On July 13, 2011, the body of Rebecca Zahau was found hanging from the balcony of her boyfriend Jonah Shacknai’s beach house in Coronado, California. Her body was discovered by Jonah’s brother Adam Shacknai with her arms and legs were bound with a gag in her mouth. Although her death was initially ruled as a suicide, her family refused to accept the coroner’s report and fought back to prove that Rebecca’s murder was carried out by Adam Shacknai. Decide for yourself in the case that shocked the small town of Coronado Island. Here are the events that led up to Rebecca’s death and the battle that followed.
An accident that occurred two days before her death led investigators to believe it was a suicide.
Rebecca Zahau Lived in Several Places Before Moving to Coronado
Rebecca Zahau was born in Falam, Chin State, located in the Chin Hills of Northwestern Burma. Although she was of Chin ethnicity, she was raised by her father Khua Hnin Thang and mother Zung Tin Par as a Protestant.
As a young girl, she moved to Nepal, Germany, and eventually, the United States. Her parents had moved to St. Joseph Missouri with some of her other family. In her youth, she ran into problems with the law for stealing in Nepal as well as in Phoenix, Arizona. She pleaded guilty and moved to Scottdale, Arizona.
Involvement With Jonah Shacknai
Then, in 2002, after moving to Scottsdale, she met and married a 36-year old nursing student named Neil Nalepa. The two ended up divorcing in 2011.
However, Rebecca had begun seeing another man named Jonah Shacknai. He is the CEO of Medicis Pharmaceutical, a company which makes Restylane and Dysport which help treat facial wrinkles. Their relationship started back in 2008 while she was still married to Neil Nalepa. During that time, Rebecca had been working as an ophthalmic technician until 2010 when she quit her job.
Max Shacknai’s Accident
On July 11, 2011, Rebecca was with her 13-year-old sister Xena at Jonah’s beach house in Coronado, California. All was going well until the unthinkable happened. Jonah’s 6-year-old son Max fell over the second-floor railing. It was assumed that he might have tripped over the dog or a ball. He was found on the ground below next to a shattered chandelier.
He had fallen face-first and suffered injuries to his spinal cord and face, which in turn disrupted his heart-rate and breathing. He died on July 16th at the Rady Children’s Hospital due to brain damage and oxygen deprivation. His death was ruled as an accident although Rebecca may have felt responsible being the only adult in the house at the time.
The Night Of July 12th
On July 12, the day after Max’s accident, Rebecca took her sister Xena to the airport to fly back home to Missouri. In turn, she picked up Adam Shacknai, Jonah’s brother who flew in from Memphis to be with his brother and family. That night, Rebecca, Adam, Jonah, and Jonah’s friend Howard ate dinner together before Rebecca and Adam returned to the beach house.
Jonah went to hold a candle vigil at Max’s bedside with his ex-wife and Max’s mother Dina Romano. Jonah then later went to a nearby Ronald McDonald House to have some time alone and rest the best he could. Adam and Rebecca both slept alone at the beach house.
Discovery Of Zahau’s Body
On the morning of July 13, Rebecca’s body was discovered by Adam Shacknai. She was hanging from a balcony, naked, with her wrists and ankles bound. Adam found her body around 6:45 am, called the police at 6:48 am, and contacted his brother to tell him what had happened.
He cut the body down before the police arrived. When the police and medical team arrived on the scene, they attempted to revive Rebecca, but she was pronounced dead at the scene. However, it was the condition of her body and how she was bound that began to raise eyebrows.
Suspicion About Her Body
Rebecca was gagged with a blue long sleeve shirt that had been tied around her head, double knotted, and stuffed into her mouth. Furthermore, there was evidence of tape residue on her legs although there was no tape on her body at the time of her discovery. Forensic and toxicology tests were performed along with the autopsy of her body.
The only DNA that was found at the scene was her own. However, speculations of foul play began to arise. She was buried at St. Joseph’s Memorial Park in Missouri on July 23rd and on September 2nd, the San Diego County Sherrif announced that her death had been ruled as a suicide.
Head Injuries Lead To More Questions
During the autopsy, it was discovered that there were four different instances of head trauma. Investigators then set to work to come up with situations that would have caused such injuries.
San Diego Medical Examiner Jonathan Lucas suggested that since there was evidence that Rebecca went off of the balcony in a non-vertical position, it was possible that she hit her head numerous times on the way down. Expert Witness Werner Splitz also agreed, saying that when she went off the balcony, there were plenty of opportunities for her head to connect with something.
What could have caused the head trauma?
Not “Cut and Dry”
However, Werner went on to add that the case was not “cut and dry.” He would have preferred to see the body before it been cut down and the bindings removed. This way, he could see exactly how she may have fallen, the position of her body, and the height from which it was hanging.
Although Lucas and Werner were relatively confident this was what happened, doctor of criminal psychology Maurice Godwin remained less convinced. He claimed that although it is possible that she hit her head on the way down, it was pretty unlikely that she would make contact with it four times, and hard enough for it to come up during an autopsy.
A Second Autopsy Showed Something Different
Rebecca’s family wasn’t satisfied with the investigator’s conclusion that her death was a suicide. They believed that there was vague evidence surrounding her death couldn’t just be left alone. They requested a second autopsy which was performed by pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht.
Wecht went on to testify that the fractures found in Rebecca’s throat were not caused by suicidal hanging but by forced strangulation and should be considered a homicide. Inaccuracies were also discovered in the San Diego Sheriff’s investigation; it was believed that she might have been sexually assaulted with what was assumed as menstrual blood found at the scene.
The lack of fingerprints on a knife handle was also suspicious.
The Knife Left Investigators Scratching Their Heads
A chef’s knife was also found at the scene which had Zahau’s fingerprints on both sides of the blade but none on the handle. Forensic investigator Lisa Allyn DiMeo explained that this was either because the handle was never touched, the prints were wiped off, or there was protection used to cover someone’s hands.
However, there were no fingerprints on any of the evidence that could be traced back to anyone except for Rebecca. It is believed that Rebecca used the knife to cut off the excess rope while her hands were bound before committing suicide.
Adam was also an able seaman with a great knowledge of knots.
Along with Dr. Cyril Wecht’s assumption that Rebecca had been murdered, her family was more than suspicious about her bound hands and feet. Soon after the family began to express concerns, San Diego County sheriff Roy Frank gave a statement on the issue.
He noted that “There are documentations of incidents throughout the country where people have secured their feet and hands as well to commit suicide, to prevent themselves from changing their minds.” The police then filmed numerous clips of re-enactments to show that it is possible for Rebecca to have bound herself as she did.
The Painted Message
Moreover, there was a black message painted on the door leading to the balcony where Rebecca’s body was found hanging. Her ex-husband, Neil Nalepa claimed that the message read “She saved him, can you save her.” However, officials have not confirmed this.
Although Sheriff Gore claimed that it wasn’t an obvious suicide note, others believed that it was further evidence that supported the possibility of suicide. Yet, Something wasn’t quite right. Rebecca liked to paint and would always sign her paintings using a paintbrush. So, upon inspecting the message, her sisters maintained that the handwriting wasn’t hers. Her ex-husband also added that the note wasn’t something that Rebecca would have written. However, the black paint was found on her hands with her fingerprints on the brush and can as well.
Checking The Phone Records
Next, investigators served search warrants to Verizon and AT&T for the billing records on Rebecca’s cell phone. That night, she had talked to her older sister confirming that her younger sister Xena had made it home safely. She also received a text from Nina Romano, Jonah’s ex-wife’s twin sister Nina Romano.
Nina was asking if she could stop by to talk about what had happened to Max. Rebecca didn’t reply. She then checked her voicemail at 12:50 am which was assumed to be a message from Jonah about Max’s condition although the message was never shared.
The investigation finally came to a close…
The Final Verdict (Supposedly)
Around seven weeks after Rebecca’s death, the Coronado Police Department, the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office, and the sheriff’s homicide squad announced that Rebecca’s death was indeed a suicide. Her DNA was found on the ropes, the knife, the black paint, and the brush.
Her foot and heel prints were imprinted on the dust of the balcony, and there was no evidence of any struggle or attack of any kind. They concluded that she had killed herself out of guilt for Max Shacknai’s incident when she was the one that was supposed to be watching him.
The Zahau Family Wouldn’t Leave It Alone
Even though there wasn’t any clear evidence that connected Adam Shacknai to Rebecca’s death except that he was at the house, Rebecca’s family refused to believe it was suicide.
Sheriff Bill Gore and investigators laid out everything involving her death to them that proved it was a suicide. They explained that they had nothing that pointed to Adam so there was nothing they could do. Not long after, the family launched JusticeForRebecca.org for donations to further investigation on her death. In 2013, the family demanded that the case is re-opened with Adam Shacknai as their target to blame the death of Rebecca on.
Now, they wanted Adam to pay for what they think he did to Rebecca.
All Eyes On Adam Shacknai
Firmly believing that Adam Shacknai was involved in Rebecca’s death, her mother and sister initially filed a $10 million lawsuit that accused Shacknai of conspiring with Jonah Shacknai’s ex-wife and her twin sister to murder Rebecca for Max’s accident.
The lawsuit on the Romano sisters was dropped after video evidence showed them both at the hospital during the time of Rebecca’s death. So, with the Romano sisters out of the question, the Zahau’s began focusing strictly on Adam Shacknai, the only person at the house at the time of Rebecca’s death.
The Civil Trial
Then a month-long trial hearing took place, during which medical examiners, knot experts, physicians, a psychologist, investigators, and anyone that helped or could help with the case presented the information available. There were personal testimonies and emotional pleas from members of the Zahau family as well as the Shacknai family.
The wrongful death lawyer for the Zahau family C. Keith Greer claimed that Adam had beaten, sexually assaulted, and murdered her, making it look like a suicide. Jonah Shacknai testified claiming that it was “inconceivable” that his brother would have ever killed Rebecca and that they were pointing fingers at him simply because he was there even though there was no evidence of his involvement.
The Zahau Family Claimed They Weren’t In It For Money
The Zahau family, on the other hand, claimed that Rebecca was profoundly spiritual and knew that suicide was wrong and was too inherently happy to ever kill herself. Her sister talked to her hours before she died, and said that “I wouldn’t call her distraught. She was upset, very concerned and very worried about Max’s condition, just like any caregiver or parent would be.”
She claimed that she didn’t have the tone of someone that was going to kill themselves so it must have been Adam that murdered her. They said they weren’t looking for money; they just wanted to clear Rebecca’s name so that her death wasn’t considered a suicide.
The Results Of The Civil Case
On April 5, 2018, the 12-member jury of the trial ended up finding Adam Shacknai responsible for Rebecca Zahau’s death in a 9-3 vote. The majority of those on the jury was moved by the Zahau’s family plea and their arguments that Rebecca was killed and covered up as a suicide.
The jury agreed that Shacknai had touched Rebecca with intentions to harm her before her death and that he was legally responsible for her death. See what the jury awarded to the family for the loss of Rebecca.
What’s Next For Adam Shacknai
The jurors then awarded $5 million to the Zahau family for the loss of companionship and another $167,000 for financial support that she could have provided to the family. Adam Shacknai must pay this to the family although the court has not yet decided if punitive damages will be awarded.
Because it was a civil trial, there didn’t need to be a unanimous verdict. However, Shacknai cannot be faced with any criminal charges and cannot be sentenced to prison because this was a civil lawsuit and not a criminal case. After this win, Rebecca’s family is now urging for investigators to open up the criminal case.