$10M suit: Zahau was beaten, gagged and strangled

Posted at 6:08 AM, Aug 01, 2014
and last updated 2017-03-01 13:58:10-05

A hearing was held Friday in a $10 million civil lawsuit filed in connection with the 2011 death of Rebecca Zahau.

On July 13, 2011, the 32-year-old Zahau was found naked and hanging from the second story balcony of the Spreckels Mansion in Coronado.

Two days prior, on July 11, Max Shacknai, the 6-year-old son of Zahau's millionaire boyfriend Jonah Shacknai, fell down some stairs and died three days later in what was considered a freak accident. At the time, he was under Zahau's care.

After a months-long investigation, the San Diego Medical Examiner ruled Zahau's death a suicide, but her family always thought she was murdered. Authorities speculated Zahau committed suicide because she was distraught over Max's declining condition. The boy's death was ruled accidental.

In July 2013, Zahau's mother and sister filed the wrongful death lawsuit in federal court against Dina Shacknai - who was Max's mother and Jonah Shacknai's ex-wife. Also named in the lawsuit were Dina's twin sister, Nina Romano, and Jonah's brother, Adam Shacknai. Jonah was not named in the suit.

The lawsuit, which was filed in both state and federal court, alleges that each defendant may not have been directly involved in Zahau's death, but each had threatened her and failed to warn her about a scheme to harm her. It alleges assault, battery, negligence and wrongful death.

On July 8, Keith Greer, the Zahau family attorney, filed an amended complaint, claiming that Dina and Nina aggressively confronted Rebecca at the mansion just before she died. The documents allege that an argument escalated to an attack. The Zahau's family said they had her body re-examined and reportedly found signs of foul play, including four blows to the head -- an injury not included in the county's autopsy.

It claims she was hit on the head multiple times, bound with duct tape, gagged and strangled. It goes on to say someone tied rope around her neck and pushed her over the railing.

Duct tape residue found on Zahau's legs was not explained in the initial autopsy, and Greer said the knot around her neck is known as a "tugboat hitch."

Adam Shacknai was a tugboat captain, according to Gree, and he added, "Which is critical to this case because one of the main reasons the medical examiner found suicide was there was no sign of a struggle."

"At that point in time, they were just in a situation that got worse, they had to deal with it and by the time the evening was done, they decided to kill her and make it look like it wasn't them," Greer said. "Each one of the defendants we named has a strong motive to kill her."

The documents allege that the following words were written on the inside door near the balcony where she was hanging: "SHE SAVED HIM CAN YOU SAVE HER."

Greer said, "And the way it was done was some way that I don't think any jury looking at this will say that it was a suicide."

Defense attorneys argue that Zahau killed herself because she was feeling guilty about the boy's death.

Greer said Zahau's death boils down to one word -- vengeance.

"That anger and need for vengeance, we think, fueled this whole thing into a confrontation that eventually escalated into murder," Greer said.

Zahau's family strongly believes Jonah Shacknai's wealth and influence as the founder of a large pharmaceutical company played a big part in the investigation being ruled a suicide.

"The evidence does appear to be leading to that theory," Greer said.

Attorneys for both sides will be back in court next January to set a trial date.