SAN DIEGO (CN) – It took a jury less than a day of deliberations to find a man liable Wednesday in the suspicious hanging death of a woman in a San Diego-area mansion.
A 12-person jury found 9-3 that Adam Shacknai is civilly liable for battery on Rebecca Zahau, which resulted in her death on July, 13, 2011. The jury also found in favor of the Zahau family on their wrongful-death claim against Shacknai.
Shacknai told 911 he found Zahau naked, bound, gagged and hanging off a balcony at the Spreckels Mansion in Coronado where Zahau lived with Shacknai’s brother, Jonah. Adam performed CPR but Zahau was pronounced dead at the scene.
Zahau’s death followed another tragic event at the Spreckels Mansion two days earlier when Jonah’s 6-year-old son, Max, suffered fatal injuries after falling from a second-story banister.
While Max was in the intensive care unit at Rady Children’s Hospital on July 12, Adam came to San Diego at the urging of Zahau, who had been the only adult in the house at the time of the child’s fall.
By September, police had listed the cause of Zahau’s death as suicide, suggesting she was despondent over Max’s grim diagnosis before he was taken off life support. But Zahau’s family believed Adam murdered her and filed a civil suit for wrongful death in 2013.
The jury on Wednesday awarded Zahau’s mother, Pari, $5 million in noneconomic damages, as well as $167,000 in lost past and future financial support.
Zahau family attorney Keith Greer told reporters the family was “in shock” and that they hope, now that the “evidence is out in the public,” police will reopen the investigation into Zahau’s death and file criminal charges against Adam Shacknai.
“I hope that the sheriff’s department is paying some attention,” Greer said. “We got the evidence out in the public to see what happened here, what happened to this investigation, what wasn’t done and what wasn’t looked at.
“This has always been about getting the sheriff’s department to reopen this up,” Greer added. “This clearly isn’t a suicide and they should use their resources to do their job correctly.”
Greer said the family plans to petition the department to declassify Zahau’s death as a suicide and reclassify it as an open investigation.
During the month-long trial, the court heard testimony from 29 experts and witnesses, including law enforcement investigators, handwriting and knot-tying experts, Zahau’s family members, and Jonah Shacknai.
Adam Shacknai testified he “never did anything to Rebecca Zahau” and that he had a “strong feeling” Zahau was already dead when he found her hanging.
Greer suggested during the trial Adam “confronted” Zahau the night of July 12, 2011, before hitting her over the head, sexually assaulting her, strangling her and hanging her over the balcony of the third-story bedroom.
A knife with Zahau’s menstrual blood on the wooden handle was found at the scene, as well as a message painted in black on the bedroom door which said, “She saved him can you save her.” None of Adam Shacknai’s DNA was found at the scene, however.
Zahau’s sister and brother-in-law, Mary Zahau-Loehner and Doug Loehner, both cried when the verdict was read. A police detective in Missouri, Loehner said the facts of his sister-in-law’s death pointed to her being murdered.
Zahau-Loehner thanked jurors for “spending so many weeks to get justice for Rebecca.”
“I can’t bring her back but hopefully now people know she didn’t commit suicide – she was murdered,” Zahau-Loehner said. “She didn’t deserve to be treated the way the sheriff’s department treated her.”
Pari Zahau, Rebecca’s mother, was at work when the verdict was read. Zahau-Loehner said she planned to call her mother to tell her the news, noting the family will have to “get back to normal.”
“The reality that Rebecca is gone is really going to hit me because all of these years my family and I have been fighting to prove she was murdered,” Zahau-Loehner said through tears.
“Now I have to accept she is gone and she is in a better place.”
Jurors will return to court Thursday for a possible phase on punitive damages.
Tammy Taylor, a spokeswoman with Sitrick & Company, said Adam Shacknai will not comment until all matters in the case are resolved. He is represented by Winston & Strawn attorney Dan Webb.