Okay, it took until October for this to happen, but I kind of had to lie about the date here to make this work. Rebecca Zahau died on July 13, 2011, and I'm using the date for a random second examination into the case to make this work for the format of my blog. Kind of a stretch... but it gets worse. All reports just sat that the 2nd examination happened "in early October". So maybe it was October 6th? Who knows, but I wanted to write about this extremely fascinating case, and I couldn't find anything else for 10/6, so here we are.
So, what happened? On July 13, 2011, Rebecca Zahau was found hanging at the Spreckels Mansion in Coronado, California. Her death occurred 2 days after her boyfriend's 6-year-old son had fallen from a staircase while she was supervising and was in critical condition. He would die 3 days later.
While the son's death was ruled an accident and Rebecca's death was ruled a suicide, the matter in which Rebecca's body was found makes most people seriously disbelieve that she died by her own hand. In a wrongful death suit, Rebecca's boyfriend's brother was found responsible for her death.
2 DEATHS, 1 MYSTERY
Rebecca Zahau was born on March 15, 1979. She was born in northwestern Burma. About 10 years before her death, when she was in her early 20s, Rebecca and her parents, Khua Hnin Thang and Zung Tin Par, moved to the U.S. They had also briefly lived in Nepal and Germany.
Her parents and most of their family lived in Saint Joseph, Missouri, but Rebecca settled down in Arizona. In 2002, she married a 36-year-old nursing student named Neil Nalepa in Scottsdale, Arizona. In August of 2009, she was arrested for shoplifting in Phoenix, Arizona. In 2011, she and her husband divorced.
Their divorce occurred, in part, because in 2008, she began dating Jonah Shacknai, while she was still married. Johan was the CEO of Medicis Pharmaceutical, and was the 9th-highest paid CEO in Arizona. Jonah had 2 children with his first wife, Kimberly James, and 1 son with his second wife, Dina Romano.
On July 11, 2011, Rebeca, her teenaged sister Xena, and Jonah's son, Max Shacknai, were at the Spreckels Mansion in Coronado, California. Jonah used this home as a summer estate.
At some point while watching the boy, Max tumbled face-first over a second-story bannister, causing injuries to his spinal ford and facial bones, which affected his heart rate and ability to breathe. Rebeca said she had gone to the bathroom when it happened and came out finding Max face-down on the floor. Xena called 911, and he was rushed to Rady Children's Hospital. He was not breathing and unresponsive when the ambulance came for him.
The next day, Rebecca dropped Xena off at the airport for her flight back to Missouri, and picked up Jonah's brother, Adam Shacknai, who had just arrived from Memphis. That evening, Rebecca, Adam, Jonah, and another friend named Howard got dinner. Then, Rebecca and Adam returned to the mansion, while Jonah went back to the hospital to be at his son's bedside with his ex-wife, Dina.
There were reports of loud music coming from the mansion that evening.
The next morning, at roughly 6:45 AM, Adam stated that he found Rebecca's naked body hanging from the second floor balcony, her wrists and ankles bound and her hands behind her back. She had been gagged with a long sleeved T-shirt that was wrapped around her head, the sleeves double knotted and stuffed into her mouth. There was also tape residue on her legs.
Adam called 911 minutes later, and then texted his brother to let him know the news. Before the police were able to arrive and collect evidence, he cut Rebecca's body down. Despite the extreme nature of her death, the San Diego County Sheriff's Department formally concluded that Rebecca had committed suicide.
Max Shacknai died at the hospital 3 days after Rebecca on July 16, 2011.
Let me give you a quick little mental image of how Rebecca was found before we jump into this section.
The rope used to hang Rebecca was tied to the bedpost in her bedroom. So for starters, she didn't just hang herself. She tied herself to a rope, tied that rope to her bedpost, and then launched herself over the balcony to turn the rope into a noose. This seems like a bananas way to hang yourself, but certainly not impossible.
But let us not forget: She was totally naked. I don't have the stats, but people who commit suicide know somebody is going to find them. Leaving yourself entire nude doesn't seem common, but I don't know for sure. But she was also bound by her hands AND feet by thick rope, and gagged with a T-shirt that was wrapped around her neck.
So, the people who believe Rebecca committed suicide believe that she undressed, tied herself to a rope that was tied to her bedpost, gagged herself, bound herself by her wrists and ankles, and then launched herself totally naked over a balcony? I'm sorry but I am just not buying it.
So, when her autopsy revealed 4 instances of head trauma, you'd think the medical examiners would be scratching their heads, right? Nope. They said they believed that she went over the balcony in a "non vertical" position, and may have struck her head on the way down. So not only did she jump to her death, she didn't do it head or feet first, and somehow hit her head FOUR DIFFERENT TIMES in doing so.
A second autopsy done at her family's request revealed throat fractures that the pathologist believed were from manual strangulation, not suicide. He believed her death was a homicide, and found evidence that she was sexually assaulted before her death... findings that did not match up with the Sheriff's Department's investigation.
Her family were, rightfully, suspicious, especially about why her hands and feet were bound. A San Diego Sheriff stated that there are documentations where people have secured their hands and feet to commit suicide to prevent changing their minds. Police re-enacted the scenario to determine if what happened would have even been possible, and it technically was... but it certainly wouldn't have been in a spur of the moment decision.
Oh, and did I mention a cryptic message had been painted on the door? It said, "She saved him, can he save her". Some believe that this was further evidence of suicide, while her sisters said it wasn't her handwriting, an her ex-husband said it was not something that Rebecca would have written.
During the investigation, police obtained cell phone records as evidence. They found that Rebecca talked to her older sister from 8-10pm, and that at 10:48, Rebecca received a text from Nina Romano, Jonah's ex-wife's twin sister, who wanted to stop by and talk about what happened to Max. Rebecca did not reply to the message. Police were able to determine that at 12:50am she checked her voicemail, but could not determine who left the message.
In early October (perhaps October 6? For the story?) investigators completed a second examination of the phone and the records, and stated they did not uncover any additional information.
One other thing that was turned up during the investigation was that someone inside the home was viewing bondage pornography the night that Rebecca died. Asian bondage porn. Google searches for "sexy", "Asian" and "rape" were made the night of Rebecca's death, linking out to Asian bondage porn.
A lot of people believe that Rebecca was murdered. They believe that Jonah's brother accosted her when she was leaving her shower and strangled her. Then, he'd have all night to clean up and stage her suicide. Though I will say, if he wanted to stage a suicide, he went for a super unbelievable method. But it kind of makes sense... he had been watching Asian bondage porn, and the next day an Asian woman is bound and killed, with the possibility of sexual assault? It seems pretty possible, though again, the method and the writing on the wall seem like things you wouldn't do if you were trying to stage a suicide.
Because here's the thing - a suicide would be kind of believable. She had been supervising a 6-year-old kid who was now in critical condition as her beloved boyfriend sat at his bedside, hoping his son would come through. That might be enough guilt to drive someone to suicide. If you wanted to stage someone's suicide and they already had a believeable reason to kill themselves, wouldn't you go with a pretty straightforward method to get the job done?
And - then, what is the motive for murder? A sexual fantasy gone wrong, or revenge for the death of your nephew? It just doesn't add up.
Others think that both Max and Rebecca were both murdered. Because he had so much money and was making more of it, someone may have been able to benefit financially or competitively if Jonah lost his son and girlfriend back-to-back. The hitman angle makes sense for Rebecca, a little bit. But Max? Sure, a hitman could launch a 6-year-old off of a balcony. But with 2 people home? To get in and out without being heard seems pretty unlikely, but still a theory that kind of makes sense. According to a write up on a podcast that I admittedly did not listen to, Max's mother, Dina, believes there is a possibility both Max and Rebecca were murdered, and seems to indirectly blame Jonah for making enemies in his business.
Additionally, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that Max did die accidentally, from playing with his scooter on the second floor and being tripped, potentially by the family dog.
And, of course, another possible theory is that Rebecca played an accidental role in Max's death (or was just present when it happened and couldn't stop it) and then committed suicide out of guilt. And while this makes the most sense with the sequence of events, the method of suicide just does not make sense. One Reddit user points out how, since the rope was tied to the bedpost and not the balcony itself, she would have had to measure it out perfectly to make sure it wasn't too long. That is a lot of effort when there were easier ways to do the deed.
And also - what is up with the twin sister texting late at night asking to come over and talk about Max's death? Together, could she and Max have killed her for revenge for Max's accident? It seems super premature given that Max was still alive at the time, but another interesting layer.
Nothing makes sense and everything seems as plausible as it seems totally impossible. On its face, does it seem likely that a dude who was Googling Asian bondage porn bound the Asian woman who was in the house he was in? Uh, maybe? Or he was just looking at porn? Is it possible he sexually assaulted her and killed her to cover it up (or accidentally killed her during some sex-fantasy?) Yeah, maybe, but why cover it up with SUCH a bizarre "suicide"?
Is it possible that a hitman or business enemy was hired to kill both Max and Rebecca? I mean, sure, but how does a hitman enter a home without 2 people knowing, launch a 6-year-old off of a balcony, and escape without anyone seeing? And leave evidence behind that makes it look pretty convincingly like an accident? Perhaps Max's accident was just that, an accident, and then said hitman/business enemy tried to capitalize on the tragedy by killing Rebecca, too? The stock in his company took an unprecedented dip after her death, so it may have worked? But again, the matter of death is so strange that I can't image someone who's job it is to get in and get out would kill her in such a way.
Could she have committed suicide? Yes, and I think that action is the least suspicious of all. But I hate to beat a dead horse here... but WHO commits suicide like that? It has literally never been done before and will likely never be done again. Suicide out of extreme guilt for something isn't uncommon, but like that? What on earth?
I have, quite literally, no idea what happened. But boy, is this a fascinating one. What do you think happened to Rebecca Zahau?