Create a free profile to get unlimited access to exclusive videos, breaking news, sweepstakes, and more!
It was a death that instantly raised controversy: A pharmaceutical company CEO’s girlfriend died mysteriously just days after his son got into a tragic accident while under her care.
In July 2011, Rebecca Zahau was found dead in the courtyard of the Coronado, California, mansion she resided in with millionaire boyfriend Jonah Shacknai. She was naked, gagged, hands and feet bound with rope. And while her death was officially ruled a suicide, the strange circumstances surrounding her passing have led to many questions, including: Was she really so distraught over the boy’s accident that she was driven to hurt herself?
Zahau’s older sister Mary Zahau-Loehner said Zahau, a 32-year-old Burmese immigrant who had been dating Jonah for two years, and her boyfriend’s son, 6-year-old Maxfield “Max” Shacknai, were very close. Zahau-Loehner told producers of Oxygen Network’s “Death At The Mansion: Rebecca Zahau” that her sibling and the child “got along really well.”
Zahau-Loehner said that at first, when Zahau and Jonah first got together, Zahau wasn’t really taking care of Max. But soon, she became a kind of “glorified nanny,” as investigative journalist Billy Jensen said in “Death At The Mansion: Rebecca Zahau.”
Jonah had two other children who were teenagers at this time. Zahau-Loehner told the producers of the show her sister would often be “chauffeuring him [Max] back and forth to [the] soccer field” and that taking care of both him and the other kids soon became so overwhelming she “decided to quit her job because the kids — with the kids' schedule, it's just not possible for her to work and be available anymore.”
She added that “Rebecca put her life on hold” to take care of her boyfriend’s kids.
Max, the youngest, needed the most attention. Zahau-Lohner described him as “somewhat clingy” to the producers of “Death At The Mansion: Rebecca Zahau.”
“At that point, they have got the routine down that he wanted her to be the one that fixed his breakfast or his lunch or, you know, things like that,” Zahau-Lohner said. “[Rebecca] would actually get down to his level and play games with him or read the books to him.”
This, Zahau-Loehner claimed, led to resentment from the boy’s mother Dina: “Because Maxie was going over and saying, ‘I want Rebecca to come and do this or I wanna go see Rebecca or I want Rebecca.’”
July 11, 2011 was one such day that Zahau was caring for Max. Zahau would tell police she was in a bathroom inside the 27-room mansion, when she claimed she heard a loud noise. Zahau said she then discovered Max laying in the foyer by the stairs on the floor, seriously injured, Town & Country reported. Nearby, there were a few scattered soccer balls and a scooter on top of his leg. Zahau said it appeared he had fallen off the mansion’s second-floor railing. Sadly, Max would die from his injuries five days later.
But two days after the first incident, and three days before Max’s death, Zahau was also found dead at the home.
Law enforcement arrived at the mansion on July 13 to find Zahau’s body lying on the grass in the rear courtyard of the mansion, according to a San Diego Sheriff's Department investigative report obtained by Oxygen.com.
“Rebecca was nude, her hands and feet were bound with red rope," the report states. "There was also red rope tied around her neck and a blue cloth tied around her neck." Jonah’s brother, Adam Shacknai, who was in town because of Max’s accident, claimed he found her hanging from the balcony and cut her down before calling 911.
An ominous, confusing message was written in black paint on one of the mansion’s interior doors which read, “She saved him, Can you save her,” according to a San Diego Sheriff’s Department report.
Clearly, Zahau and Max had a special bond, so it would make sense for an accident occurring in her care to shake her to her core. Her death was officially ruled a suicide. But the strange message in paint, written in third-person raised a lot of speculation, especially from her family, who insist to his day she would never kill herself and allege she must have been murdered.
A jury in a civil trial would determine in a 9-3 decision April 2018 that Adam Shacknai had caused Zahau’s death and awarded her family approximately $5million in damages.
Adam has maintained his innocence and was appealing the decision when an insurance company reached a settlement with the Zahau family.
After the jury’s decision in the civil trial, 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.
Crime Time is your destination for true crime stories from around the world, breaking crime news, and information about Oxygen's original true crime shows and documentaries. Sign up for Oxygen Insider for all the best true crime content.