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In the summer of 2011, 32-year-old Rebecca Zahau’s life came to a sudden, tragic end. She was found dead under mysterious circumstances: Her boyfriend’s brother, Adam Shacknai, claimed he discovered her nude, hands and feet bound, hanging from a balcony at the Spreckels Mansion in Coronado, California, the home of her millionaire pharmaceutical CEO boyfriend, Jonah Shacknai. The bizarre circumstances surrounding her tragic death sparked a years-long search for answers that continues to this day.
Mere days before Zahau’s death, Jonah’s 6-year-old son from a previous relationship, Max, suffered a horrific accident while under Zahau’s care, falling from a railing in the home and sustaining injuries that would ultimately prove fatal. His fragile condition further complicated what some allege was already a strained relationship between Zahau, Jonah, and the Shacknai family.
While Max was still in the hospital, Zahau was reportedly found dead by Adam Shacknai, who was at the property with Zahau that night. Her death was ultimately ruled a suicide, but her family has long fought that assertion, even filing a wrongful death lawsuit alleging that Adam was responsible. Adam denied any involvement in Zahau’s death and initially appealed the jury's verdict; and the Zahau family reached a settlement with his insurance company earlier this year while the appeal was pending, according to the Associated Press.
But beyond the controversy, mysteries, and legal battles, Zahau’s death left behind a grieving family. Who was Rebecca Zahau before her tragic death caught the attention of the true crime community?
What was Rebecca Zahau like?
Rebecca (or “Becky”) Zahau was a Burmese immigrant and one of six children. She was born in Falam, a small town in the Chin Hills of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), according to the San Diego Reader. She spoke multiple languages — English, Nepali, and Hindi — having lived in multiple countries, including Germany, Nepal, and the United States.
Zahau worked as an ophthalmic technician until 2010, but she had many other interests outside of her job. She was health-conscious, according to her older sister Mary Zahau-Loehner, who described her as a “health nut.”
“She’s got quite a discipline when it comes to [eating healthy] and that's why when they tried to put her as this impulsive, crazy person, I'm like, no, you don’t know my sister, OK?” Zahau-Loehner told Oxygen, likely referencing law enforcement’s assertion that Rebecca succumbed to emotional problems and died by suicide. “My sister doesn’t drink alcohol because she thinks it's bad for you. She said it's a waste of calories. She'd rather have a protein drink before she would have a drink of alcohol.”
Her religion was also important to her, but she stopped going to church because Jonah didn’t go, Zahau-Loehner said. Zahau’s family was raised Christian and that’s how Rebecca identified as an adult, she said — she claimed Zahau was considering finding a new place of worship before her death.
“So deep down that was always her root, regardless of what was happening around her,” she said. “So she never changed her faith at all, regardless of what the other side is trying to make us believe or the sheriff's department is trying to make us believe.”
But when asked what the most important thing about her sister was, Zahau-Loehner pointed to her kindness and warm personality.
“I want people to know that she was funny and she was charming, and she could make you laugh even on your worst day,” she said. “And she would take the clothes off her back if she thinks you needed it … She would be there if you needed her … she just has this warm personality that just lights up the room. And, you know, when I say that, it's not because she's gone. She really was that and if you talk to everybody who knows her, they will say the same thing because she was the same to everybody.”
What was her relationship with Jonah Shacknai like?
Zahau first met Jonah, the founder of the Medicis Pharmaceutical Corporation, at her job, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. However, she stopped working in order to spend more time with Jonah and his children, her former boss reportedly told the outlet.
Zahau “put her life on hold” to move to Coronado to be with Jonah and be a part of his life, her sister told Oxygen. But it seems life with Jonah was not always easy.
When Jonah and Zahau got together, Jonah already had three kids from a previous marriage: two teenagers from his first marriage and, from his second marriage, one young son, 6-year-old Max, whose accidental death would occur around Zahau’s own untimely death.
Jonah’s two teenage kids “resented” Zahau, and it got to the point that Zahau was considering ending, or at least putting a hold on, their relationship, Zahau-Loehner claimed, though she added she did not know if her sister ever actually told Jonah that.
Zahau was often responsible for Max’s care, taking him to and from soccer practice, and she was close with the child, Zahau-Loehner told Oxygen.
“Rebecca and Maxie got along really well from what I can see,” she said.
“He wanted her to read books, he wanted her to, you know, fix food,” she said. “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. She actually took the time to play with him.”
As for Rebecca’s relationship with Jonah, Zahau-Loehner hesitated to say whether or not the couple were ever in love when speaking to the San Diego Reader.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I couldn’t read [them]. I mean, were they affectionate with each other? No, not really. Not in front of us. If I saw them, I probably wouldn’t get that impression.”
Zahau-Loehner told Oxygen she “never really” observed Jonah and her sister “being playful with each other.”
What was Rebecca’s life like before Jonah Shacknai?
Zahau reportedly began dating Jonah around two years before her death, when she was still legally married to her ex-husband, Neil Nalepa, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Zahau and Nalepa met while both were attending the Calvary Chapel Bible College in Austria, Zahau-Loehner told Oxygen, when Zahau was in her late teens. The couple were married for eight years before their divorce was finalized in the February before her death, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports.
The relationship was “up and down,” Zahau-Loehner told Oxygen. But aside from her relationship problems, Zahau was committed to her family, and helped provide for her parents financially on a regular basis.
“It was important to her that my parents were able to [live] comfortable… to where they were not worried about their meal for the next day,” her sister said. “And that was our biggest thing growing up, life was so hard that we wanted to make sure that mom and dad at that age don’t have to come here and find a job. We both agreed that … between the two of us, we should be able to take care of them.”
Zahau’s death would change the family forever, and her sister believes it caused their father's death two years later. He died from a “broken heart,” she told Oxygen. It was also very hard on her two youngest siblings, who were in school when the story of their sister’s death made headline news.
“She was kind of the glue of the family,” she said. “I think the fact of how she was murdered and how it was dealt, it's really hard on us.”
What happened the night of her death?
Adam Shacknai, Jonah’s brother, was staying at the Coronado mansion on the night of Zahau’s death. Adam told police that he found Zahau hanging from the balcony the following morning and cut her down, ABC News reports.
She was found nude, with her feet tied together and her hands tied behind her back, according to the outlet. Making the scene even stranger was a bleak message found written in black paint on her bedroom door: “She saved him can you save her.”
The circumstances of Zahau’s death led her family to adamantly claim foul play was involved, and they have contested authorities’ claims Zahau took her own life.
She behaved normally the day before her death, according to her sister.
“All of it. All of it doesn’t fit,” Zahau-Loehner told the San Diego Reader. “The conversation she and I had the day before [she died], none of it adds up. She had two detailed plans for the next day: to take things for Jonah [to the hospital where he was tending to Max] to fix something for him to eat. She told me to tell our mom that she would call her on her way to the hospital in the morning. That she was going to text me throughout the day.”
“I mean, that’s somebody who’s planning to kill herself?” she continued.
Zahau’s ex-husband Nalepa expressed similar doubts, telling the San Diego Union-Tribune months after her death, “I would not believe Rebecca would commit suicide. It’s out of character.”
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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