There are few mysteries in San Diego County that resonated with the public like the controversial hanging death of Rebeca Zahau in Coronado in 2011.
To this day, some believe the bizarre death was, in fact, murder. Others, though, agreed with the San Diego Sheriff’s Department finding that it was a tragic case of suicide.
New York Times best-selling author Caitlin Rother -- who lives in San Diego -- decided to take a deeper dive into the case. Rother just released a book about the case called “Death on Ocean Boulevard: Inside the Coronado Mansion Case."
It was a death impossible to ignore: 32-year old Zahou -- the beautiful girlfriend of a pharmaceutical industry millionaire -- discovered dead, bound and hanging from a balcony at Coronado's beachfront Spreckles Mansion, with a cryptic message painted on a nearby door.
“You know, when you find a naked woman hanging, bound and gagged, with her ankles tied, and her hands tied behind her back, with a gag in her mouth, how can you not be intrigued by that?” Rother asked NBC 7. “What happened? And then, you know, she has a rich boyfriend, Jonah Shacknai, who's a wealthy, you know, industrial pharmaceutical tycoon, you know, who's very successful, very smart, very accomplished…”
Zahau’s death wasn’t the first at the mansion in 2011.
“His son was in the hospital, you know, had just had this terrible fall two days before,” Rother said. “Coronado police were there. They saw how upset Rebecca was. And then you have this eccentric brother who shows up, Adam Shacknai, who's a tugboat captain.”
The sheriff’s department, after review, concluded the case was suicide. In Rother's research, she uncovered a more complicated side of Zahau.
“By judging by the notes on her phone and, you know, even emails I read before Jonah, I could see what kind of person she was, and I just don’t think she showed that side of her to her family,” Rother said.
But Zahau’s family -- the people who say they knew her best -- never believed it was suicide. In a civil suit, they accused her boyfriend's brother: Adam Shacknai -- the only other person on mansion property at the time -- of being responsible for her death, claiming that he confronted and attacked her because his nephew Max suffered an ultimately fatal fall while in her care.
The suit was settled out of court for more than $5 million. Adam maintained he was not responsible for the death.
“The judge in the civil trial said the sheriff’s investigation leaves as many questions unanswered as it answers and that it is fair to ask who, in fact, killed Rebecca Zahau,” Rother said. “So there are still credible people out there questioning the suicide findings. “
This book was not always easy to write for Rother, since it revolves around the issue of suicide. Rother's husband took his own life.
“One of the toughest parts of the trial – if not the toughest part was sitting while the psychiatrist was giving his testimony for the defense about all the risk factors that made him think that Rebecca committed suicide,” Rother said. “And so what I was doing was, I was running through my head, you, know, factor by factor, what my husband had been doing and what I went through with him. So I had to kind of relive my own trauma by sitting in the courtroom. But, you know, I’m a journalist and I’m able to put that aside, and I’m able to be analytical about it.”
After all that analysis, the years of research, dozens of interviews and new information uncovered, Rother concluded the scene where Zahau died was staged -- either as a suicide meant to look like a murder or a murder meant to look like a suicide.
But did Rother ever discover a piece of information that would help her guess whether this was, indeed, a suicide or murder? She said she had not.
"I think people will come away from this book by really knowing who was involved and have a much idea of what happened even though it’s still a kind of a mystery."
This fall, the Zahau family -- still looking for answers -- will be in court asking investigators for more documentation on the case. Meanwhile, Rother's official book launch of “Death on Ocean Boulevard” is Tuesday at 7 p.m., which can be accessed virtually on the San Diego Public Library website.