Lawsuit alleges Rebecca Zahau’s mansion hanging was murder, not suicide

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(CNN) — The family of a woman whose naked and bound body was found hanging in a Southern California mansion two years ago have filed a federal lawsuit accusing three people of plotting her death.

The San Diego County medical examiner ruled that Rebecca Zahau committed suicide, but a lawsuit filed Friday by her mother and sister contends she was the victim of a murder plot devised by her millionaire boyfriend’s brother, ex-wife and the ex-wife’s twin sister.

Zahau’s boyfriend, Jonah Shacknai, owned the Coronado, California, vacation home where she was found dead on July 13, 2011. His 6-year-old son, Max, suffered a fall in the same home two days earlier and died in a hospital on July 16, 2011.

The lawsuit filed by the dead woman’s mother, Pari Zahau, and sister, Mary Zahau-Loehner, does not detail the alleged plot, but it contends each defendant “participated in some manner in the planning, implementation, execution and subsequent concealment of the scheme to murder Rebecca Zahau.”

The defendants named are Adam Shacknai of Memphis, Tennessee; Dina Shacknai of Phoenix, Arizona; and Nina Romano from Stockton, California.

Dina Shacknai is the mother of Max, the boy who died from the fall.

“Defendants intentionally, willfully, wantonly and maliciously threatened to cause immediate physical harm to Rebecca by threatening to stalk, attack, choke, gag, bound, and hang her at the premises,” the complaint said.

Efforts by CNN to reach the defendants or their lawyers for comment were unsuccessful Sunday.

After Zahau’s death was ruled a suicide and San Diego County officials refused to pursue criminal charges, Jonah Shacknai asked the California attorney general’s office to investigate his son’s fatal fall and his girlfriend’s hanging. He said he hoped a state inquiry would bring a “dignified resolution for everyone who has been touched by the horrible events of this summer.”

The attorney general cited the “state’s scarce resources” in a letter declining to investigate, but Zahau’s family hired their own investigators to challenge the findings that she committed suicide.

A renowned forensic pathologist hired by the family said four bruises found on the top of her head indicate trauma not readily explained by the hanging. He said in September 2011 that it was just one of several reasons he wouldn’t have ruled the death a suicide.

Authorities first went to the home, in the San Diego suburb of Coronado, on July 11 after getting a call from Zahau’s 13-year-old sister reporting that Max had fallen down the stairs and was not breathing, Coronado police Cmdr. Mike Lawton said. Zahau, her sister and the boy were the only ones in the residence at the time of the incident.

Police arrived within two minutes, followed a minute later by firefighters who, after finding the boy unconscious on the floor, “began lifesaving measures immediately,” Lawton said. But despite extensive medical treatment, Max Shacknai died five days later. The medical examiner ruled the boy’s death an accident.

On July 13, authorities got another 911 call from the home. This time, it was Adam Shacknai, Jonah Shacknai’s brother, reporting that he found Zahau hanging, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said. Adam Shacknai, who was staying in a guest house that morning, told investigators that he climbed onto a table and cut the body loose before investigators arrived, authorities said. Gore said investigators were comfortable with the brother’s account.

Jonah Shacknai, a lawyer and the founder and CEO of Medicis Pharmaceutical Corp., was at a children’s hospital or a Ronald McDonald House from the time when investigators believe the suicide happened to the time Zahau’s body was reported, San Diego sheriff’s Lt. Larry Nesbit said.

The autopsy concluded that Zahau was “alive when she went over the (second-floor) balcony” with a T-shirt wrapped around her neck, the medical examiner said. There was no evidence of a struggle or a sexual assault, or that she was rendered unconscious or incapacitated, adding that “her feet were dirty, consistent with standing on the dirty balcony,” he said.

Though investigators don’t know the order of events, they believe she removed her clothing, painted a message, cut a rope into sections, secured the long portion to a bed, bound her feet, placed the rope and the shirt around her neck, fashioned wrist bindings, secured her hands in the binding behind her back, moved to the balcony, leaned over the rail and fell, San Diego County sheriff’s Sgt. Dave Nemeth said.

Nemeth said one person told investigators that in January, Zahau had “lost weight, seemed stressed, was not sleeping well and was not exercising, which was abnormal for her.” Other interviewees indicated that “Rebecca was distraught over Max’s injury,” Nemeth said.

But Zahau family attorney Anne Bremner had previously said that one of Zahau’s sisters, who talked to her the night before her death, said Zahau “was completely fine” and didn’t feel guilty about Max Shacknai’s fall.

“My sister never had a psychiatric problem, never (had) been on psychiatric medication and never had attempted suicide, let alone ever talked about harming herself,” Mary Zahau said in an interview weeks after her sister’s death.

By Alan Duke

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