This case was first brought to my attention back in 2018 when the first season of ‘Breaking Homicide’ aired. This case was featured on episode four and it was investigated by Derrick Levasseur and his team. Derrick is the winner of BB16, but is also a retired police officer and is now a private detective. He’s got two seasons of ‘Breaking Homicide’ under his belt, and now co-hosts a true crime podcast with Stephanie Harlowe while owning his own private investigative firm. He also is an accomplished author with a book titled ‘The Undercover Edge”. The gist is, Derrick knows what he’s talking about when it comes to solving crimes and conducts thorough investigations before reporting his findings. However, this is the one case that I just don’t really agree with him. This case is all about Rebecca Zahau and her mysterious death.
This case is both mystifying and confusing. There’s layers upon layers to this story which makes this case so interesting and the reason why it’s been covered on numerous podcasts and television specials. I honestly hadn’t even heard about this case until May 6th, 2018 when I tuned into ‘Breaking Homicide’. Right off the bat, the show claims that a little boy was in an accident- and eventually dies from his injuries, and then suddenly another death occurs- but this time, it’s to the little boy’s father’s girlfriend. Within the first two minutes I was confused, so I quickly googled the woman’s name- Rebecca Zahau.
Rebecca Zahau was born on March 15th, 1979 in Falam, Chin State- a town in the Chin Hills in northwestern Burma- to her father Khua Hnin Thang and mother Zung Tin Par (also known as Pari). Rebecca came from a family of Chin ethnicity and was raised as a Protestant. After living in Nepal and Germany, Zahau moved to the U.S. about ten years before her death. In 2002, she married then-36-year-old nursing student Neil Nalepa of Scottsdale, Arizona; their divorce became final in February of 2011. But it was back in 2008 (while she was still married) that Rebecca began dating Jonah Shacknai, the CEO of Medicis Pharmaceutical. Shacknai’s position at Medicis made him the ninth-highest-paid CEO in Arizona, earning $6.4 million in 2010. Jonah had two previous marriages. His first marriage to Kimberly James resulted in a divorce and a three-year custody fight over the couple’s two children. Jonah had a third child- Maxfield Aaron “Max” Shacknai who was born on June 7th, 2005, with second wife Dina Romano. Now that we know the backstory, our case begins…
Spreckels Mansion in Coronado, California was the getaway home for Jonah, Rebecca and Max. Spreckels was their vacation home, which is famous and has a rich history of its own. The mansion’s front yard is quite literally the Pacific Ocean, and it’s the perfect setting for a family to take time away and soak in the California sun. But after July of 2011, Spreckels would be known for so much more.
July 11th 2011 was when Max was found by Rebecca lying at the bottom of the staircase next to a broken glass chandelier. It was determined that he had fallen over the second story banister while riding a scooter. Rebecca conducted CPR and eventually was rushed to the hospital where he remained unconscious. 2 days after Max’s fall, Rebecca was found naked, hanging from a balcony- bound and gagged. The day after Rebecca was found, Max passed away. The Coronado Sheriff’s Department was quick to close this case and deemed Max Shacknai’s death as a tragic accident and Rebecca Zahou’s death as a suicide. But given the way that Rebecca’s body was found led many to suspect that foul play was involved.
Derrick and Kris Mohandie met with Rebecca’s friends (Lori & Felicia) to get a better idea about the kind of person Rebecca was. Lori stated that all three worked together at ophthalmology practice and became fairly close. Felicia said that at the time, she had two young children and that Rebecca and Lori would occasionally come by to help- more specifically, Rebecca would babysit. Felicia says that her children were drawn to Rebecca and that she was a very empathetic person. Both women mention that once Rebecca and Jonah began dating is when their friendships with her began to fizzle out. They agree that it could have been due to the fact that Rebecca was beginning to live a millionaire’s lifestyle and that Rebecca’s relationship with Jonah was new, so naturally she would want to spend all of her time with him. Kris asks both women what Max’s accident would have done to Rebecca’s psyche and how she might have reacted. Felicia suspects that Rebecca was probably overcome with grief and sadness. Derrick then asked both women what they thought of the sheriff’s decision to rule Rebecca’s death as a suicide. Felicia again answers first and adamentally suggests that Rebecca would not have committed suicide because she never witnessed Rebecca as being unhappy, depressed or suicidal. The women mention that when they would go to the gym to work out, Rebecca would try her hardest to stay completely clothed after a shower and try not to show any nudity whatsoever. She was modest. Felicia says that there’s just no way that Rebecca would have taken her own life- especially when she was naked and bound. Lori says that even if Rebecca wanted to commit suicide, she wouldn’t have done it in a manner that would disgrace or shame her family, friends or herself. Both women are adamant that someone murdered her and staged her body in the manner that she was found for other reasons- whether that be revenge, or somehow trying to degrade her in some way.
Derrick and Kris discuss Max first. They look through some crime scene photographs and try to get a visualization of what exactly might have happened. Although all evidence seemingly points to an accident, Dina Shacknai- Max’s mother- believes that foul play was involved.
When Max was transported to the hospital, Jonah and Dina stayed by his side while Rebecca drove to the airport to pick up Jonah’s brother who arrived into town. (He was staying at the mansion’s guest house at the time of Rebecca’s death.) Derrick brings this up because Adam Shacknai was the only other person on the mansion’s property when Rebecca either took her own life or was murdered.
On the morning on July 13th, Adam woke around 6:30 a.m and left the guest house to walk to the main house for breakfast and coffee and that was when he saw Rebecca’s body. He saw Rebecca hanging by her neck from the balcony where her bedroom was located. Her arms were bound behind her back, her legs were bound together, a t-shirt stuck in her mouth and she was naked. Adam ran inside the house and grabbed a knife, ran back outside and climbed on top of a table and cut her body down. He then laid her on the grass then called 911 at 6:48 a.m.
Derrick plays the 911 call and what he finds odd is that Adam referred to Rebecca as “this girl” and not his brother’s girlfriend whom he’s known for some time. Kris says that by Adam trying to distance himself from Rebecca fuels suspicion of foul play.
Derrick shows crime scene photos from Rebecca’s death and mentions that there were two knives present at the scene inside the bedroom. Also, the rope was tied around the bedpost- and it was tied with a nautical knot. The reason why this is important is because Adam was a tugboat captain which means he knows how to make nautical knots- giving those who suspect foul play reason to believe that Adam was involved. Derrick also notes that a tube of black acrylic paint was also found at the scene along with a paintbrush. A fingerprint matching Rebecca’s was found on the cap of the tube of paint, however, no fingerprints matching Rebecca’s was found on any of the knives or the rope or the paintbrush. Derrick asks the question if maybe the area could have been wiped down to hide evidence of foul play. Derrick also shows Kris an image of the bedroom door. This is significant because written in that black paint with the paint brush was “SHE SAVED HIM CAN YOU SAVE HER” Derrick says that this is interesting because the phrasing is confusing. He says that Rebecca could have written it in third person, or someone else could have done it. He also claims that the height the words were written indicates the person was around 6 ft. Rebecca was 5’2”. Although the height of where the words were written points to possible foul play, Rebecca could have easily stood on some furniture and did it.
Kris and Derrick wanted to try to get an idea and see if there could have been a way for an unknown intruder to enter the home. Although it’s private property and they couldn’t gain entrance, Derrick and Kris went to the mansion and surveyed the front of the property. Kris notes that there’s hardly any security- just a small fence that one could easily jump over and there are no visible cameras.
Derrick met with Tony Perry- a reporter who initially covered the case back in 2011. Tony told Derrick that Jonah was 54 years old at the time this all transpired and was a CEO of a pharmaceutical company which meant that he was loaded. He was twice divorced, with his ex-wife Dina living just down the block with their son Max. Jonah had been dating Rebecca for about two years and that Rebecca had quit her job and moved out her own place and in with Jonah. At the time of the incident, Rebecca was 32 years old and was also divorced. When Max’s accident occured, Jonah was at the athletic club (gym) and when Rebecca’s body was found, Jonah was at the hospital which means that he had solid alibis during the time of both Max’s accident and Rebecca’s mysterious death. Derrick asked Tony what he thought of when it came to Adam. Tony admits that Adam was given a lie detector test which came back as inconclusive, but that there was no credible evidence to suggest that he was anyway involved. He says that Rebecca’s family is the victim in all this- whether Rebecca’s death was a suicide or homicide.
Kris and Derrick met with Dina to get a better picture into Max’s life before his death. Dina says that Max was her only son who was kind, loved to be in the water and just loved life. Dina says that when they first moved into the mansion, Max was giddy with excitement over his new room because it had a picturesque view of the ocean. She mentions that she first found out about Max’s incident when Jonah texted her that he had fallen over the banister and hit the chandelier. She rushed to the hospital, but wasn’t prepared to see her son in his condition. The next day, the doctors informed her that it wasn’t looking good for her son because he suffered serious injuries to his head and brain. The following day, she met with the doctor again, but this time he mentioned to her that Max’s injuries could have been from suffocation. Dina was understandably shocked to hear this news and began to question everything she had been told up until that point. Shortly after getting the shocking news, Max passed away which caused Dina to spiral. At the time Derrick and Kris met with her, she insisted that Max was the victim of a homicide, however, she doesn’t think that Rebecca was the one who hurt her son. Dina suspects that someone entered the home and killed her son, Rebecca either saw it or knew about it, and that same person went back two days later and killed Rebecca.
Kris and Derrick looked into Max’s autopsy report which labeled Max’s death as an accident. However, the head of the pediatric care unit says in his report that Max’s brain had been swollen and he believed that this was caused by suffocation.
In Rebecca’s autopsy report, the medical examiner labeled her death as suicide by hanging. However, on the report it’s mentioned that Rebecca had suffered four different blows to the head. Dr. Cyril Wecht, a forensic pathologist, met with Derrick and Kris to give his opinions to both Max’s and Rebecca’s autopsy reports. He says that in Max’s case, hyperextension caused a high cervical spinal cord injury, without fracture. This injury resulted in interference with heart rate and/or breathing and the lack of oxygen to the brain was what resulted in irreversible brain damage- and what might have given other doctors the indication that he might have been suffocated. Wecht is adamant that Max’s death was an accident and not a homicide. In Rebecca’s case, Wecht actually did his own autopsy just a few months after the original autopsy had been conducted. He came to the conclusion that the four contusions that Rebecca had sustained to the head had to have happened before she went over the railing of the balcony. He says that she could not have sustained those injuries from simply hitting her head as she went over the rail and suggests that there’s a strong possibility that she had been murdered.
After meeting with Wecht, Kris and Derrick phoned Dr. Judy Melinek- a forensic pathologist that Dina had hired who concluded that Max was indeed murdered- and that Rebecca was responsible. She tells them that she believes that some sort of altercation took place at the top of the stairs between Rebecca and Max. She theorizes that Rebecca got a hold of Max and somehow managed to get Max’s center of gravity above the banister (possibly by lifting him up) and that Max might have tried to push off or get away from her in some way, and fell on the top of his head. Melinek believes this because of the injuries he sustained to the top of his head and to his back. Melinek mentions that she doesn’t think that Rebecca intentionally tried to kill Max, but thinks that an altercation occurred between the two of them that resulted in the child’s death. She insists that there’s no way that Max could have gotten to enough speed on his scooter to have gone over by himself due to the thick carpeting, although damage to the top railing of the banister is consistent with a paint mark on one of the scooter wheels.
The same day in which Rebecca’s body was found, Adam Shacknai was given a lie detector test, but the polygraph results were inconclusive. Derrick and Kris met with Dr. Michelle Cohen, a body language expert who walked them through Adam Shacknai’s interview with police. What she notices is that during the interview, he acted out what happened at certain points with his hands. Her training has led her to believe that when someone acts out with their hands, they are usually being truthful. At one point during his interview, Adam sat straight up and almost lunged out of his seat, indicating to Cohen that Adam was anxious or nervous. She notices a lot of head movement, which to her is indicative of not being sure on how to answer some of the questions he was being asked. She noticed points of possible dishonesty when Adam made certain body movements and the way he was phrasing some of his statements. All in all, she came to the conclusion that Adam might have been fatigued, maybe even traumatized by what he saw and that he was being truthful.
Derrick and Kris met with Paula Sassi, a graphologist, to determine if the writing on the door belonged to Rebecca or if it came from someone else. She says that the writing was indicative of block writing- and that usually block print usually happens when someone is trying to hide their handwriting. She sees that this person might have been domineering or someone with a big ego, most likely a male who was 6 feet tall, right handed who was seemingly trying to taunt his victim. Sassi points out that this isn’t a suicide note based on the fact that it’s written in third person view. She says that people usually don’t write suicide notes in third person. She says that if Rebecca wrote this, then she would have just come out and said that was going to kill herself.
Derrick and Kris met with Debra Marks, a boat captain, to see if there’s a possibility that Rebecca could have tied her own knots, or if someone with nautical experience might have been involved. Marks ties a rope around her ankles and wrists indicative of how the rope was found on Rebecca’s body. Marks believes that anyone could have made those knots, and that usually, the rope that was used is normally bought with some knots already made at the ends.
Derrick and Kris obtained a diary, or journal entry written by Rebecca in 2002 to get a better understanding of her mental health to try and figure out if she was depressed or suicidal in any way. The journal entry that they analyze is about her writing about the Gospel of John and how she wrote that John was the only disciple to have died a “normal” death. To Kris, this means that Rebecca was aware of tragic endings happening to the disciples. She also wrote “let go of your life if you want to gain it” and to Kris, Rebecca was drawing parallels of committing suicide as to dying on the cross. In a different journal entry written a few months before her death, Kris notes that Rebecca wrote about her relationship with Jonah and how she was more in love with him than he was in love with her. Although it seemed like she was living a perfect life to her family and friends, to her, it was all but perfect. Derrick and Kris think that maybe Rebecca thought she was living an inauthentic life.
Derrick and Kris hired a stunt man and woman to try to recreate the scene of Rebecca’s death to try to get a visual into what happened and to see if certain things that were indicative from the autopsy report matched with what the stunt woman was capable of doing. The stunt woman was the same height as Rebecca, and during the demonstration, they matched the height of the balcony to the stunt woman in order to get an accurate recreation. During the stunt woman’s fall, she hit her head on the railing in the same place where Rebecca received contusions. (The stunt woman had on a helmet, so she was okay!) Kris and Derrick came to the conclusion that the marks on Rebecca’s head couldn’t rule out suicide.
Kris met with Dr Lynn Lunceford, a forensic psychologist, to see if Max’s accident and subsequent death was enough for Rebecca to commit suicide. Even though none of us knew what was going through Rebecca’s head, Lunceford says that Max’s accident could definitely have triggered some sort of psychotic break for Rebecca. If this was a suicide, it was elaborate, so Kris asks if Rebecca was capable of killing herself in that way. Lunceford says that it’s very likely that Rebecca committed suicide, and even notes that her being naked is indicitive of her bearing her soul or trying to let go of her guilt. Lunceford thinks that Rebecca being bound is because Rebecca didn’t want to stop herself from committing suicide or change the outcome. Lunceford believed that Rebecca was remorseful about what happened to Max and suffered a psychotic break and killed herself because she didn’t see any other way out.
Kris and Derrick come to the determination based on all the evidence they came up with that Rebecca committed suicide. These are the reasons why they came to this conclusion; Although Rebecca was loving, compassionate and felt things very deeply, things in her life began to fall apart, especially in her relationship with Jonah. She didn’t have any hope that anything was going to change. Frustrated psychological needs, hopelessness, despair, grief are all associated with completed suicides, and Kris believes that Rebecca exhibited almost all of those signs. Kris thinks that Rebecca had already vacated her physical being when she wrote the note on the door which explains the third person connotation. She was also found with paint on her fingernails and on other parts of her body that matched the paint on the door. Kris believes that the YOU in the note is referring to God because most of her writings were spiritual.
Derrick and Kris met with Felicia and Lori and informed them of their results. The women couldn’t understand how that determination came to be, so Derrick and Kris explain to them that it’s very likely that Rebecca couldn’t bear with Max’s death and because she was already experiencing a lot of emotional upheaval regarding her relationship with Jonah it explained why and how Rebecca could kill herself in the way that she did. Felicia shook her head during most of their conversation and it’s obvious that the two women did not believe what Derrick and Kris determined what Rebecca’s manner of death was. Derrick and Kris also met with Dina to also inform her on what their findings were. They told her that Max’s death was an accident but Dina had a hard time believing that to be true and still thinks that foul play was involved.
On April 4th, 2018, jurors of a civil trial found Adam Shacknai responsible for the death of Rebecca Zahau. Derrick, Kris and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department stand by their conclusions that Rebecca’s death was a suicide.
As for me, I can’t help but feel like there was foul play. If she was as emotional and upset about her relationship with Jonah, wouldn’t she have confided in someone. She had siblings, so you would think that she would have told them that she was feeling suicidal, however, there’s no reports that I could find that explain whether or not Rebecca told her family about what was going on behind closed doors. And even if Rebecca was a distraught over Max’s death as they claim, wouldn’t she have been with someone to help console her? It just seems a little odd that the only person she really had contact with after Max’s accident is only Adam Shacknai. After doing a deeper dive into the civil trial, I found reports that indicated Rebecca was sexually abused or raped before her death- alluding to the fact that Adam raped her before murdering her. Now, I don’t know how truthful those claims are, but for the jurors to come to the conclusion that Adam was responsible for her death must tell us that there’s so much more to the story than what Derrick and Kris had mentioned. Either way, two innocent people lost their lives in tragic ways, and it’s hard for their families to get closure.