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Woman's hanging death was murder, not suicide, family's suit says

July 14, 2013|By Tony Perry
  • A 2008 photo of Rebecca Zahau, whose bound body was found hanging in 2011 from a second-story balcony of a Coronado mansion owned by her boyfriend.
A 2008 photo of Rebecca Zahau, whose bound body was found hanging in 2011… (Horizon Eye Specialists…)

SAN DIEGO -- The death of a woman found hanged at her boyfriend's Coronado mansion was not a suicide, as the medical examiner ruled, but rather a murder, according to a lawsuit filed by her family seeking more than $10 million in damages.

The lawsuit, filed by the mother and sister of Rebecca Zahau, accuses three people of "threatening to stalk, attack, choke, gag, bound and hang her on the premises."

The three "did thereafter brutally, and with malice aforethought, stalk, attack, choke, bound and hang Rebecca at the premises," according to the lawsuit.

Zahau's nude body was found hanging by the neck in the courtyard of pharmaceutical executive Jonah Shacknai's mansion on July 13, 2011.

Zahau, 32, had been living at the mansion with Shacknai and his 6-year-old son Max. Her body was discovered just hours after she learned that Max was not going to survive injuries suffered in a fall two days earlier, according to evidence later disclosed by the county medical examiner. Zahau had been caring for the boy when he fell down the home's grand staircase.

The lawsuit filed Friday in San Diego County federal court accuses Jonah Shacknai's brother, his ex-wife, and his former sister-in-law of murdering Zahau after Max Shacknai was injured.

Jonah Shacknai, who was at his son's bedside when Zahau's body was found, is not named in the suit.

Jonah Shacknai's brother, Adam, was living in a guest house at the mansion when Zahau's body -- bound at the feet and hands - was discovered. Jonah Shacknai's ex-wife, Dina, and her sister, Nina Romano, were living nearby. Dina was Max's mother.

Attempts made Saturday and Sunday to obtain a response to the lawsuit from the defendants were not successful.

The lawsuit runs counter to findings by the medical examiner, Coronado police and the San Diego County Sheriff's Department.

Sheriff Bill Gore told reporters in September 2011 that the circumstances of Zahau's death, though unusual, were not unprecedented for a suicide and that there was no evidence of foul play.

Only her fingerprints and DNA were found on the rope used in the hanging as well as on a knife used to cut the rope into pieces, Gore and other authorities said during a heavily attended news conference.

Investigators conducted an experiment with a woman of similar size to see if she could tie herself up in the same way with the same knots, and they concluded that she could, authorities said.

"Science does not lie," Gore said.

Zahau had taken some black paint and painted a message on the door to a guest room where she had been staying, authorities said, declining to reveal what the message was. Toxicology tests revealed that there was nothing in her system that would have impaired her judgment, they said.

Investigators said they spoke to someone who knew Zahau who said she had been upset for months, losing weight and not exercising.

Authorities also said they found notes in Zahau's personal journal indicating emotional distress, Gore said, describing the evidence as "compelling" and pointing "persuasively" to suicide.

Zahau was despondent over a sense of responsibility for the injury suffered by Max Shacknai, authorities said. After a week in the hospital, he died on July 17 from his injuries. His death was ultimately ruled an accident.

Zahau's family never accepted the ruling by the medical examiner that her death was suicide. The lawsuit suggests that other people may be added as defendants.

The mansion, once owned by sugar tycoon and San Diego philanthropist John Spreckels, has since been sold.

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tony.perry@latimes.com

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