SAN DIEGO (NEWS 8) - Sheriff Bill Gore Friday announced that his department stands by its decision that the death of a woman whose bound and nude body was found hanging from a balcony at a historic Coronado mansion seven years ago was a suicide, despite a civil jury's ruling that she was murdered.
A civil jury last spring found that 32-year-old Rebecca Zahau had been sexually assaulted and killed by her boyfriend's younger brother. Two weeks after that decision, which included a multimillion-dollar damages award to Zahau's mother, the sheriff's department reopened its investigation in the case "in the spirit of transparency and open-mindedness."
Zahau was found dead July 13, 2011, two days after the 6-year-old son of her boyfriend, pharmaceuticals tycoon Jonah Shacknai, fell from a second-story landing at the century-old Spreckels manor while under her care. Max Shacknai died five days later.
Following a seven-week investigation into Zahau's death conducted by the Sheriff's Department, the Coronado Police Department and the California Department of Justice, officials ruled that Zahau had killed herself in an unusual but not unheard-of manner -- by tying a rope around a bed, wrapping the other end of it around her own neck and extremities, and jumping off a second- floor balcony.
Her mother and older sister rejected that conclusion out of hand and filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in 2013 against Shacknai's brother, Adam, claiming that he angrily confronted Zahau the day after his nephew died, then assaulted and killed her.
Eight months ago, jurors awarded more than $5 million in damages to the Zahau's mother, determining that Adam Shacknai was liable for her death.
The attorney for the plaintiffs, Keith Greer, alleged that the defendant delivered four blows to Zahau's head, rendering her partially or fully unconscious. Greer also claimed that Adam Shacknai sexually assaulted Zahau, tied her hands and feet, put a noose around her neck and threw her body off the balcony.
Greer said a cryptic phrase scrawled on a bedroom door in black paint - - "She saved him, can he save her" -- had been put there by Adam Shacknai.
After less than a day of deliberations, jurors found that the 54-year old defendant touched and battered Zahau before her death with the intent of harming her.
"We know that Rebecca did not commit suicide," Greer said outside court following the verdict. "We knew right away."
Adam Shacknai, who had traveled to San Diego from his home in Memphis to be with his brother after Max's accident. insisted that he had nothing to do with Zahau's death. At trial, he described emerging from the guest house in which he was staying and finding, to his shock, Zahau's naked body hanging from the second-floor landing.
He told the civil jury he called 911, cut Zahau down and tried to give her CPR, then called his brother to break the news that Zahau was dead.
Jonah Shacknai testified during the six-week trial that it was "inconceivable" that his younger brother had been involved in Zahau's death in any way.