KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It's been a challenging seven and a half years for Rebecca Zahau's loved ones since she was found naked, bound, gagged and hanging from a balcony at Coronado's historic Spreckels Mansion. The 32-year-old's bizarre case captured worldwide attention, as did the ruling of suicide as the official cause of death. Her family, speaking only to FOX 5, is still angry and hurt by that finding.
"My sister was murdered and I know that for a fact. Now what I don't know is why," Mary Zahau-Loehner said. "There are a lot of unanswered questions and my frustration is that a lot of those could have been answered if appropriate steps were taken from the beginning."
Zahau-Loehner is Rebecca's older sister. She sat down with FOX 5 from her home near Kansas City, Missouri and said she will never forget the last time they spoke on the phone, just hours before Zahau died.
"I should have stayed on the phone a lot longer that night. Maybe things would have been different," Zahau-Loehner said.
The sisters discussed plans for Zahau to visit Missouri for the summer. The next day, Zahau was gone forever.
"I would have really, really asked her if she was happy and that I could tell in her voice she wanted to come home and I would have pushed really, really hard for her to come home," Zahau-Loehner said.
She says Zahau was the kind of person who walked into a room and caught everybody's attention. What she misses most is her sense of humor.
"She could say a joke and if nobody laughs, then she laughs and the next thing you know everybody laughs and I don't know if it's because everybody felt like they have to laugh with her," Zahau-Loehner said.
On a 22-degree morning, Zahau's brother-in-law, Doug Loehner, pays his respects at her St. Joseph, Missouri final resting place.
"She always had a smile," Loehner said. "She could warm your soul. Becky had that ability. Miss her everyday."
He says her tombstone inscription "Springtime Beauty" is a perfect fit for the woman he calls the ultimate cheerleader and family peacekeeper.
"She was the free-spirited one and she was able to bring everybody back together," Loehner said. "When she would come in and visit it was fun because everyone would get along, She would do whatever she could to motivate another person so they could get over their fears."
Loehner says no one in their family believes Zahau took her own life. And as a veteran detective who has worked dozens of death cases, Loehner says the San Diego County Sheriff Department's initial investigation and follow-up review of the evidence overlooked many things.
"Instead of ignoring the part that looks like it's evidence of a crime and you're saying, whoops, she hung herself, that's suicide, well there's more to it than that," Loehner said.
Sheriff's detectives say Zahau hung herself because of extreme guilt over what happened to her millionaire boyfriend Jonah Shacknai's young son while she was babysitting. Days before Zahau's death, six-year-old Max Shacknai fell over a stairwell railing inside the mansion, suffered severe brain injuries and ultimately died.
"My sister -- because of who she was and what she knew -- would not commit suicide for Max, for Jonah Shacknai or for anybody on this earth," Zahau-Loehner said. "She will never do that."
She said while Zahau was sad over what happened to the boy, she was not depressed enough to kill herself because of his fall or over her failing relationship with his father. Instead, Zahau's family thinks her boyfriend's brother, Adam Shacknai, killed her for reasons they can't fathom.
"That crime scene had her signature of fight all over the place and the Sheriff's department chose not to look at it," Zahau-Loehner said.
A civil trial jury did find Adam Shacknai liable for Zahau's death, but that doesn't bring any closure. So, what would Zahau-Loehner say to Adam Shacknai if he was sitting across from her?
"Knowing my sister, Rebecca has forgiven you for what you have done to her, but you need to tell the truth," Zahau-Loehner said. "For the sake of my sister and her memory, I am working on forgiveness. I don't know if I'll ever get there, but I'm working on it."
Adam Shacknai has maintained all along he had nothing to do with Zahau's death. He is asking a judge to overturn the jury's decision or grant an entirely new trial. The judge will hear arguments from both sides Friday.
FOX 5 asked Sheriff Bill Gore for a new on-camera interview regarding the Zahau case and his department's latest ruling of suicide. He declined, but on the phone, he did say he stands by his department's decisions.