Reexamining the Rebecca Zahau case a decade after her death

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CORONADO (KUSI) – The death of Rebecca Zahau caught nationwide attention. In 2011, it was in the top 10 most covered news stories of the year. Now 10 years later, the spotlight is back on this story some call a murder mystery while officials have determined it was a suicide. We’re taking a look at the evidence in the case to allow the public to decide if officials need to be held accountable or if the family needs to accept the sheriff’s findings.

July 13, 2011: The body of Rebecca Zahau was found hanging from a balcony in the Spreckels mansion located in Coronado. Her feet were bound and her wrists were bound behind her back with a water ski rope. The 32 year old had her T-shirt stuffed into her mouth and tied behind her back. She was naked — with black paint on her breasts. The palms of her hands and fingers were clean and her feet were covered in dirt.

Adam Shacknai — the brother of her boyfriend — was staying in the guest house of the mansion and found Rebecca hanging. Adam said he cut the body down by standing on a three-legged table. According to his statement to investigators, he said he removed the gag and tried to perform CPR. Coronado police arrived on scene and then called in the sheriff’s office due to the suspicious nature of the her death.

The medical examiner arrived on scene 12 hours after the body was discovered. The original classification of her death was unknown and a possible homicide.

By September, the San Diego Sheriff’s Department ruled Rebecca’s death a suicide. Investigators said there was no other identifiable DNA found at the scene, other than what belonged to Rebecca and the samples actually tested.

Rebecca’s family did not agree with the sheriff’s findings and ended up having her body exhumed for reexamination. Based on the findings by their investigators, the family filed a wrongful death civil lawsuit against Adam Shacknai.

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The family of Rebecca Zahau had her body exhumed in 2011. They hired Dr. Cyril Wecht, a forensic pathologist who worked on cases including J.F.K. and JonBenét Ramsey. Dr. Wecht performed another examination of the body and concluded her death was the result of homicide. This led to a wrongful death suit naming her boyfriend’s brother, Adam Shacknai, as the person responsible for her death.

During the trial, Dr. Wecht said the cause of death was trauma at the base of Rebecca’s neck, which he said is consistent with manual strangulation. He added he believed she was strangled, then hung to look like a suicide.

The jury also heard from a neighbor who, in a videotaped deposition, testified she heard Rebecca scream for help the night she died. Marsha Alison lived one door down from the Spreckels mansion and said that at 11:40 p.m. she heard a 20 or 30-something-year-old woman scream and say, “Help me help me!”

After more than six weeks, the jury ruled in favor of the family, awarding nearly 5.2 million dollars in damages. Shacknai appealed the verdict. However, before San Diego Superior Court Judge Katherine Bacal could rule on the appeal, Rebecca’s family agreed to a settlement. The judge dismissed the case but said on the record that there was sufficient evidence to find Shacknai responsible for Rebecca’s death.

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