San Diego

Rebecca Zahau Death Review Concluded, Official Cause Remains Suicide: Sheriff

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department will not change its initial finding about the controversial 2011 death of Rebecca Zahau at Spreckels Mansion, announcing today that a thorough review of the evidence confirms that Zahau hanged herself from a balcony at the oceanfront mansion.

Sheriff Bill Gore opened a review in April of his department's initial investigation, which determined Zahau death was a suicide. The review was launched after a jury ruled in a 2018 civil trial that Zahau's boyfriend's brother, Adam Shachnai, was responsible for her death. 

"After conducting this review, the case team found no evidence that led us to believe that Rebecca Zahau died at the hands of another," Gore said. 

Adam Shacknai, brother of Zahau's former boyfriend, millionaire Jonah Shacknai, was the last person to see Rebecca alive. Adam Shacknai found the 32-year-old woman hanging from a balcony in Jonah Shacknai's historic home that fronts the Pacific Ocean, north of the Hotel del Coronado.

The Zahau family's attorney, Keith Greer, said the department told him about the review's findings by phone Friday morning. Greer denounced those findings as a "sad" reflection on the department.

"We gave them another opportunity to do the right thing," Greer told NBC 7. "Instead, they continue to support an improper and biased decision."

At Friday's news conference, Gore told reporters he knows some observers are skeptical of his department's conclusions. But he defended his homicide team, calling them "as good as any in the state or the county."

"They've got 100 years of experience," he said. "We have no reason not to follow the facts, follow the evidence, and follow the interviews where they lead us."

Greer, the Zahau family attorney, told reporters that the sheriff's department had barred him from the news conference. Speaking outside the department's conference room, he claimed it is "impossible" that fair, thorough review of the evidence could again conclude that Zahau killed herself.

"That tells me there's something corrupt in the (Sheriff's) process," Greer said. "I don't know if we'll ever know that (that corruption) is, but it's not a logical conclusion. There's something here that is motivating (the Sheriff's department) to do the wrong thing."

Before the news conference, Greer told NBC 7 that it's possible that Sheriff Gore and other department executives were influenced by Jonah Shacknai's wealth.

Gore responded with a measured but forceful denial.

"I never took any money from Jonah Shacknai in my election or re-election campaigns. That's just not the way we operate," he said. "And to be quite honest, I take personal offense at that, at impugning the reputation of this department, one of the best in the country."

SDSO homicide Lt. Rich Williams earlier told reporters that he and the four members of his review team were chosen to bring a fresh perspective to the evidence. Williams said none of the team members was involved in the initial investigation.

"There are many theories out there (about Zahau's death), but all the evidence points to one logical conclusion, and that's a suicide," Williams said.

Gore, who has long stood by the determination that Zahau's death was a suicide, said he was at first surprised by the civil verdict and found the theory presented by the Zahau family attorney, Keith Greer, "not logical."

In a live TV interview with KSWB a day after the verdict, Gore said: 

"There’s just no physical evidence or eyewitness evidence to tie Adam Shacknai to this murder. There’s no DNA, there’s no fingerprints," he said. "It’s interesting the attorney Mr. Greer managed to turn that into a theory that the crime scene had been wiped clean which is really difficult to do in this scientific age we live in."

Greer said that was "the most significant part"

"If you look at things associated with the crime, not even Rebecca's DNA or prints are on them," he said.

Greer said he cooperated with the sheriff's department's review by sending the department numerous documents, including transcripts and other material from the 28-day civil trial.

Jurors in the wrongful death lawsuit voted 9-3 that Shacknai battered Zahau and that his actions caused her death. They determined Shacknai owed Zahau's mother, Pari Zahau, approximately $5.167 million in damages.

Adam Shacknai issued a statement through his attorney shortly after Sheriff Gore made his department's initial finding public.

"I was in no way involved with Rebecca's death, which was part of a tragic sequence of events, that also involved the loss of my 6-year-old nephew Max. I will be pleased to assist the investigation in any way requested, as I have all along."

When he announced the review following the April verdict, Gore promised a thorough examination of all relevant evidence from the trial.

"In the spirit of transparency and open-mindedness, we have agreed to undertake a fresh review of the case, by investigators who have had no prior involvement with the case, to evaluate the new information," Gore said at the time. 

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