SAN DIEGO (CN) – The man accused of murder by the family of a woman found naked, bound, gagged and hanged off the balcony of a San Diego mansion in 2011 testified Monday he had no part in the woman’s death.
Adam Shacknai, 54, took the stand in a civil wrongful death trial brought by the family of Rebecca Zahau, who was found dead at the Spreckels Mansion in Coronado on July 13, 2011. Shacknai found Zahau and cut her down and performed CPR with the coaching of a 911 operator before first responders arrived.
Zahau’s death was ruled a suicide after multiple San Diego law enforcement agencies investigated her death. Officials pointed to the tragic accident of Max Shacknai – Zahau’s boyfriend Jonah Shacknai’s 6-year-old son – as a trigger for Zahau to die by suicide. Max was in Zahau’s care when he fell off a second-story banister in the home and suffered a fatal brain injury. He died in the hospital days later after Zahau was found dead.
Shacknai swiveled back and forth in his chair, alternating between facing Zahau family attorney Keith Greer and the jury as he testified in a slight southern drawl about his job working on the Mississippi River, starting out as a deckhand before moving up to captain of a tugboat.
“I’m a jack of all trades, master of none,” Shacknai said.
Despite working for 28 years in the maritime industry, Shacknai said he couldn’t recognize the type of knots that were used to bind Zahau’s hands and feet together before her body was tossed off the mansion balcony in 2011.
A “knot expert” who testified earlier in the trial described the knots used to bind Zahau as “nautical.” Zahau’s family says Rebecca had no experience in knot tying and maintains Shacknai is the one who bound her feet and hands together.
Shacknai testified he “sets boundaries” to respect other people and that he’s had the same girlfriend for 20 years who was in court supporting him Monday. But when Greer pressed Shacknai about why he hadn’t introduced his long-term girlfriend to his family and suggested that the two weren’t even dating, Shacknai spoke out of turn, calling out to his girlfriend in the audience to ask if they were together.
Superior Court Judge Katherine Bacal asked Shacknai’s girlfriend to leave the courtroom. The judge also excluded her from being called as a witness.
Shacknai said he had met Zahau a few years before Max’s accident and that they had a cordial relationship.
“She was an attractive woman but I was not attracted to her – she was my brother’s girlfriend,” Shacknai said.
When Shacknai received a call from his father about his nephew Max’s accident, he said he got in touch with Zahau to discuss flying to San Diego to support his family.
“I felt it was the right thing to do. She [Zahau] encouraged me to come out. She told me to follow my heart,” Shacknai said in noting he “was not surprised” by Zahau inviting him to come be with the family.
Shacknai said Zahau picked him up from the airport and was “upset like the rest of us.” The two went to the hospital and returned home together later that evening. Shacknai said they parted ways, with Zahau going into the main house and while he stayed in a separate guest house on the property.
During a rapid fire question-and-answer session where Greer pressed Shacknai if he murdered Zahau, Shacknai said “She never attempted to flee because I was never in the house.”
“I never did anything to Rebecca Zahau,” Shacknai said.
The 911 call Shacknai made the following morning when he found Zahau hanging was played both by Greer and by Shacknai’s attorney Dan Webb.
Shacknai said he had to drag a table under Rebecca’s body to stand on so he could cut her down. He said it was the only time in his life he’s performed CPR.
“I had a strong feeling she might not be living, but if there was a 1 in a million chance …. I would hope someone would do the same for me,” Shacknai said.
When questioned by Webb, his attorney, Shacknai said he had nothing to do with Zahau’s death. He said he called 911 before cutting Zahau down to “get the people out there to get her some help.”
Shacknai said he cooperated with police investigators that day, including going into the station for questioning and submitting DNA evidence and his shoes as part of their investigation.
While Shacknai was a person of interest in the case, police later cleared him of any wrongdoing.