SAN DIEGO (CN) — A jury trial kicked off Wednesday in which relatives of a woman who was found hanging off a San Diego mansion balcony with her hands and feet bound claim her wealthy boyfriend’s brother killed her — two days after his 6-year-old nephew had fallen in the home and suffered a fatal brain injury.
Complicating the problem for the 12-person superior court jury is that the San Diego County Medical Examiner and Sheriff’s Department declared that 32-year-old Rebecca Zahau was not murdered, but committed suicide.
Zahau was found dead at the Spreckels Mansion in Coronado on July 13, 2011, two days after her boyfriend Jonah Shacknai’s 6-year-old son Max had fallen off a second-story banister in the home and suffered a fatal brain injury. He died five days later.
Zahau was found by her boyfriend’s brother Adam Shacknai, who cut her down and performed CPR. Zahau was pronounced dead at the scene.
Two months later the Medical Examiner found Zahau had died by suicide.
Zahau’s mother Pari Zahau and sister Mary Zahau-Loehner doubted it. In 2013 they sued Jonah’s brother Adam Shacknai; Dina Shacknai, Jonah’s ex-wife, who was Max’s mother; and Dina’s twin sister Nina Romano. Dina and Nina were later dropped from the suit after the family’s attorney found evidence they weren’t at the mansion at the time of Zahau’s death.
Jonah Shacknai is not a defendant.
The Spreckels Mansion is a 27-room estate built with money from a sugar magnate.
On Wednesday in Superior Court Judge Katherine Bacal’s courtroom the Zahaus’ attorney Keith Greer told jurors that Zahau did not die by suicide but was killed during a struggle with Adam Shacknai.
Greer showed photos of Zahau and some of her paintings before asking Pari Zahau to leave the courtroom so she would not see graphic photos of her daughter’s body.
The Zahaus seek damages for loss of consortium and financial support.
Greer described Rebecca Zahau as a “very healthy” woman who exercised, ate well, did not do drugs and “had her faith to fall back on” if times got hard.
She took her boyfriend’s children to sports practice and made meals for the family, Greer said. She and Jonah Shacknai had been in a relationship for two years and she was living at his mansion when she died.
Greer said the “two terrible incidents that tore these families a part” began when Jonah Shacknai’s son fell on July 11, 2013, and was hospitalized with a serious brain injury.
Adam Shacknai, who came to San Diego on July 12 to support his brother, found Zahau’s body early on July 13. She was hanging from a red rope tied to a bedpost and thrown over a balcony off the guest room. A message painted in black paint on the guest bedroom door stated: “She saved him can you save her.”
A steak knife, carving knife, paintbrush and tube of paint were also found in the room.
Rebecca Zahau had four contusions on the right side of her head — Greer said she had been knocked unconscious by Shacknai. The attorney told the jury Adam Shacknai had sexually assaulted her with the handle of a steak knife, which was stained with her menstrual blood.
Black paint was smudged on the sides of her nipples, which Greer suggested indicted her nipples had been pinched before she was killed.
Greer said the knots used to bind Zahau’s feet and hands were consistent with “nautical maritime traits,” and that there is no evidence she had any experience with knots.
Due to the way Zahau’s hands and feet were bound and the height of the balcony, Greer said, “It would be virtually impossible for her to get over the railing.”
Greer said the force of being thrown 9 feet off the balcony “should have at least partially decapitated” Zahau, but she suffered only fractures to her neck cartilage.
“There is evidence at both ends of the rope that somebody was slowing it down,” Greer said. “There’s a huge amount of energy not accounted for.”
Greer, however, acknowledged that there are “some things we’re never going to know here.”
Adam Shacknai’s attorney Dan Webb, with Winston & Strawn of Chicago, said: “There’s two sides to every story, and, well, that’s certainly true in this case.”
Webb said there is neither a witness nor scientific evidence that proves his client killed Zahau.
Adam Shacknai, a seaman who works on the Mississippi River, never had a problem with the law or harmed anyone, Webb said. He told the jury his client cooperated fully with the police investigation of Zahau’s death because he had “nothing to hide.”
“Adam acted like someone completely innocent of anything,” Webb said.
Webb said he would call a suicide expert to testify about the risk factors Zahau had of dying by suicide. He said “huge numbers of people know how to tie that knot,” rebutting the suggestion that only someone with maritime experience, could tie the type of knot used to bind Zahau.
The trial is expected to last for a month.