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Rebecca was found dead in a California mansion. Police say suicide, her family say murder.

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On July 11, 2011, Rebecca Zahau was in a bathroom of her partner’s summer estate in Coronado, California, when she heard a loud bang. With no one else but her teenage sister and defacto stepson home at the time, she rushed to investigate.

Listen: True Crime Conversations chats to an expert in the Spreckels Mansion case.

There, near the foot of the stairs in the foyer area of the 27-room mansion lay her partner’s six-year-old boy, Max Shacknai. He was face down, motionless. His scooter was laying on his leg, and a chandelier was shattered on the floor beside him.

Max was rushed to hospital in a critical condition but his injuries were too severe. He passed away five days later with brain damage.

By then, Rebecca Zahau, 32, was dead.

***

With strange evidence, conflicting court rulings and ongoing speculation about possible murders, the Spreckels Estate deaths have been described by American media as one of the most bizarre cases in recent memory.

Here’s how it unfolded.

Max’s death.

Burmese-born Rebecca met millionaire pharmaceutical boss, Jonah Shacknai, in 2009 in Arizona. They began a relationship and would spend summers at his mansion in Coronado, an affluent resort city on a peninsula in San Diego Bay.

In 2011, Max, Jonah’s son from a previous marriage, came with them.

On the day of Max’s fall, Jonah left home to work out at a nearby gym, leaving his boy in the care of Rebecca and her 13-year-old sister, Xena, who was visiting.

According to police, neither saw what happened.

Max. Image: Facebook.
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While Max was in a critical condition in hospital, Jonah and his ex-wife, Dina Shacknai (Max's birth mother), remained by his bedside. Rebecca stayed at home with Jonah's brother, Adam, who had flown in from Tennessee to support the family.

On July 12, Jonah phoned her and left a voicemail with the news; Max's prognosis wasn't good.

Early the following morning, Jonah received the second panicked call in as many days. This time, it was Adam on the other end.

"She saved him can you save her." The strange death of Rebecca Zahau.

Shortly before 7 a.m. on July 13, Adam Shacknai decided to head to the main house to make a cup of coffee. As he strolled across the courtyard from the guesthouse, he saw her. Rebecca. She appeared to have taken her own life. She was naked, gagged and her hands bound behind her back.

Jonah Shacknai purchased Spreckels Mansion in 2007. Image: San Diego County Sheriff's Department.

His panicked, breathy 911 call was played widely in the media as the case unfolded; “I got a girl, [she's taken her life],” he said of his de facto sister-in-law. “It's on Ocean Boulevard, across from the hotel. Same place you got the kid...”

Adam later said in his deposition that he began CPR.

It was too late.

In their investigation into Rebecca's death, police discovered black paint, brushes and knives in the bedroom from which she took her life. Most bizarre was a message scrawled high on a door. It was all in capital letters, in what her family later claimed to be unfamiliar handwriting.

SHE SAVED HIM

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CAN YOU SAVE HER

Suicide or something else?

Police initially treated the case as a possible homicide. Dina and Jonah were ruled out as suspects via CCTV from the family accommodation at the hospital. Adam Shacknai agreed to a lie-detector test the day of the accident but the results proved inconclusive, and no foreign DNA (that is, no DNA other than Rebecca's) was found anywhere in the bedroom.

“She was there when Max got hurt, supposedly,” Adam said during his lie-detector test, according to Town And Country. “Maybe she just couldn’t live with it.”

Max died in hospital three days later, on July 16, 2011.

After a 10-day investigation, authorities ruled the boy's death an accident. It was concluded that he was riding his scooter along the carpeted landing, when he flipped over the bannister and fell face-first to the floor below, bringing the chandelier down with him.

They surmised the incident may have occurred because Max tripped over a ball or the family dog.

The staircase where Max Shacknai fell. Image: San Diego County Sheriff's Department.

Then, on September 2, 2011, the San Diego County Sheriff's Department announced their finding that Rebecca had taken her own life.

They explained, step by step, how she likely completed the act, and even supplied footage of a woman, of a similar build to Rebecca, demonstrating how she could have bound her own hands.

"The [findings] are all compelling, and all point persuasively to a single conclusion: These deaths are not the result of any criminal acts," said San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore at a press conference. "Science is our best witness in this case. Science is not biased, nor does it lie."

Rebecca's family were sceptical. And they weren't the only ones. Buoyed by the strange painted message and Jonah's financial status, there was speculation among the community, the media and online forums about everything from contract killings to an accident and coverup.

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In those early hours, even Jonah started questioning his partner's death.

"I didn't know if someone else was involved," he later told ABC 2020. "I was racking my brain to see if she had any enemies, if I had any [enemies] that could have been responsible for something like this."

Rebecca's relatives, with the help of pro-bono lawyer, hired a number of experts to look into the evidence. Among them was forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht, who reviewed the autopsy findings and concluded: "I would have left the manner of death... as undetermined, because I think there are several things as far as I can see that have not been explained," he said, according to CNN.

The family's legal team wrote to the deputy attorney general, calling for the case to be reexamined. They were denied. Jonah did the same; he too, was denied. Six months later, the Zahaus appealed to Coronado Police to reopen the case. Again, the answer was no.

So, they sought answers another way.

The case against Adam Shacknai.

In July 2013, the Zahau family filed a civil wrongful death lawsuit against Adam Schacknai. The case was heard in 2018, and in April that year, a jury voted 9-3 that Adam Shacknai was responsible for Rebecca Zahau’s death. It awarded the deceased woman’s estate US$5.1 million in damages.

Shacknai planned to appeal, but in a post-trial hearing in 2019 it was revealed that his insurance company had since reached a deal with the Zahau family that saw them receive a US$600,000 settlement. As a result, the jury's verdict was wiped out and the case dismissed on prejudice. It means that there is no legal judgement saying Adam Shacknai did anything wrong.

After the jury verdict in 2018, San Diego Sheriff Bill Gore ordered a review of the evidence by experts who were not involved in the original investigation. They, too, concluded Rebecca had taken her own life.

Still, in the eyes of some, questions about Rebecca's death remain. But none quite as intriguing as the message on the door. Derrick Levasseur, a retired American police sergeant and licensed private investigator who researched the case, has a theory. Speaking to Mamamia's True Crime Conversations podcast, he explained the note may have been a reflection of Rebecca's faith.

"I think she was talking to God," he said. "I think she was at a moment where she knew what she was going to do and she knew who she was about to meet. And it wasn't anybody on this earth... I think that was her saying, 'she saved [Max] can you save her'... I don't know who else she would have written that to."

The message found on the bedroom door. Image: San Diego County Sheriff's Department.
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They're not the only questions that have been raised about what happened at Spreckels Mansion that week.

Max's mother, Dina, hired forensic pathologist Dr. Judy Melinek, to examine her son's death. Dr Melinek concluded at the time, “It would be more accurate to certify that manner as a homicide, where homicide is defined as death at the hands of another.” Her findings suggested that Max had been assaulted on the landing, near the bannister from which he fell. She did not implicate anyone, and Dina has since speculated that a third party may have entered the house.

Dina's requests to authorities to have the case re-examined have been denied, and Max's death is still officially recorded as accidental.

Jonah Shacknai, meanwhile, has since said he has "no lingering doubts" about the final conclusions made by authorities in relation to the deaths of his son or his partner: "I've become completely convinced," he said.

He now operates a not-for-profit organisation called Max in Motion to honour his son's love of sports, by providing help for young athletes from low-income families.

"You find a depth of pain that you thought was unimaginable. And you learn to climb back because you have to go on and honour those memories in every way that you can. But it's life-changing," he told 2020.

"I want Max to be remembered for the sweet boy that he was. He touched a lot of lives in a very positive way. He brought a lot of joy and happiness to a lot of people, and he continues to bring a lot of happiness and joy to those who knew him."

Lifeline: 13 11 14.

Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636

Suicide call back service: 1300 659 467

Featured image: San Diego County Sheriff's Department.

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