An independent autopsy on the body of a woman who died suspiciously in July at a Coronado mansion was performed Friday at the request of the family, 10News learned.
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Rebecca Zahau's remains were examined by world-renowned pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht in Pittsburgh. Wecht, 80, has performed autopsies on Anna Nicole Smith and her son Daniel and was involved in the O.J. Simpson trial, the JonBenet Ramsey case, and the investigation into the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Wecht also investigated the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, who died when her car -- driven by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, plunged into a lake on Chappaquiddick Island, Mass., in 1969.
Wecht re-examined the 1998 murder of Stephanie Crowe in Escondido. Crowe's brother and his friends were charged with her murder, but Wecht told 10News the evidence pointed in a different direction.
Transient Richard Tuitt was eventually arrested and convicted, and the Crowe family recently received a $7.2 million settlement from the cities of Oceanside and Escondido.
After Friday's autopsy was completed, Wecht told 10News there is nothing to report at this point. Full results will be available in seven to 10 days, he said, adding that at that point the final findings will be given to the family to decide how to release the details.
Wecht told 10News that he performs about 360 autopsies a year. Of those, 12 are "re-dos" of autopsies performed by someone else and roughly half of those are on exhumed bodies He said that in about 1 out of 5, he finds something missed in the initial autopsy.
Wecht said he has conducted 17,000 autopsies in the past 50 years and reviewed and consulted in another 37,000 deaths.
Wecht said he gets great satisfaction in helping families get answers, but he can't always tell them what they want to hear.
"Sometimes families reject everything. They don't want to hear it, no matter what you have to say and they're dead set that the death occurred in some different way, usually that there was foul play and so on, and sometimes it's frustrating," Wecht said. "You've got to just maintain your sense of composure and understand the tremendous pressure that they are under."
Although Wecht has made no promises, Zahau family attorney Anne Bremner told 10News they believe he will be able to prove that Rebecca did not kill herself.
Nearly four months ago, Zahau died at the 27-room Spreckels mansion in Coronado. The mansion is owned by Zahau's boyfriend -- founder and CEO of Medicis Pharmaceuticals Corp., Jonah Shacknai -- and is where Shacknai's 6-year-old son, Max, died two days before Zahau's death while under her care.
The San Diego County Medical Examiner determined Zahau took her own life but many refuse to believe that Zahau, who was found hanging naked from a balcony with her ankles tied together and hands bound behind her back, killed herself.
Zahau's body was exhumed Thursday from a cemetery in St. Joseph, Mo., and transported to Pennsylvania for the independent autopsy.
Earlier in the week, Mary Zahau-Loehner, Rebecca's sister, confirmed that the results of the exhumation and second autopsy will be announced on the Dr. Phil Show, but the exact air date has not yet been determined.
According to various media reports, show producers promised a donation to the Zahau family's fund.
Wecht bristled at the idea that the exhumation and autopsy of Zahau's body are part of a media stunt.
"Let me point out that long before I heard from anybody in this case -- attorney, family, television, Dr. Phil -- I expressed my opinions after looking at the autopsy report," Wecht said. "So, I am not doing this for anybody. I think it's very unfair and extremely unjust for people to make that kind of commentary, to attack the family, the attorney, or me and say that this is part of a circus."
Wecht added that the answers the Zahau family is seeking are the same ones most of America wants.
"I would be wiling to bet that 80 to 90 percent of the American public is not accepting the determination of this having been a suicide," Wecht said.
Wecht told 10News reporter Allison Ash over the phone on Thursday that he would not approach the autopsy with any fixed agenda in mind.
"As far as I'm concerned, this is an objective, professional undertaking," Wecht said Thursday. "I'm going to do a thorough examination as I would do in any case."
When asked what Wecht would focus on, he said, "Obviously, much attention will be focused on the neck, the site that one examines when there has been a hanging."
Wecht also said he would be examining the hemorrhages beneath the scalp that were reported.
"I don't skip over anything," he told 10News. "Everything will be studied as meticulously and thoroughly as I can."
Wecht, who has not criticized the first autopsy nor disputed that hanging was the cause of death, believes investigators too hastily concluded that Zahau killed herself.
On Tuesday, more details emerged related to the claim by RadarOnline.com that Dr. Phil was paying to have Zahau's body exhumed from her grave in Missouri to have it re-examined for possible evidence of foul play.
Zahau-Loehner issued the following statement to 10News on Tuesday, claiming that the exhumation will be paid for by donations:
This is my official response please don't edit the info.I want to thank for all the support and donation we have received. Due to the generosity of the public, we will be able to proceed with exhumation of Rebecca to find the truth of her death. Dr. Wecht has been kind and generous to help us with an independent autopsy.We would appreciate further donations and support in anyway. The venture of Justice for Rebecca is going to be long and challenging. This is only the beginning of that journey and it is possible due to the tremendous support and generosity of the public, experts, news media, and our attorney Anne Bremner.Donation is accepted at www.RebeccaZahauFund.comMary Zahau-Loehner.
10News' calls to Zahau family attorney Anne Bremner were not returned.
10News obtained a statement from a spokesperson for the Dr. Phil Show on Tuesday that neither confirmed nor denied Dr. Phil's involvement in an exhumation with the Zahau family:
"We endorse the familys effort to search for closure to this terrible tragedy and will stand with them going forward as they navigate through their grieving process." -Spokesperson for the DR. PHIL show
Exhuming a body for more testing has proven to be successful. When Illinois police officer Drew Peterson's fourth wife, Stacy, vanished, investigators exhumed the body of his third wife, Kathleen Savio. Savio's death had been ruled an accidental drowning, but a second independent autopsy concluded she had been killed.
"Well, it's definitely not too late for things like DNA and toxicology," said former San Diego police detective Rick Carlson.
Carlson said a forensic pathologist can also look for fingernail scrapings and skeletal damage not found during the first autopsy.
Carlson said it may be what the family needs to feel it did all it could for Zahau.
"It's at least maybe the satisfaction of the family that they're looking into it themselves and having some participation in the final determination," said Carlson.
10News contacted the San Diego County Sheriff's Department to find out their thoughts on Dr. Phil's possible involvement, but a spokesperson said the department had no comment.
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