 5 days later on July 16, 2011.
Adam Shacknai Arrives From Memphis, Tennessee
Adam Shacknai is Jonah’s younger brother. Although six years separated them in age, a deep bond developed between the two. Jonah was “captivated with him” from the very start and would always “have his back” proclaimed Adam as he took the witness stand at his trial. Although Adam and Jonah went different directions over the years, they have the same relationship they always have had. “The fire is never out. Our relationship has never changed,” Adam explained.
Adam’s attorney, Daniel Webb, walked him through his life and the tragic events of July 2011. The Shacknai boys grew up in the small town of Suffern, outside of New York City. College bound, Adam moved to Washington D.C. to attend George Washington University, but left in 1983 before receiving a degree. He then lived with Jonah and worked in his father’s business, even contemplating taking over the business. Around 1987, he instead moved to Memphis, Tennessee. He fell in love with the lifestyle and people and has called Memphis home for 30 plus years.
In 1990, Adam began to work as a deckhand, and through time eventually worked his way up to a tugboat captain. He has spent the last 28 years working on the Mississippi River. While working, he completed his college education, obtaining a degree in American Literature from Memphis University. He enjoys fiction writing, frequently jotting down ideas, and has written short stories and plays. Adam lives by himself, although he has had a 20-year relationship with Mary Bedwell, a woman 18 years older than he. When questioned if she was really his girlfriend, why they have never married, and why he does not take her to family gatherings, Adam surprised everyone by calling out from the witness stand, “Mary are you my girlfriend?” Adam assured their commitment is strong, and they spend time in the art scene, going to the theater, movies, music events, dinners, and socializing with friends.
Adam next moved to the events of July 11, 2011, when he received a telephone call from his father, who sounded like he had never heard him sound before. He told him Max had had a bad accident and was in grave condition. Adam called Rebecca and asked her if he should come out. He did not want to be in the way. Rebecca told him to “follow his heart.”
Adam booked a flight and arrived in San Diego on the afternoon of July 12th. Rebecca picked him up at the airport and they went straight to Rady Children’s Hospital. He testified he didn’t think he saw Max at that time. He saw Jonah and Howard, a doctor friend of Jonah’s who had flown out from Arizona to support him. They all left the hospital to take Howard to the airport, followed by a quick dinner at The Fish Market. The dinner was quiet and somber. They returned to the hospital and then went with Jonah across the street to the Ronald McDonald House, which is freely provided to families with children being treated for serious, often life-threatening conditions. Rebecca and Adam returned to the Spreckels Mansion.
Adam testified that once at the mansion, Rebecca seemed upset. He shared his experience with her of his mother’s cancer and death when he was a child. When asked why he would do this by attorney Greer, he responded he wanted to show he was sensitive to suffering. He said goodnight to Rebecca and retired to the guesthouse around 7:45 p.m. Whenever Adam visited his brother in Coronado, it was his custom to stay in the guesthouse. Rebecca went into the main house and Adam testified he never saw her again that night. He took a shower and as he was still on Memphis time, was tired and went to bed. His tiredness also stemmed from the flight, as he found flying stressful, often suffering panic attacks. According to the plaintiffs, Adam did not go to bed, but instead went over to the main residence where he sexually assaulted Rebecca before taking her life.
What Was the Motive for Rebecca’s Death?
After Rebecca said goodnight to Adam she went into the main residence and sent text messages to her sister Mary about Max’s condition and the hope she still held out. She then took a shower not knowing her life was about to end. During his closing argument to the jury, attorney Greer asked, “Why did Adam Shacknai brutally murder Rebecca Zahau?” He answered by saying, “It’s one of the oldest motives in the book. It’s sex.” He went on to say the sexual component was “significant.”
Attorney Greer then told the jury the following: Rebecca stepped out of the shower, wrapped a towel around herself and was confronted by Adam. It was “a confrontation that went awry” and it “all came to a head that evening at the Spreckels Mansion” he said. Rebecca tried to escape to the guest bedroom down the hall, a room which Rebecca had been using as an art studio. A struggle ensued in which a chair was overturned, and Rebecca ran and opened the doors leading to the balcony. She screamed for help. The deep bruises on her back show she was trying to flee. She was struck by Adam four times on her head, rendering her unconscious. Adam then bound Rebecca’s arms and feet. He took a steak knife and sexually assaulted her, violating her with the handle of the knife. He painted the message SHE SAVED HIM CAN YOU SAVE HER in black paint over the door leading into the room, and still having paint on his hands, pinched Rebecca’s nipples, leaving black paint on them. At some point, Rebecca became conscious and she grabbed the bedpost from behind, leaving her fingerprints. Greer asked, “What is she doing on the floor grabbing the bedpost?” Adam manually strangled Rebecca, before tying a rope to the bedframe, wrapping it around her neck, and lowering her over the balcony railing.
Adam’s attorney, Daniel Webb, vehemently disputed Greer’s accounting, stating it was complete fiction, and that there was no evidence to support Greer’s rendition. Attorney Webb said there was not one speck of evidence that Adam was ever in the house or harmed Rebecca in any way. The scientific forensic evidence revealed no DNA, fingerprints, footprints, or anything else belonging to Adam within the house. Adam had been cleared, “exonerated” by the investigation pounded Webb, which comprised the four entities of the Coronado Police Department, the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Officer and the San Diego Crime Lab. On the witness stand, Attorney Webb asked Adam, “Did you ever do anything, at any time to participate in Rebecca’s death?” Adam answered, “I most certainly did not.”
Adam’s 911 Call & Attorney Greer’s Demonstration Using a Sex Doll
On July 13th, Adam woke early and was fitful in bed. He testified he watched pornography on his phone and masturbated. When asked why he disclosed this intimate information, he explained the police asked him what he did that day, and he wanted to be completely truthful, not leaving anything out, no matter how humiliating it might be. Attorney Greer asked if he was aroused because of what he had done to Rebecca.
Adam finally decided he would get up and walk down to the main street for some coffee. Around 6:45 a.m. he walked out of the guesthouse and he saw “something unspeakable.” He called 911. In a breathless voice he said, “I got a girl, hung herself.” When asked by the 911 operator if Rebecca was still alive, he answered, “I don’t know.” Then heavy grunting and breathing is heard as he cuts Rebecca down and shouts out, “Are you alive?” He laid her on the ground, checked her pulse, and gave her CPR. Greer said Adam only feigned his reaction to seeing Rebecca as he already knew she was dead. As a writer of fiction, he had already written the script contended Greer.
Adam testified he believed he got the knife from the main house, and then stood on a table to cut Rebecca down. In his closing, Attorney Greer said there was no need for the table, as Rebecca hung only 82 inches from the ground, and it was 87 inches to where Adam cut the rope. He could have reached that height on his own. In a graphic demonstration, Greer brought into the courtroom a life-sized mannequin, nude, bound, with long black hair and a face which had been reconstructed to resemble Rebecca. The mannequin was strung up to depict the hanging. Outside the courtroom, it was revealed the mannequin was really a sex doll, costing $8,000 to purchase and alter. Attorney Webb’s strenuous objections for its use were overruled, and he would later state the sex doll was, “so vile and wildly prejudicial that it should never have been allowed to occur.”
The defense showed that after Adam’s 911 call, he fully cooperated with the police. He voluntarily went to the police station and answered all their questions for 90 minutes. He allowed his body to be processed, was photographed with his shirt off, provided hair samples, fingernail scrapings, DNA swabs, fingerprints, and gave them his shoes. He walked out of the police station shoeless pointed out attorney Webb.
The Scream “Help Me! Help Me!”
Marsha Alison, a woman in her 70’s, lived two doors down from the Spreckels Mansion. Subpoenaed to testify at trial, it was determined she was unwell, and her deposition testimony would be used instead. At 11:30 p.m. on July 12, 2011, she heard a woman scream, “Help me! Help me!” It sounded like a woman in her 30’s and it was real loud. Marsha Alison did not call 911 but turned down her television to wait to see if she heard anything further. When she did not hear anything else, she went back to watching her television show.
The next day upon hearing of Rebecca’s death, she spoke to the police and said the screams came from out front. In another interview, she said they came from the Spreckels Mansion. When questioned by the defense, she did not recall telling police what she thought was a woman’s voice, must just have been a bunch of kids clowning around. The defense emphasized no one else heard a scream that night.
Did Jonah’s Late-Night Message Push Rebecca to Suicide?
In determining Rebecca had committed suicide, a key piece of evidence was a late-night telephone call Jonah made to Rebecca revealing devastating information about Max’s condition. Did this telephone call push Rebecca over the edge, causing her to take her own life?
After being dropped off at the Ronald McDonald House by Rebecca and Adam, Jonah eventually returned to the hospital, where he and his ex-wife Dina had a frank discussion with Max’s doctor. Dr. Bradley Peterson did not mince words, in fact he was “inappropriately direct” according to Jonah. He told Jonah and Dina Max’s injury was synonymous with a drowning, and if Max survived, the best-case scenario would be he would probably never walk or talk again.
Jonah and Dina were devastated. Jonah left the hospital, and he testified he was crying as he called Rebecca. She did not answer so he left a message telling her what Dr. Peterson had just revealed. He asked her to call him back. The time was logged at 12:48 a.m. on Rebecca’s cell phone. The message was retrieved two minutes later, at 12:50 a.m. The Zahau family contends Rebecca was dead by then so she never heard this message. Whoever listened to the message, deleted it.
The message was never retrieved by the police, so the actual message was never heard. The lead detective Angela Tsuida testified on July 20th Detective Navarro attempted to download information from Rebecca’s phone, but since her phone was a new model, the software was unable to do so. They sought the message from the telephone company, but it was no longer available. It was left to Jonah to reveal what he said.
According to the defense, this phone call was the final straw that broke an already emotionally fragile Rebecca. Attorney Greer countered that it was only a possibility that Max would never walk or talk again. “Why would Rebecca kill herself when it was only a possibility?” he implored.
Who Tied the Knots that Bound Rebecca?
Rebecca was bound, there was no question about that. But who would know how to tie these knots? Were they nautical knots, requiring a unique knowledge that Adam would possess as a tugboat captain? Or were they simple knots that anyone could tie as the defense offered? The original knots on Rebecca’s wrists were loose enough they were slipped off intact at autopsy. Was this evidence she tied them herself, as a perpetrator would have tied them tightly to foreclose escape? Both sides called their own forensic knot expert.
Attorney Greer called Lindsey Philpott to the stand. Greer than brought out the life-sized mannequin, which was fully draped in a sheet, exposing only the legs. Philpott demonstrated how the knots were tied on Rebecca’s legs, wrapping the ankles in figure eights. He identified the knots as overhand knots and clove hitch knots, and said they were common in nautical uses. He also said the knot around the bedpost was an eye splice knot, which was a nautical application. He testified he believed Rebecca was originally hogtied, with the rope from her ankles connected to the rope at her wrists. He further testified that when people tie knots, they resort to the ones they know.
On cross-examination he acknowledged both the overhand and clove hitch knots were simple and widely used. The overhand knot is the one people use to tie their shoelaces, and the knot is so simple, “children can do it, gorillas can do it, birds can do it, people of all kinds can do it.” When asked if he could tell from the crime scene photos whether Adam had tied the knots, he testified he was not trying to identify the individual.
The defense called Robert Chisnall as their forensic knot expert. He also agreed they were simple knots. The overhand knot, which looks like a pretzel, is the simplest knot you can tie he announced. Moving to the clove hitch knot, he explained the clove hitch consists of two half-hitches, and then said the half-hitch is even simpler than an overhand knot. He concluded the knots were two of the simplest knots, which millions of people could tie. Neither were they unique to nautical or boating. Adam tied a tugboat or barge to a cleat on the dock, finishing it off with a single half-hitch. Rebecca also knew how to tie knots as she and Jonah would go boating in Coronado. She too could tie the boat to a cleat and tie it off with a half-hitch. Attorney Greer brought out on cross-examination that Jonah testified at his deposition he never saw Rebecca tie anything other than her shoelaces.
Robert Chisnall also addressed self-tying, and concluded Rebecca had self-tied the knots. He explained people self-tie for two reasons, they want to ensure they can’t back out and they want to make it look like a homicide (to implicate another, ensure their loved ones can still collect insurance, or save family honor). He concluded the knots here were self-tied as they had loose bindings, a gap between the wrist, a slipknot was used, the knots were accessible to her fingers (Rebecca had a rope in her hand), and long rope ends were present. He pointed to the videotape law enforcement had made of an agent binding her wrists, slipping her hand out, putting the rope behind her back, and then slipping her hand back in to demonstrate that Rebecca could have tied herself.
Who Wrote the Cryptic Message on the Door?
The message SHE SAVED HIM CAN YOU SAVE HER was found in black paint on the door leading into the guestroom. Who wrote this and what did it mean? Each side again called their own experts, this time forensic document examiners. The meaning however could only be guessed at, remaining a mystery in the case.
Michael Wakshull, the plaintiff’s expert said he first looks for unique attributes in an individual’s writing, and then looks to see if those unique attributes exist in the writing in question. He then does comparisons. He testified he received samples of Rebecca’s printed words, and Adam’s writing from his signature on legal documents. He selected the unique attributes from the letters “A” and “M”. The unique attribute in the letter “A” had a tent of intersection at the top and it leaned to the left. He noted Rebecca’s writing leaned to the right, whereas Adam’s leaned to the left. He found the M’s had a long last leg, which appeared in Adam’s writing. He stated Adam’s writing comports, and Rebecca’s did not, but acknowledged he would need more of Adam’s writing to compare.
On cross-examination he agreed that if he hadn’t been told Adam was there (meaning in the house), he would need more evidence. The hook on the left side of the “M” appeared on all of Adam’s samples, but the distinct hook was not present in the message, which is a “big distinguishing factor” the defense brought out. When questioned about his report “there’s indication that Adam painted it,” attorney David Elsberg brought out the word “indication” according to scientific usage means evidence is far from conclusive and that is a “very weak opinion.”
David Oleksow, the defense’s forensic document examiner testified it is impossible to determine if Rebecca or Adam wrote the note as painted letters cannot be compared to natural writing with a pen and paper. Painting requires broad brush strokes, requiring different muscles and involve the shoulder, and the way one holds a paint brush is not the same as holding a pen. An examination simply cannot be done between the two he concluded.
As to the meaning of the message, attorney Greer said everyone in the family believed Rebecca saved Max. He argued Rebecca would not have written this message as she was an artist and comfortable with brushes. Further, the message height was too high for Rebecca and more suited to Adam’s height. He also indicated the message would be something Adam would make-up as a fictional writer. Detective Tsuida testified the interpretation her team came up with was Rebecca saved Max. and “CAN YOU SAVE HER” meant could God save Rebecca for what she was about to do. Greer then asked if Rebecca ever wrote in third person. The detective answered she would have to look at her writings.
The DNA Evidence
Greer emphasized to the jury that what DNA expert Suzanne Ryan found significant in the case was the DNA that was not found, and that all the things that could be wiped down, did not have any DNA on them. Greer submitted there was a wipe down or Adam did not shed DNA.
When Adam found Rebecca, he testified he ran into the kitchen and grabbed a kitchen knife to cut her down. Attorney Greer said the kitchen knife should have had Adam’s DNA on it, yet no DNA was found on the knife at all. Neither was Adam’s DNA on the rope where he cut her down, on Rebecca after he handled her body, removed the gag from her mouth, and performed CPR on her, including doing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. How could that be? Attorney Greer said the DNA expert Suzanne Ryan and criminalist Shelly Webster both agreed some people are not shedders. Was DNA absent because Adam was a non-shedder? Or was it because he took a shower immediately before touching Rebecca, or because the knife and Rebecca’s body were left outside all day causing the DNA to deteriorate or disappear? The defense countered that Suzanne Ryan and Shelly Webster both said everyone sheds DNA.
Attorney Greer went on to address all the other items found which did not have DNA on them. The paint brush that was used to write the message did not have DNA on it. It was a porous surface, good for collecting fingerprints and DNA Greer emphasized. The paint tube also had no DNA, although someone had to have squeezed it to get the paint out. Greer said places that should have had fingerprints on them, did not have fingerprints, such as on the door knob leading into the room and door jams. The rope only had Rebecca’s DNA on it, but Greer stated this could have been accomplished through transfer when the rope was stored.
The defense said there was a huge volume of DNA evidence in the case, and Rebecca’s DNA was found on every significant piece of evidence. Adam’s was found on none they emphasized over and over. The lead detective, Angela Tsuida, testified that all the DNA came back to Rebecca. There was no DNA found on Adam from the rope, doors, knife, railing, blue shirt, or anywhere else. Detective Tsuida said they always consider a wipe-down but did not find one here. She testified one cannot wipe off a surface and just leave one person’s DNA behind.
Rebecca’s Fingerprints On the Carving Knife & Other Unusual Locations
A carving knife was found discarded on the floor of the guestroom. Rebecca’s handprints were found on the knife, with the blade facing towards Rebecca, which did not make sense said Greer. The right thumb print was on the wrong side of the knife for correct cutting. However, the handprints line up when the hands are placed behind the back and the hand touches the knife.
Attorney Greer questioned why Rebecca’s fingerprints were found in unusual locations. Rebecca’s fingerprints were found on the door jam leading out to the balcony. They were down low, not at a normal walking height, indicating Rebecca was on the ground. Rebecca’s fingerprints were also found on the bedpost. Greer said she grabbed the bedpost from behind while lying on the floor.
The Blood On the Steak Knife: Was Rebecca Sexually Assaulted?
A steak knife was found in the guestroom which had blood on all sides of the handle, up to the second ribette. Rebecca was menstruating at the time of her death. Greer said the only source of blood was from Rebecca’s menstruation, and so the blood on the knife came from it being inserted into Rebecca. The defense contended there was another source of blood, from an abrasion on the third finger of Rebecca’s right hand, which could have oozed blood. The plaintiff contended it was a rope burn and was not oozing blood.
The defense stated Rebecca was never sexually assaulted. A rape kit had been performed on Rebecca, which was negative for semen, and the autopsy found no visible trauma to the vagina. Further Shelly Webster, the criminalist and DNA specialist from the Sheriff’s Crime Lab testified the vagina is rich in epithelial cells, which have a lot of DNA. If the knife had been inserted into Rebecca, she would have expected to see 500-1,000 nanograms of DNA. She found only 35 nanograms.
The Balcony: No Signs of a Struggle
The balcony floor was dusty, and Rebecca’s bare footprints were found right outside the doorframe, in a “V” pattern. Close to the balcony railing were toe prints. Other than a boot print which was matched back to officer Marc Langlais, no other foot or shoe prints were found on the balcony. Detective Tsuida testified they looked very carefully for signs of a struggle but found none. If there was a struggle, the dust would have been more disturbed she concluded. Lack of signs of a struggle or other footprints led to the conclusion Rebecca went over the balcony on her own.
The Autopsies – Was Rebecca Strangled?
Dr. Jonathan Lucas of the San Diego Medical Examiner’s Officer performed an autopsy on Rebecca on July 14, 2011, the day immediately following her death. He found the cause of death to be asphyxiation from hanging and ruled the manner of death a suicide. Although Dr. Lucas was listed by the defense as a witness for the trial and the defense informed the court he would be testifying, for reasons never disclosed in open court, he was never called. The defense instead called Dr. Gregory Davis, a forensic pathologist from Kentucky. He agreed with Dr. Lucas’ findings.
Dr. Lucas found Rebecca sustained neck fractures to her left hyoid bone, left thyroid bone, and the cricoid cartilage. Were these fractures caused from the length of the drop or were they from a manual strangulation, such that Rebecca was dead before being thrown over the balcony? Dr. Lucas found they were consistent with a drop hanging, and Dr. Davis agreed with this conclusion. Dr. Davis further testified with a manual strangulation, one would expect to see bruising and fingerprint marks. None were found on Rebecca’s neck.
The plaintiff’s forensic pathologist was none other than the famed Dr. Cyril Wecht, known for his consultation on other high-profile cases. Dr. Wecht performed a second autopsy on Rebecca on October 28, 2011, three and a half months after her death. Her body was exhumed and shipped to his facility in Pittsburgh. He found the cause of death to be asphyxiation due to hanging, and the manner of death “undetermined.” Revealing his findings on the Dr. Phil show, Dr. Wecht said there was a rush to judgment in the case and this “bizarre situation” demanded further investigation. He further stated, “So while I am not prepared to unequivocally, with absolute scientific certainty, say that it was a homicide, and that it was not a suicide, I lean very strongly towards it being a homicide, something involving foul play.”
Once retained by the plaintiffs for the wrongful death suit, Dr. Wecht did further investigation and came to a more definitive conclusion, or as the defense contended, a completely different conclusion. At trial, Dr. Wecht testified, “In my opinion Rebecca Zahau’s death was a homicide. She was manually strangled, and it was set up to look like a suicidal hanging.” He found the fractures to her neck were more consistent with strangulation and questioned why her neck was not broken from the nine-foot fall. In attorney Greer’s closing to the jury, he said the drop hanging would have decapitated Rebecca, but since there was no fracture to her vertebra, it was consistent with someone slowly lowering her down. The bed only moved seven and a half inches. If she was falling, the bed would have moved significantly more.
In cross-examination the defense made a big deal about Dr. Wecht filming for a television show, and maintained he changed his opinion only after being hired by the plaintiff.
The Injuries to Rebecca’s Head: Were They From Blows or Was There Another Explanation?
Dr. Lucas found four small subgaleal hemorrhages on the right side of Rebecca’s head. Subgaleal hemorrhages are blood that seeps out of a blood vessel and gets into the soft tissue. If Rebecca had lived, they would take a couple of days to heal according to Dr. Davis. Were they caused from a blow to the head or was there another explanation? Dr. Davis testified they often develop during the autopsy procedure itself, when the doctor must take the scalp and peel it back from the skull, or they could have been caused by hitting something during the hanging, such as the grate on the balcony fence. Dr. Wecht though found the subgaleal hemorrhages were acute hemorrhages and not postmortem.
The defense argued Rebecca was never hit with a blunt object, causing her to fall into unconsciousness. Dr. Davis testified for a blow to cause unconsciousness, there would be greater amount of damage to the scalp and extravasated blood in the scalp.
Clinical Psychologist Testifies Rebecca Was at Risk for Suicide
Attorney Webb called Dr. Alan Berman, a clinical psychologist, suicide specialist, and longtime executive director of the American Association of Suicidology as his final witness before resting the case. Dr. Berman found a long list of risk factors in Rebecca’s life which would make her more susceptible to suicide and rendered his scientific opinion she did commit suicide. On cross-examination, attorney Greer brought out Dr. Berman was paid exceptionally well for his work on the case. Dr. Berman said his hourly rate was currently $540 per hour, but he charged a lesser fee of $525 for this case. When asked how many hours he had billed, he said he didn’t recall. Greer asked him if he had put in 100 hours, he would have been paid over $50,000. Dr. Berman said he was paid for the four days he came to San Diego, with Greer estimating that would be $15,000 alone.
Dr. Berman pointed to the following events in Rebecca’s life which would put her at risk for suicide:
Childhood Sexual Abuse: When Rebecca was a child, she and other students were molested by her school principal. Dr. Berman said molestation produces a sense of shame, leaving the victim feeling as if it is their fault. It further produces low self-esteem, distrust of others and difficulty in establishing relationships. Attorney Greer reminded the jury of witnesses who testified the “inappropriate touching” happened only one time, it did not affect Rebecca, and they laughed about it now.
Physical and Emotional Abuse from Rebecca’s Husband: Rebecca was married to Neil Nalepa from 2002-2011. Rebecca had revealed he physical shoved her around, screamed at her, and one time tried to strangle her. Dr. Berman said this type of abuse would cause one to have low self-esteem and produces a feeling of no self-worth. Dr. Berman said it can also cause one to have difficulty with trust and in establishing relationships, produces anxiety, and a feeling of helplessness. Under oath in a deposition, Neil denied ever harming Rebecca. Dr. Berman noted Rebecca and Neil moved constantly. They had met in bible college in Austria, then moved back to Germany, then to New York. Moves to California, Oregon, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Arizona followed.
Rebecca’s Affairs While Married: Dr. Berman addressed three affairs Rebecca had while married. He called this behavior poor problem-solving and acting out. Attorney Greer said in his closing argument, Rebecca and Neil did have a volatile relationship, that Rebecca would leave and pursue other relationships. Attorney Greer did not characterize those as “affairs.” Dr. Berman disagreed, stating she did not leave the marriage, instead she chose to have affairs.
The Kidnapping Story: Dr. Berman said Rebecca made up an “incredible story” that she was kidnapped. In October 2004, Rebecca and Neil were living in Temecula, California. Rebecca met Michael Burger, who lived in Glendale. Rebecca began a relationship with him, and eventually moved in with him in 2005. She told him she was going through a divorce. Michael Burger’s deposition was played at trial and he said, during the last week of May of 2005, Rebecca went to work and never came home. He filed a missing person’s report. She called him and told him she had been kidnapped, and Michael came to believe Neil had kidnapped her. Rebecca had instead gone to Oregon to be with Neil. (Neil had moved to Oregon when he found out about Rebecca and Michael’s relationship). Dr. Berman said Rebecca did not want to be with Berger, so she made up this story, showing she had poor problem-solving skills and was impulsive.
Shoplifting: When Rebecca was 30-years-old, she was arrested for shoplifting. She said she was on the telephone when she learned bad news about her brother, and forgot she was holding jewelry. She ran out of the store with the merchandise and was arrested. Dr. Berman said this was an example of how Rebecca acted under extreme stress. Again, it showed poor problem-solving and impulsiveness. Attorney Greer said Rebecca was never charged and she took responsibility by taking a shoplifting class.
Fear of Losing Primary Source of Support & Emotional Support: In April of 2010, Rebecca moved in with Jonah. She quit her job, and Jonah fully supported her. She was in love with him, but she was in great emotional pain because of problems in the relationship. She was even thinking about leaving him. Dr. Berman addressed the diary Rebecca wrote on her cell phone, where she wrote openly about her anguish. She wrote about dreams that would not come true (having her own child) as long as she was with him, and how she loved him more than he loved her. She wrote, “No amount of money is worth what I am going through.” Attorney Greer pointed out Rebecca was always able to find a job, and she always had her family to turn to. “She always had a home,” said Greer.
Social Isolation: Dr. Berman continued to read from Rebecca’s diary, in which she wrote “I have this incredible emptiness” and “I have no one to talk to.” She further wrote, “I have allowed myself to be completely cut off from my life. My life does not exist.” Greer brought out she was close to her sister, Mary and other family members.
Insomnia & Crying Episodes: Rebecca wrote about how she was unable to sleep for the first time in her entire life, and when she laid down to sleep, her mind would race. She wrote she would find herself crying and not even know why. “If I am not thinking, I am crying.” Dr. Berman said these were acute risk factors, showing Rebecca was depressed and had anxiety.
Max’s Accident: Dr. Berman addressed Max’s accident, stating that Rebecca’s primary responsibility was to watch over Max. Dr. Berman testified the accident would fill Rebecca with guilt, failure, and shame. It would further be a threat to her relationship with Jonah, as Jonah’s reaction would be out of her control. Dr. Berman said Rebecca was traumatized by Max’s accident, and then on the way to the hospital she was told by Jonah not to come. Her emotional distress would be “very profound” said Dr. Berman as she was being told she can’t be a part of the family during this time of crisis. Rebecca did go to the Coronado hospital, but Jonah testified he told her it would be better for her not to come to Rady Children’s Hospital. Jonah wanted to eliminate any potential confrontations with his ex-wife. Jonah testified Dina was resentful of Rebecca because of her relationship with Jonah and her closeness to Max.
Attorney Greer brought out Karen Hancock’s testimony about Rebecca’s emotional state. Karen Hancock worked as a therapist and was on the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT). She assists law enforcement by going to 51/50 calls (mental health calls) and 1125 calls (suicidal calls). She goes to the scene and does a mental health assessment. On the day of Max’s accident, she was riding with patrol, although not working in an official capacity. She arrived at the Spreckels Mansion and took Rebecca to the hospital, waited with her, took her back home, and talked with her. Karen Hancock found Rebecca to be shaking, tearful, and anxious, however she subsequently wrote a report that Rebecca gave no indication of feeling guilty, of depression, and of being responsible. She found Rebecca would not be a danger to herself or others. On cross-examination, she agreed she did not do a full psychological history, nor did she speak with Rebecca again after July 11th. She also testified she heard Rebecca say to her sister, “Dina is going to kill me.”
Jonah’s Voicemail Message: Dr. Berman said the voicemail message from Jonah was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and it was the “precipitating event” to Rebecca taking her own life. Dr. Berman said when Rebecca heard the message, it was like being told, “You indeed are responsible,” and it would cause Rebecca to think the relationship with Jonah would not survive. The best-case scenario was Max would not walk or talk again, and the worst case would be Max would die.
Attorney Greer raised the fact there were protective factors which would keep Rebecca from committing suicide. Religion was key. Although Rebecca had left organized religion, she still had her faith, and prayed every night. “Every night, I ask God to whisper words of guidance” read attorney Greer from Rebecca’s phone diary. Rebecca also had parental responsibilities, as she was giving money to her mother and younger siblings, whom she loved and was proud of. She would not disrespect her family by stripping herself naked, binding herself, and hanging herself.
Attorney Webb: Walk in Adam’s Shoes
Attorney Webb said his client was charged with the most serious, despicable act imaginable. Adam had gone through four and half years of “utter hell.” To be called a stone-cold killer, a sexual pervert. One should walk in his shoes to understand the pain and suffering he has gone through. There were 29 witnesses at trial and no single person gave evidence Adam was in the house doing these horrible acts to Rebecca argued Webb. There were no DNA, fingerprint evidence or any other scientific evidence to prove Adam did anything to Rebecca. Webb concluded, “there was a total and complete failure of proof.”
Attorney Greer’s Tearful Closing
As the end of his closing argument drew near, attorney Greer was overcome with emotion and was so choked up he was unable to continue. Appearing about to break down, he finally recovered and explained Mary had asked him, “What would Rebecca’s last words be?” After a vigorous objection was sustained, Greer continued on, “Forgive him, please help my mother, and hold Adam responsible for what he did.”
The Jury’s Verdict:
On April 4, 2018, after deliberating for two and a half hours on Monday, and one hour on Tuesday, the jury announced they had reached a verdict. They found Adam had battered Rebecca before her death with the intent to harm her and found him liable for her wrongful death with a vote of 9-to-3. They awarded 5 million dollars in damages for the loss of Rebecca’s love and companionship, and $167,000 for the financial support she would have given to her mother and younger siblings. As the verdict was being read, Mary broke into tears and attorney Greer hugged her tightly, in tears as well. Adam Shacknai hung his head as the verdicts were being read, and the defense attorneys appeared to sag in shock. The following day, attorney Greer announced he would not pursue a punitive damage award.
None of the jury wished to speak with any media or the attorneys and were escorted by the bailiff out the back of the courthouse.
Attorney Greer Called Upon the Sheriff to Re-Open the Investigation
Attorney Greer told the media he and the Zahau family knew that Rebecca did not commit suicide. He again stated, as he had from the beginning of the case, that the lawsuit was never about money. It was to get the information out to the public and have the Sheriff’s Department re-open the case. Through tears, Rebecca’s sister, Mary, told the media she was in shock and thanked the jury for getting justice for Rebecca. She said their family can’t get Rebecca back, but “hopefully people will know she didn’t commit suicide and she was murdered. And she doesn’t deserve to be treated the way the Sheriff’s Department treated her.” She also called upon Sheriff Gore to be “honest and truthful and re-open the case and investigate it as a murder.”
Following the verdict, the Sheriff’s Department issued a statement they were standing by their investigation. Later, Sheriff Gore stated he would listen to any new evidence the Zahau family may have. Sheriff’s Commander Dave Myers, who is running for election, said he would “absolutely” re-open the investigation if he is elected.
Attorney Webb Denounces “Outrageous” Verdict and Vows Aggressive Appeal.
Attorney Webb told the media, “We are disappointed and absolutely astounded that a verdict could be rendered without a single speck of evidence that in any way showed that Adam Shacknai had absolutely anything to do with the death of Rebecca Zahau. In my 40 years as a trial lawyer trying cases across America, I have never seen such a catastrophic manipulation of the court and judicial processes as I saw in this case.” He vowed an aggressive appeal.
Attorney Webb also released a long press release, calling the jury’s verdict “outrageous” and stating, “we are confident that this preposterous verdict will be reversed on appeal.” He concluded with, “The fatal fall of Max Shacknai and suicide of Rebecca Zahau in 2011 were hideous losses that changed both families’ lives forever. It is clear the Zahau family desperately wanted to place blame after such an inexplicable tragedy. But falsely accusing an innocent man of murder, without a shred of credible evidence, did nothing to advance the pursuit of justice, nor to honor the memory of Max and Rebecca. Instead, the fabricated allegations against Adam, and the emotional jury response they provoked, only add another appalling human tragedy to this already horrible situation.”
The Sheriff’s Department Finally Agrees to Re-Evaluate the Death Investigation
Was it public pressure, the upcoming election, or a private meeting with attorney Greer that pushed Sheriff Gore to change his stance on re-opening the Zahau investigation? Whatever the reason may be, on April 16, 2018, Sheriff Gore announced he would now assign a new task team to re-evaluate the evidence and the death investigation of Rebecca Zahau. His statement in part said, “While no new evidence was presented, new analysis of existing evidence was presented in the recently concluded civil trial. When our investigation is complete, we will meet with the family’s attorney to discuss our findings. Ultimately, the cause and manner of death, in any case, is determined by the Medical Examiner.” Only time will tell where this case will turn next, but Rebecca’s family will continue to fight for her and to keep her loving spirit alive within them.