"There are two different types of people in the world, those who want to know and those who want to believe."
It was the 13th of July 2011. A Wednesday. Thirty two year old Rebecca Zahau was on the small island resort city of Coronado, California, United States. She was staying at the vacation home of her boyfriend, a millionaire pharmaceutical executive called Jonah Shacknai. They were together almost three years. Rebecca was from Burma but had lived in the United States for around ten years. Jonah was twenty two years older than her but Rebecca was an intelligent and mature woman and they had a lot in common. She had travelled the world, spoke six languages and worked as a certified ophthalmic technician in Arizona.
Rebecca and Jonah
In December 2010, Rebecca stopped working so that she could spend more time with Jonah and his family. Every Summer they went to Jonah's house in Coronado and the Summer of 2011 was no different. The house had 27 rooms and was on the beach front. There were several guest houses attached. It should have been an idyllic place to stay but in recent days it had become the scene of a tragedy.
Jonah's Vacation Home
On Monday, the 11th of July, Jonah's six year old son Max was in the house with Rebecca and her thirteen year old sister Xena. Max was Jonah's son with his second wife Dina Shacknai. Just after 10 am that morning, a call was made to 911. Max had fallen over the second floor banister. It was around nine feet from the banister to the ground. When first responders arrived, Max had no pulse and was not breathing. He was taken to hospital and transferred to Rady Children's Hospital San Diego and was in a critical condition. According to Rebecca, she was in the bathroom when he fell. She believed he tried to grab on to the chandelier as some chandelier pieces had fallen. Xena heard the scream and found Rebecca sitting beside Max with his head on her lap giving him CPR. His skateboard was also on the ground beside Max.
Jonah and Dina stayed in the hospital with Max. Jonah's younger brother Adam called Rebecca. His father told him about Max and Adam said he would fly to San Diego from his home in Memphis so that he could support them. He arrived on the afternoon of the 12th of July.
When Adam arrived in San Diego, Rebecca was waiting for him at the airport. She brought him back to the guest house which was on the property of the main house and they both went out to meet Jonah for dinner beside the hospital. After dinner, Jonah went back to the hospital and Rebecca and Adam headed back to the house.
According to Adam, he went straight to the guest house and made a few calls. He had an early night and went to bed around 9pm.
Jonah and Rebecca
Adam claimed that the next morning, the 13th of July, he left the guest house to walk to a local coffee shop. It was around 6.45 am. As he walked past the main house, he saw Rebecca hanging naked from the second floor balcony. She was gagged, a long sleeved t-shirt was inside her mouth, and her arms and legs were tied:her wrists were bound behind her back and the rope was around her ankles.
Inside the House
Adam called 911, he got a kitchen knife and cut the rope. He took Rebecca's body down from the outside balcony. He then performed CPR. But she was already dead. When police arrived, Rebecca's body was on the lawn in the back yard.
Local authorities ruled Rebecca’s death a suicide. Her family were distraught. They believed that there was no way Rebecca would have killed herself. Her sister, Mary Zahau-Loehner, said that she had spoken to Rebecca close to midnight the night before, on the Tuesday night. According to Mary, Rebecca was:
"normal, fine, just getting ready to go to bed."
She also said that Rebecca sent her a text message saying that she had to be strong for Jonah.
To further add to the confusion, a neighbor claimed they heard loud music from the house that night and thought there was a party. But no gathering was ever confirmed to have taken place at the house that night.
Jonah's Vacation Home
Police believed that Rebecca may have taken her own life after suffering from guilt over Max’s injury. She was the only adult in the house at the time and she adored Max. She referred to him as her son.
But that made no sense to Rebecca's family. Aside from it being an accident, Max was in hospital when Rebecca died. He was still alive. Tragically, he died a few days after Rebecca's death. Authorities ruled his death as accidental.
Police were certain that nobody else was involved in Rebecca's death. They believed that she received a voicemail from Jonah at 12.50am on the morning on the 13th of July. In the Voicemail, Jonah told her Max was likely going to die and they believed she killed herself a couple of hours later. That voicemail was deleted and Rebecca's family never heard it. Rebecca's family could not believe that a woman would commit suicide when naked and gag herself and tie her own wrists and ankles before hanging herself.
The police believed she had made a makeshift noose with a piece of red rope. It was their belief that after she tied the red rope to the end of a bed, she then tied her feet together and placed the noose over her neck and bound her hands. They believe she then managed to get out to the balcony and push herself off. Toxicology tests found no drugs or alcohol in her system.
The Balcony Doors
The San Diego County chief deputy medical examiner, Dr. Jonathan Lucas, said:
"There was no evidence of a struggle and she was alive when she went over the balcony."
Rebecca's fingerprints were found on the door to the balcony and DNA evidence on the rope and the foot of the bed was a match to Rebecca. Toe impressions on the balcony appeared to have been made by feet that were bound together.
A message had been written on the bedroom door in black paint which read:
"She Saved Him Can You Save Her."
Rebecca's family fought for the investigation to be reopened. They filed a wrongful death lawsuit and the initial complaint named Adam Shacknai, Dina Shacknai and her twin sister, Nina Romano but by the time it went to Trial in 2018, there was only one sole defendant. Adam Shacknai.
Adam was the only other person known to be on the property the night Rebecca died and the family believed her manner of death was a homicide not a suicide. They believed that Adam struck Rebecca on the head, tied her up using nautical knots, sexually assaulted her, strangled her and threw her off the balcony. There were four blows to Rebecca's head and her family believed this would have either made her partially or fully unconscious.
They hired forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht to review the autopsy findings:
"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 that the autopsy report showed Rebecca had four hemorrhages on the top of her head that indicated blunt force trauma.
Adam denied being involved in Rebecca's death. His lawyer argued that his DNA and fingerprints were nowhere to be found in the bedroom, yet Rebecca's DNA was everywhere. Rebecca's family had argued that Adam would have been able to do the nautical knots used to tie the rope around Rebecca's ankles because he worked on the Mississippi River serving as a tugboat pilot. But Adam claimed that he could not do complicated knots like “clove hitch knot,” “cow hitch knot,” or “lark’s head knot.”
Adam also claimed that he had no interest in Rebecca and was in a relationship with a woman for over twenty years. They did not live together as neither wanted to marry.
A civil jury declared that Adam was responsible for Rebecca's death and awarded her family $5.1 million in damages. Adam appealed but before there was a second Trial, his Insurance Company agreed to settle the matter out of Court.
Even though Adam's Insurance Company settled the matter, he continues to deny any involvement in Rebecca's death.
After the civil jury verdict, new investigators were assigned to reexamine the evidence. They also ruled Rebecca's death as a suicide.
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"When someone just disappears for no reason, it's shocking, it's devastating. I just feel like my life stopped that day and I've just been in a tailspin ever since."
- Adam Vaughan, Janine's brother
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