San Diego

Forensic Print Expert Testifies in Coronado Mansion Mysterious Death

On July 13, 2011, Rebecca Zahau was found hanged at the home belonging to her boyfriend Jonah Shacknai. Jonah Shacknai's brother, Adam found her and called 911.

Drops of blood and fingerprints that Rebecca Zahau's family say are evidence that points to murder and not suicide were discussed Thursday in the wrongful death lawsuit.

On July 13, 2011, Zahau was found dead at the Spreckels mansion in Coronado, the home of her boyfriend Jonah Shacknai. Her naked, bound body was discovered by Jonah's brother, Adam Shacknai, just a few days after Jonah's son was injured in an accident at the mansion.

Now, the family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Adam Shacknai, arguing that someone strangled Zahau first before she was lowered over the balcony and left naked and hanging with her hands and feet bound.

A large chef's knife found in the guest bedroom of Spreckels Mansion has Zahau's fingerprints on both sides of the blade but none on the wooden handle. 

Forensic expert Lisa Allyn DiMeo specializes in impression evidence including latent prints, footwear, and tire treads as well as bloodstain patterns.

San Diego County Sheriff's homicide investigators processed the knife as evidence in the two-month homicide investigation, she said, but they did not find prints on the handle of the knife.

When asked to explain that, DiMeo said, “either it wasn’t touched, it was touched with some type of protection covering the hands, it was wiped off or it was never held in the first place and it was just a right thumb.”

The fingerprints found on the kitchen knife's blade line up to suggest Zahau was holding the knife when her arms were already bound behind her back.

DiMeo stood for the jurors and said if she were holding the knife where the prints are, the blade would be pointing to the ceiling. However, behind the back, the blade points in toward the back, she testified.

She also testified about blood drops found in a hallway outside of the guest room that in her opinion were from Zahau. Because there were no cuts on Zahau's body, DiMeo said, it's like menstrual blood. 

There was another drop of blood found in a shower on the property. DiMeo testified that sheriff's homicide investigators collected the blood sample but did not process it.

When asked about blood found on Zahau's inner thigh, DiMeo said it was likely a transfer of blood from when the handle of the knife was removed from inside Zahau. 

The knob of the door to the balcony and the edge of the door both appear to have been wiped down before investigators dusted for prints, she said.

“I have no other explanation for that because those are rich areas to leave prints on the edge of a door but yet there’s this giant void of a clear area,” DiMeo said.

Under cross-examination, DiMeo said there were no fingerprints that came back to Adam Shacknai.

Testimony was scheduled to resume after a lunch break.

Adam Shacknai called 911 on July 13, 2011, and reported the death as a suicide, plaintiffs' attorney Keith Greer said. He argued that no one would look at a woman in Zahau's state — nude, bound and hanging from a balcony — and say the woman killed herself.

In opening statements, defense attorney Dan Webb said law enforcement officers have already investigated the case and came to a conclusion. His client had nothing to do with it.

"Adam Shacknai's fingerprints were found nowhere," he said.

There is no criminal case.

The San Diego Sheriff’s Department has been adamant, that after a thorough investigation, Zahau’s death was ruled a suicide. 

Shacknai's attorney said his client arrived in San Diego from Nashville on July 12 to show support for his brother after Max's accident. 

The night before Zahau's death, Adam Shacknai and Zahau left the hospital together and drove back to the mansion. 

Adam Shacknai was staying in the guest house and left at about 6:45 a.m. the following day, according to his attorney. That's when he noticed Zahau hanging from the balcony, Webb said. 

His client will testify in the trial about the events leading up to the day he found Zahau, Webb said.  He also told jurors they would hear from multiple law enforcement officials. 

Webb said they will also have an expert testify that Zahau's behavior in the weeks before her death include risk factors that are consistent with suicide. 

Zahau's family sued to have the case reopened in 2013. 

They criticized the sheriff's investigators' theory that Zahau herself tied a series of intricate knots on her hands behind her back, put the noose over her head and propelled herself off the mansion's balcony. 

Sheriff's investigators even released a video that they say shows how it can be done.

Jonah Shacknai testified in a deposition that his company's stock prices were "under siege" because of the death investigation, Greer said. Jonah Shacknai was founder and CEO of Medicis, a pharmaceutical company based in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Jonah Shacknai's company was sold to another pharmaceutical company in September 2012 for $2.8 billion.

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