More than 3,425,000 pageviews from 150 countries


Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Suspicious Deaths of Max Shacknai and Rebecca Zahau

     Rebecca Zahau was born on March 15, 1979 in the town of Falam in northwestern Burma. Her family moved to Nepal and then to Germany before coming to the United States in 2000. The family settled in Saint Joseph, Missouri.

     In 2008, Zahau was living in Scottsdale, Arizona and married to a man named Neil Nalepa. At this time, she started dating 50-year-old Jonah Shacknai, the CEO and founder of Medicis Pharmaceutical Company. The single mogul with a pair of former wives, lived in Scottsdale. In 2011, Shacknai moved into an historic mansion in Coronado, California that had been built in 1908 by John D. Spreckel. Mr. Spreckel had owned the nearby Hotel del Coronado as well as other southern California real estate.  The 13,000 square-foot dwelling featured 27 rooms and a guest house.

     In February 2011, Rebecca divorced Neil Nalepa and moved into the San Diego County mansion with Jonah Shacknai and his 6-year-old son from his second wife. The 32-year-old live-in girlfriend worked as a technician in an ophthalmologist's office.

     On July 11, 2011, Rebecca Zahau and her visiting 13-year-old sister Xena were in the Coronado mansion looking after 6-year-old Max Aaron Shacknai. That morning, Rebecca called 911 to report an accident. Max, while running down an elevated hallway or balcony above the lobby-like entrance to the house, had gone over the banister.  Next to his body lay the large chandelier that had hung from the ceiling not far from where the boy had fallen. Investigators with the Coronado Police Department assumed the boy had grabbed the chandelier to break his fall. He suffered spinal cord injuries and serious head trauma and had slipped into a coma.

     The next day, Rebecca Zahau drove Xena to the airport for her flight back to Saint Joseph, Missouri. She also picked-up Jonah's brother Adam who had arrived on a flight from Memphis. That evening, Zahau, Adam, Jonah, and a friend of his ate dinner at a McDonald's. Adam and Rebecca returned to the mansion while Jonah and Max's mother, Dina Shacknai (nee Romano), sat at their son's bedside. Later that night, Jonah called Rebecca to report that Max wasn't going to make it. They were taking the boy off life-support.

     The next day, July 13, 2011 at 6:45 in the morning, Adam Shacknai called 911 and reported that he had discovered Rebecca Zahau hanging by the neck from the balcony. She was nude. Acting on instructions from the 911 dispatcher, Adam cut down the body.

     Deputies from the San Diego Sheriff's Office found the dead woman lying on the back lawn of the mansion. She was gagged with a blue, long-sleeve cotton T-shirt that was also wrapped around her neck with the sleeves tied into a double knot. Her hands were bound behind her back with a length of red rope. Her ankles were also tied together with a piece of the red cordage. On a bedroom door not far from where Adam Shacknai found Rebecca hanging, someone in cursive writing using black paint had written: "She saved him you can save her."

     Dr. Jonathan Lucas, the San Diego County Medical Examiner, performed the autopsy. He found four hemorrhages under Zahau's scalp (but no lacerations), and evidence of tape residue on her legs. The forensic pathologist found traces of blood on her legs as well.

     On July 16, 2011, Max Shacknai died. Ten days later, Dr. Lucas announced that the boy had died from brain swelling and cardiac arrest. The medical examiner determined the manner of death to be accidental. Dr. Lucas's ruling in the death was immediately questioned by a trauma physician who had treated Max. In this doctor's opinion, someone had tried to suffocate the child before throwing him off the balcony. In other words, he had been murdered.

     As soon as news of Zahau's bizarre death came out, people began speculating about whether or not a murderer had staged a suicide. Commentators were saying that no woman had ever taken off her clothes, gagged herself, bound her hands and ankles, then hanged herself. Late in July, 2011, San Diego Sheriff's Office Sergeant Roy Frank said this to a reporter: "There are documentations of incidents throughout the country where people have secured their feet and hands to commit suicide. They do it to make certain they can't escape if they change their minds."

     On September 2, 2011, San Diego Sheriff Bill Gore, amid rampent speculation of foul play, announced that Rebecca Zahau's death was a suicide. Distraught over Max Shacknai's accident on her watch, she had hanged herself. The sheriff's office had therefore closed the case.

     Four days after Sheriff Gore's press conference, Dr. Jonathan Lucas, in response to a massive wave of skepticism regarding his manner of death ruling, issued the following statement regarding the hemorrhages under Zahau's scalp: "Because there was evidence that she went over the balcony in a non-vertical way (She dove over the railing?), she may have struck her head on the balcony on the way down." In addressing the blood on Zahau's legs, the forensic pathologist identified the cause as either a menstrual period, or an intrauterine device. The medical examiner offered no explanation for the presence of the tape residue.

     The next day, September 7, 2011, Dr. Maurice Godwin, a private forensic consultant from Fayetteville, North Carolina with a Ph.D in criminal psychology, told a reporter that Zahau's death had all the earmarks of a "ritualistic killing," and that the suicide had been staged. In Dr. Godwin's opinion, someone had dazed Zahau with a blow to the head, then tossed her off the balcony.

     In the same newspaper article, Dr. Lawrence Kobilnsky, a DNA expert who taught at City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, opined that the medical examiner's suicide manner of death determination was "premature." Dr. Kobilnsky said he believed that someone had delivered a substantial blow to Zahau's head. The forensic scientist said, "The chances of bumping into the railing, going over the balcony and hitting your head four times is highly unlikely."

     Dr. Werner Spitz, a highly respected forensic pathologist, in the same piece, said he thought the San Diego medical examiner's manner of death ruling in the case made sense.

     In the summer of 2011, Rebecca Zahau's family hired a lawyer from Seattle named Anne Bremner to represent their interests in the case and to pressure the San Diego Sheriff's Office to re-open the investigation of Zahau's death. According to one of Zahau's sisters, a nurse practitioner who had spoken to her almost every day, Rebecca had no psychiatric history, and had never attempted suicide. Attorney Bremner, pursuant to the family's quest to have the case re-investigated, asked the San Diego County District Attorney and the state Attorney General to get involved. The district attorney's office and the attorney general, declined.

     On November 15, 2011, Dr. Cyril Wecht, the celebrity forensic pathologist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, appeared on the "Dr. Phil" television show to voice his professional opinion regarding the cause and manner of Rebecca Zahau's strange and sudden death. Dr. Wecht, at the behest of attorney Anne Bremner, had performed a second autopsy of the victim's exhumed body. While he found Dr. Lucas' initial autopsy thorough, Dr. Wecht questioned the medical examiner's suicide manner of death determination. Wecht said the four hemorrhages beneath the scalp could not have been caused by hanging. "You have to have blunt force trauma for that," he said. "You have something of a rounded, smooth surface that impacts against the scalp, this not producing a laceration." According to Dr. Wecht, Zahau could have been knocked unconscious, which would explain why her body did not have any defense wounds from a struggle. The former coroner of Allegheny County agreed that the woman had died from hanging, but believed her manner of death should be changed from "suicidal" to "undetermined."

     Dina Shacknai, Max Shacknai's mother, in order to acquire the boy's autopsy photographs, filed a suit against the San Diego Medical Examiner's Office on April 12, 2012. Dina and her supporters were looking for proof that someone had murdered the 6-year-old boy. They did not believe the wounds on his head had been caused by the fall. (It's not clear if they suspected Rebecca or her sister Xena, or what motive they assigned to the homicide.)

     On July 16, 2012, the one-year anniversary of Max Shacknai's death, Dina Shacknai and her attorney, Angela Hallier, held a press conference in Phoenix. According to the lawyer, the family possessed information from "privately retained experts" that proved the 6-year-old had been murdered at the Coronado mansion.

     On August 6, 2012, a spokesperson for the Coronado Police Department confirmed they had met with Dina Shacknai and her attorney regarding Max Shacknai's death. Police investigators agreed to read the report containing the opinions of forensic scientists who believed the boy could have been murdered. One of those experts, Dr. Judy Melinek, a forensic pathologist with the San Francisco Medical Examiner's Office, reportedly believed that Max was too small to have gone over the balcony railing. Moreover, she believed his head injuries were not consistent with a fall.

     So, what happened to Max Shacknai and Rebecca Zahau? Within a period of two days, they both went over different balconies in the same house. What were the odds of that? If Rebecca had killed herself over the boy's fall, why did she do it in such a bizarre and suspicious way? And what was the meaning of the message painted on the bedroom door? And who wrote it?

     Assuming that Max had been thrown off the balcony to his eventual death, who did it, and why? If Rebecca had been murdered, was it in revenge for the boy's homicide? And finally, will these questions ever be answered?

     On September 10, 2012, a spokesperson for the Coronado police announced there would be no reinvestigation of 6-year-old Max Shacknai's death. Investigators believed that the boy tripped while running, grabbed a chandelier, hit his back on the banister, and fell to his death.

     In July 2013, Rebecca Zahau's family, believing that her death was the result of criminal wrongdoing, filed a $10 million wrongful death lawsuit against Adam Schackai and Dina Shackai. The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants battered Rebecca then hanged her from the mansion's balcony.

     On March 11, 2016, following a flurry of defense motions in response to the plaintiffs' suit, a San Diego Superior Court judge ruled there was sufficient evidence for the case to proceed to trial. As of February 2017, the civil action remained untried and unresolved. 

24 comments:

  1. A nice summary with some omissions and minor inaccuracies, and one major one: Rebecca and Max did not go over the same balcony.

    A few unanswered questions:

    1) Why was Rebecca's naked body allowed to lie exposed in the courtyard, to be filmed by news helicopters, for 9 hours after it was found?
    2) Where is Xena Zahau today?
    3) Where is Adam Shacknai today? Why was he cleared on the basis of an inconclusive lie detector test.
    4) Were the other Shacknai children on the premises or not?
    5) Is there an explanation for the sudden closure of the gym which gave Jonah Shacknai has alibi for the period of Max's death?
    6) Why was powerful San Diego criminal attorney (and former DA) at the premises after Max's fall?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Also Rebecca had been convicted of stealing $1000 worth of jewelry from Macy's in Dec. 2010, and was still married to Neil !elapa at the time of her death.

      Delete
  2. Another thing I find unsettling is Dr. Peterson's concern of "suffocation". So, it just so happens this prominent doctor is wrong in this case? I don't believe it. The more insight into this case, the more suspicious I am that another party was involved. Where was JS really? Strange how the gym closed up not long after.

    ReplyDelete
  3. The gym closing had nothing to do with Shacknai. It had everything to do with the economy. Was he responsible for all the other business in Coronado closing? That's just crazy.

    Zahau's body was left uncovered because they obviously did not have a tent. Everyone was cleared because ONLY Rebecca's DNA and fingerprints were on the door frame, paint brushes, door knob, knives, bed leg, and rope KNOTS. No one else was in the room...if you read the actual physical evidence, instead of all these rumors and innuendoes, it is clear she killed herself. The only question is WHY...what did she do to the little boy?

    ReplyDelete
  4. My theory is that XZ, RZ's 13 yr old "sister" is actually her DAUGHTER. She was home alone with MS and assaulted him in a jealous rage in order to be rid of him and DS who hated her mother for being instrumental in the demise of her marriage. RZ returned to the scene, staged it to look like an accident, THEN had XZ called 911, MS died of suffocation NOT from the fall according to the autopsy. XZ sustained injuries from cleaning up the broken chandelier, MS had no cuts on his hands whatsoever. After getting stitches, XZ and RZ went shopping(!?) and XZ was promptly put on a plane back to MO. The doctors suspected abuse as MS's injuries were too advanced to have just happened as reported. Detectives attempted to contact RZ, she refused to speak to them. I have read several different versions of exactly where she was, MS was, and XZ was, in the house that morning. I believe DS had suspicions of XZ's potential for violence and had requested that JS NEVER allow MS to be alone with her and RZ, months prior. When JS was informed by the doctors it was no accident, he confronted RZ and may have threatened legal action. At any rate, her life would change drastically and being afraid of possible prison for her role in the cover-up, decided to commit suicide. In order to get back at JS and DS, she staged it to look like a murder. I also believe JS and RZ were into bondage, etc. and that's why she tied herself up, nude and left the message on the wall that he alone would understand.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That is the most fragrant load that ever dropped out of the back of a horse.

      Delete
    2. You must be one of the Rebecca worshippers.

      Delete
    3. No, just a person with enough brains to know she was clearly murdered. Likely by the ex wife - who likely was very jealous and bitter towards Rebecca right from the moment she took up with the ex husband.

      Delete
    4. Fragrant? Yeah Max's murder stinks - like you

      Delete
  5. "Zahau's body was left uncovered because they obviously did not have a tent."
    Nothing obvious about it. "ONLY Rebecca's DNA and fingerprints . . ." Only if the police report can be believed. And what about Adam? He appeared supposedly in order to help his brother through the crisis of Max's accident -- then when Rebecca dies, he disappears. Some help.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Adam, Dina, and Nina stayed in Coronado and cooperated fully with police. Xena had just gotten to town on Sunday and Rebecca got her out of town immediately after Max's "accident", then killed herself hours later. all detectives know those that flee the science of a crime are usually guilty.

      Delete
  6. JS may have framed Rebecca because she was going to tell the truth about the other Shacknai children rough-housing with Max. They were sent away unscheduled right before the accident and nobody can prove that. Adam and Nina were brought in to interrogate Rebecca. She may have been strangled at that time. The rope over her hair was probably done later to cover. No rope was initially seen hanging from the balcony. Both Adam and Nina were at the scene, and Nina was very upset, looking for answers.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Why was her sister Xena not thoroughly questioned?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. She took a flight home...and thats weird cause she was in the house when it happened?

      Delete
  8. Rebecca would have felt extreme guilt from Max's injury, and negative comments from Jonah's family would have exacerbated that guilt. I believe she would have been thorough in her suicide mission--it's not that difficult to do the knots or tee shirt anything else herself-- slip over the balcony, bang her head on the wall of the house once the rope stopped.
    The message on the wall means "I tried to save Max, Jonah, can you save me from myself?" Logical from someone that distraught in that situation.

    ReplyDelete
  9. She would not have killed herself because Max did not die until days after she was found dead. She would have wanted to go to the hospital to see him and be with him. This was in my opinion a conspiracy by evil possessed people. Look at the similarities in what they did to her and what they did to Jesus in Matthew 27: verse 2 - 28 -30 - and what they painted on the door in verse 42.

    ReplyDelete
  10. if Rebecca had hung herself, she most certainly wouldn't not have gotten the bumps on her head that way. If she swung and banged her head, it would be a side or back impact; the injuries on her head were on the TOP of her head. This area would not have been impacted by suicide. Rebecca had been assaulted.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Has Jonah Shacknai ever been questioned about this? I've read a lot about this bizzare case, and his name's never come up.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Had Jonah Shacknai ever been questioned about this? I've yet to see an interview or a comment from him.

    ReplyDelete
  13. How is it that someone at the LHK website knew what kind of beverage was found at the spreckles mansion when this hadn't been released to the public?

    ReplyDelete
  14. In psychologically profiling Rebecca Zahau for the purpose of weighing the probability of a suicide scenario, one must look first & foremost for evidence of prior impulsivity and an 'alter ego' manifest via behavior considered out of character for Rebecca's 'normal' or baseline personality. "In August 2009, [Rebecca] Zahau was arrested for shoplifting under the name Rebecca Nalepa. She pled guilty to stealing $1,000 worth of jewels from Macy's in Phoenix, Arizona." These facts serve to establish that Rebecca Zahau had an 'alter ego' and prior history of impulsivity, which are foundational in a plausible assertion of suicide.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think you better go back for your degree. The only time the alter ego would weigh the probability of any bizarre behavior is if she had multiple personality disorder. Your overly broad assertion of some alter ego doesn't even remotely touch on whether that alter ego suffered depression, mania, anything.

      Delete
    2. Yeah, my alter ego chewed a fingernail yesterday. So if I turn up murdered tomorrow, check for suicide, ok? You wanna talk about violent alter egos (domestic violence) with a preponderance for murder perhaps?

      Delete