article

09.07.11

Bizarre Mansion Death a Suicide?

A cryptic message, mysterious bruises, fabric in the victim’s mouth—strange details in a newly released autopsy report are raising questions about the police ruling on Rebecca Zahau’s death at the Spreckels Mansion, Christine Pelisek reports.

Just days after San Diego police concluded that billionaire pharmaceutical executive Jonah Shacknai’s girlfriend committed suicide by hanging herself from his balcony, a renowned pathologist is questioning their findings after an autopsy report has surfaced with explosive new details.

“The whole thing is bizarre,” said Cyril Wecht, who has consulted on high-profile cases including the murder of JonBenet Ramsey and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. “You have got to raise questions. You do that by leaving it undetermined and continue with your investigation. That’s how it works everywhere in America…I want to make it clear I am not saying it is a homicide. I am saying the decision to call it a suicide is premature.”

Rebecca Zahau, 32, was found hanging nude, her hands and feet bound, from a second-story balcony at the 103-year-old Spreckels mansion on July 13. Zahau’s death came two days after Shacknai’s 6-year-old son Max toppled over a staircase railing while in her care and plunged 9 feet, sustaining fatal injuries.

According to a newly released autopsy report, investigators found four separate injuries to the top of her head, a piece of shirt stuffed in her mouth, and remnants of sticky tape around her ankles. A message apparently written by Zahau was found on the door of a guest room bedroom in black paint: “She Saved Him Can You Save Her.”

The new details were released in an autopsy report on Sept. 2, just a few hours after the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department held a press conference concluding that Zahau committed suicide because she felt responsible for Max’s fatal accident two days before. None of the details were mentioned at the press conference.

“In a multiple-page autopsy report, you can’t discuss everything,” said San Diego County Sheriff’s Department Lt. Larry Nesbit. “It doesn’t change anything. Nothing is new out of this. When you apply science to it there is only one conclusion you can come to. There are still questions we would like to have answered, but it doesn’t change the evidence.”

Zahau’s sister, Mary Zahau-Loehner, is disputing the police findings and has said she does not believe her sister committed suicide. She has retained a Seattle lawyer who hired Wecht to look into Zahau’s death.

After studying the autopsy report, Wecht said Zahau had suspicious bruising on the top of her head, which caused bleeding underneath her scalp. The injury looked similar to blunt force trauma, he said.

“Something strikes the head or the head strikes something,” he said. “You have to have the head struck four times. Going with their scenario, with her hanging from a vertical fashion, how does that produce bruises on the top of her head?”

Wecht said the bruises could have rendered her unconscious.

But deputy medical examiner Jonathan Lucas, who performed the autopsy, said the bruises were relatively minor. “Because there was evidence that she went over the balcony in a nonvertical position, she may have struck her head on the balcony on the way down,” he said.

According to the police, Zahau bound her own hands and feet with a thick red rope and hanged herself off the second-floor balcony of a guest bedroom. She appeared to have secured one section of the rope to the footboard of the bed before she bound her feet, wrapped the rope around her neck, tied her hands behind her back, walked to the balcony, and propelled herself over the railing.

Police said she decided to commit suicide after she learned from a voicemail message that Max’s condition had deteriorated and that he would most likely die. She killed herself a few hours later, they said.

Investigators also said they found her fingerprints on a knife that was used to cut the rope in the guest bedroom and on the balcony door, her DNA evidence on the rope and leg of the bed, and her toe impressions on the balcony floor, which looked like her feet were bound before she tumbled over the balcony. Toxicology testing found no drugs or alcohol in her system. Police said no other fingerprints or DNA were present in the room.

Nesbit acknowledged that the message discovered on the guest bedroom wall was odd.

“You can speculate endlessly about the note on the door,” he said. “It is somewhat cryptic. It is not clear-cut—I will say that. You are trying to attribute rational thought to an irrational act. It could mean any one of several things.”

Wecht also questioned why, according to the autopsy report, gray adhesive tape marks were found on Zahau’s legs.

“Where is the tape and where is the tape marks from?” asked Wecht. “There wasn’t a sign of a wound [from a Band-Aid].”

“Why did she stuff the T-shirt in her mouth?” asked Wecht. “Did she think she would scream?”

Lucas said the sticky material was found on Zahau’s mid-left shin and right lower leg and that the significance of the tape was unclear. However, he said, “Their position and size would have been unusual for evidence of leg binding.”

Zahau’s body was found by Shacknai’s 48-year-old brother, Adam, around 6:45 a.m. on July 13. He told police he ran to the kitchen, grabbed a knife, climbed onto a table, and cut her down. According to the autopsy report, Adam Shacknai “removed a blue cloth which had been in her mouth in an effort to perform CPR.”

According to Lucas, the blue cloth was a piece of fabric, possibly a shirt, which was found around Zahau’s neck outside the ligature.

“Why did she stuff the T-shirt in her mouth?” asked Wecht. “Did she think she would scream? All of these questions go to the point I am making: what was the rush to judgment? I want to know what went on the 48 hours in the house after the boy suffered the tragic accident.”

Lucas said it was not clear why the fabric was in Zahau’s mouth but added, “People can place material in their mouth prior to hanging.”

For nearly two months, police have been trying to determine whether Zahau, a Burmese immigrant who began dating the pharmaceutical mogul about two years ago, committed suicide or was a victim of foul play. Questions were raised early on about whether Jonah Shacknai, who made his fortune producing acne treatments and Dysport, a competitor of Botox, had anything to do with his girlfriend’s death. Investigators told reporters that Shacknai and his ex-wife Dina Romano, Max’s mother, were at Max’s bedside when Zahau fell from the balcony.

To clarify its findings, the sheriff’s department presented a reenactment videotape showing it was possible that Zahau could have committed suicide and bound her own hands and feet. The videotape showed a woman who appeared to be the same size as Zahau wrapping her wrists with rope, then tying the rope into a knot and placing the rope behind her back.

“As in any comprehensive investigation, some findings cannot be entirely explained,” said Lucas. None of the new revelations in the autopsy report are “inconsistent with the conclusions reached regarding the cause and manner of death of Rebecca Zahau,” he added.