Who Is Adam Shacknai? Everything We Know About The Tugboat Pilot Found Liable In A Civil Case For Rebecca Zahau's Death

Adam Shacknai was living in Memphis with a steady girlfriend before his brother’s girlfriend, Rebecca Zahau, was found dead.

By Jill Sederstrom
Rebecca Zahau

Nearly seven years after Adam Shacknai said he found his brother’s 32-year-old girlfriend, Rebecca Zahau, naked and hanging from a noose with her feet bound and her hands tied behind her back, a civil jury declared he was responsible for her death.

Her body was found in the mansion where she lived with pharmaceutical tycoon Jonah Shacknai, just days after a tragic accident that had left Jonah’s 6-year-old son gravely injured and brought his younger brother Adam from across the country to offer support.

Within 24 hours of Adam’s arrival in California, Zahau would be dead and questions would begin to swirl about what happened between Zahau and Adam the final night she was alive.

Investigators have ruled the death a suicide, but Zahau’s family has vehemently denied that claim and believe Adam sexually assaulted and killed her while the two were home alone her final night.

A civil jury would agree and voted to award Zahau’s family $5.1 million in damages, according to The Los Angeles Times.

Adam has always denied all the allegations and initially appealed the jury’s verdict; however, in February, he reached an undisclosed settlement with the insurance company and Zahau’s family while the appeal was pending ending the legal battle.

But just who is Adam Shacknai, a man who seemingly had limited and infrequent interactions with Zahau before her death?

Here’s what we know about the man at the center of the allegations:

1. Adam Shacknai is the younger brother of Medicis Pharmaceutical CEO Jonah Shacknai, who had been dating Rebecca Zahau at the time of her mysterious death.

A civil jury decided Adam Shacknai was responsible for the death of his brother’s girlfriend, Zahau, but before she was found dead, Jonah and Adam Shacknai had shared a quiet childhood together in Suffern, New York.

Adam, who is six years younger than his older brother, described his childhood while in court as happy and stable. He grew up playing sports and being outdoors in what he described to the jury in the civil trial as a “middle-class neighborhood.” His father owned a small business, while his mother was a guidance counselor at the public school district.

Although Jonah and Adam were separated by six years, Adam described the pair as having a good relationship.

“I think considering the age difference, we were close,” he told the jury.

Although the pair would spend most of their life living across the country from one another, Adam told jurors the distance hadn’t dampened their relationship.

“We moved in different directions but I don’t think we considered it that way,” he said in his testimony. “To me, it’s the same relationship we’ve always had since we were kids.”

Keith Greer, the attorney representing Zahau’s family in the trial, told Oxygen.com Jonah’s ex-wife, Dina Shacknai, described the relationship between the brothers as a relationship reminiscent of teenage boys, who “poked fun at each other a lot.”  

Greer also said Adam described his big brother as always having his back.

2. Adam works as a tugboat pilot in Memphis, Tennessee.

For the last 28 years, Adam says he has worked on the Mississippi River, serving as a tugboat pilot since 1997. He was drawn to the water because of the camaraderie on the job and he likes the work, spending 28 days on duty at a time before he’s off for 28 days.

“It’s satisfying work. There is such thing as a job well done out there. People appreciate you. Your immediate management appreciates you,” he told the court during his testimony.

Adam’s job would come into question during the civil trial because of the knots that had been used to bind Zahau’s hands and feet before her death. Greer argued the knots were complex nautical knots and would have been something Adam had learned on the job.

Adam denied knowing how to do complicated knots such as the “clove hitch knot,” “cow hitch knot,” or “lark’s head knot,” telling the jury he had never tied them before and that they weren’t needed in his job.

3. Adam has been dating the same woman for more than 20 years, but lives alone.

Although attorneys representing Zahau’s family have argued that sex may have been a motive in what they contend was Zahau’s alleged murder, Adam said in his testimony that he has been involved in a close, intimate relationship with the same woman for more than 20 years.

Adam told the civil jury he had been dating the same girlfriend for decades, although the two lived alone and never wanted to marry. They live just a few blocks away from one another and see each other five or six times a week, he said.

When questioned during the testimony about whether the arrangement was unusual, Adam said it was no more unusual than getting married and said it was an arrangement that worked for the pair.

He described it as a “good choice that I am very proud of and grateful for.”

4. He had arrived in San Diego less than 24 hours before Zahau was found dead hanging from the balcony:

Adam had been at his Memphis home when he received a call from his distraught father telling him that his nephew, 6-year-old Max, had been gravely injured in a fall over the banister stairs in his California home.

“He said Max had been in a bad accident,” Adam would recall during the trial. “I had never heard him sound that upset before.”

Zahau had been babysitting the young boy at the time and would later say she had been in the bathroom when the tragedy occurred, according to ABC News.

Max was severely injured but still alive and at a local hospital. After hearing the news, Adam told jurors he called Zahau and discussed a trip to be by his brother and nephew’s side at the hospital.

“It was Adam's parents suggesting he should go out and support his brother. And Adam then, rather than call Jonah, called Rebecca and said, ‘Should I come out?’ And Rebecca's response was, ‘Whatever you think is best,’” Greer told Oxygen.com.

Adam decided to make the trip and flew into San Diego on the afternoon of July 12, 2011. Zahau picked him up at the airport and they later joined Jonah for dinner before heading to Jonah’s Coronado mansion, leaving Jonah behind at the hospital. Adam testified that he headed to the guest house on the property while Zahau went to the main building. By the next morning, she’d be dead.

5. Adam claims he didn’t leave the guest house until he discovered Zahau’s body while walking to go get coffee early the next morning.

Adam claimed in court that after he parted ways with Zahau the night of July 12, he went straight to the guest house, made a few phone calls, and went to bed around 9 p.m.

When he woke up the next morning, he told investigators he left to walk to a nearby coffee shop. He told the jury it was then that he noticed something in the corner of his eye and saw Zahau hanging naked from the second-floor balcony, with her arms and legs bound and a long-sleeved T-shirt stuffed inside her mouth.

Upon discovering his brother’s girlfriend, Adam said he called 911, went into the kitchen to get a knife to cut her down, and began to administer CPR.

Some investigators have questioned that story, however, pointing to some of the physical evidence at the scene that doesn’t seem to align with Zahau hanging herself and questioning why Adam chose to call 911 before trying to cut her down.

Loni Coombs, a former criminal prosecutor for Los Angeles County who is taking a new look at the case as part of an Oxygen special series, “Death At The Mansion: Rebecca Zahau,” also questioned the lack of Adam’s DNA at the scene.

“Adam says he gave Rebecca CPR, after he cut her body down from the balcony and yet none of his DNA is found anywhere on Rebecca’s body. That right there is a mystery,” she remarked.

Shortly after her death, law enforcement officers ruled the death a suicide and speculated that she may have taken her own life after suffering from guilt over Max’s injury and poor prognosis. Max would die just days after Zahau.

Attorneys for Zahau’s family, however, alleged in the civil trial that some time after the two got home, Adam confronted Zahau, sexually assaulted her, and then killed her.

Greer told Oxygen.com that the family’s theory was that Adam struck Rebecca on the head, tied her up using nautical knots, strangled her, threw her off the balcony and wrote in black paint on the door the ominous phrase, “She saved him, can you save her?”

6. A civil jury would determine Shacknai was responsible for the death.

The jury in the civil trial would determine in April 2018 that Adam had caused Zahau’s death and awarded her mother, Pari Zahau, approximately $5.167 million in damages.

Adam, who still insists he is innocent, and his attorneys initially filed an appeal to the civil jury’s decision, but later withdrew the appeal after reaching a settlement agreement with the insurance company and the Zahau family in February that was outside the verdict, KGTV reports.

After the agreement had been reached, a judge dismissed the case but noted the verdict against Adam would remain.

An attorney for Adam said that while the verdict remains on file, it now lacks legal standing and “cleared” Adam’s name.

"I'm glad it's over, but it's not the way I wanted it to end. I wanted to go through the process for an appeal," Adam told  KGTV after the agreement.

After the jury’s decision, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department re-opened the investigation but once again determined in December of 2018 that Zahau had taken her own life.  

To learn more about the case, tune into “Death at the Mansion: The Case of Rebecca Zahau” premiering on Saturday, June 1 at 6 p.m. ET/PT.

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