Sheriff’s Department to review Rebecca Zahau case

SAN DIEGO -- Authorities Monday announced plans to reopen a long-closed investigation into a woman's lurid and mysterious death at a historic Coronado mansion, a fatality officially ruled a suicide but deemed by a civil jury this month to have resulted from an assault.

In a prepared statement released late Monday afternoon, the San Diego County Sheriff's Department described plans to revisit the death of 32-year-old Rebecca Zahau, whose nude and bound body was found on a lawn behind the 27-room Ocean Boulevard manor early on the morning of July 13, 2011.

"After a productive conversation with the (Zahau) family's attorney, Keith Greer, Sheriff Bill Gore determined that, while no new evidence (has been) presented, new analysis of existing evidence was presented in the recently concluded civil trial," the statement asserts.

"In the spirit of transparency and open-mindedness, we have agreed to undertake a fresh review of the case, by investigators who have had no prior involvement with the case, to evaluate the new information," the statement continues.

"I was very excited. The meeting went very well," Greer said. "[Gore] was very accommodating. I was relieved, I think, in a way because really the family's goal here is to get Rebecca's death certificate changed from suicide."

Greer says the evidence analysis Gore will review will include expert opinions, including transcripts and depositions.

"The one piece of evidence that is the most glaring is the steak knife," Greer said. "I think that's the one that caught everybody by surprise. It caught us by surprise."

The probe likely will take at least 90 days to complete, the announcement states.

"One of the collateral benefits of us having the civil verdict is that the public is now scrutinizing this and with that, the sheriff is really going to be compelled to do a bang-up job," Greer said. "Whatever decision he comes up with is going to have to be supported by the evidence and have to be explained and since we know the evidence so well, I'm very confident that when this group gets done looking at this evidence, they are not going to say it's suicide."

Greer said a review of the case is just the beginning. The Zahau family also wants the Sheriff's Department to reopen the investigation.

Two months after Zahau's death, investigators concluded that she had committed suicide by binding her feet together, tying her arms behind her back and hanging herself from a second-story bedroom balcony.

The death occurred two days after the 6-year-old son of Zahau's boyfriend, pharmaceuticals tycoon Jonah Shacknai, fell from a second-story landing at the early 20th-century mansion, suffering injuries that would prove fatal five days later.

Authorities speculated that Zahau may have killed herself out of grief and guilt over the accident, which happened while Max Shacknai was under her care.

"Was Max's death a homicide? No, it was a tragic accident," Gore told reporters in announcing the suicide ruling in September 2011. "Was Rebecca's death a homicide? Again, the answer was no, it was a suicide."

Rejecting that finding, Zahau's mother, Pari Zahau, and older sister, Mary Zahau-Loehner, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Adam Shacknai in 2013, claiming he confronted and battered Zahau the day after his nephew suffered the fatal fall.

During the civil trial, which began two months ago, Greer alleged that Adam Shacknai delivered four blows to Zahau's head, rendering her partially or fully unconscious. The plaintiff's attorney also claimed that the defendant sexually assaulted Zahau, tied her hands and feet, put a noose around her neck and threw her body off the balcony.

Greer said a phrase found scrawled in black paint on a bedroom door at the landmark manor built in 1908 by sugar magnate John D. Spreckels -- "She saved him, can he save her" -- had been put there by Adam Shacknai.

For his part, Jonah Shacknai testified during the six-week trial that it was "inconceivable" that his younger brother had anything to do with Zahau's death.

Two weeks ago, 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.

The panel awarded Pari Zahau more than $5 million for loss of comfort and companionship and loss of money that the victim would have given to support her mother.

"We know that Rebecca did not commit suicide," Greer said outside court after the verdict was read. "We knew right away."

Sheriff's officials released a statement that afternoon asserting that they "(stood) by the findings of the Medical Examiner's Office and our investigators."

Monday's announcement by the regional law enforcement agency struck a different tone, stating that its leadership "has continually indicated its willingness to reevaluate the Rebecca Zahau case if new evidence was presented."

"When our investigation is complete, we will meet with the family's attorney to discuss our findings," the statement asserts. "Ultimately, the cause and manner of death, in any case, is determined by the medical examiner. In San Diego County, the Medical Examiner's Office is an independent entity and separate from the Sheriff's Department."

Adam Shacknai responded to Monday's announced with a statement:

"I welcome a fresh review by the San Diego Sheriff’s Office. As I have maintained from the beginning, I was in no way involved with Rebecca’s death, which was part of a tragic sequence of events, that also involved the loss of my six year nephew Max. I will be pleased to assist the investigation in any way requested, as I have all along."