SAN DIEGO (CN) — Attorneys for two families connected by two deaths within days of one another theorized during closing arguments Monday about a woman’s suspicious hanging death and whether she died at the hands of her wealthy boyfriend’s brother.
After a month-long civil trial, jurors this week must decide whether 32-year-old Rebecca Zahau was sexually assaulted, strangled and hanged by Adam Shacknai, the brother of her wealthy pharmaceuticals tycoon boyfriend, Jonah Shacknai.
Zahau was found hanging naked, bound and gagged from the Spreckels Mansion in Coronado on the morning of July 13, 2011, by Adam Shacknai.
The Spreckels Mansion is a 27-room estate built with money from a sugar fortune.
Zahau’s death was ruled a suicide by law enforcement officials who and suggested she was despondent over a fatal accident involving her boyfriend Jonah’s 6-year-old son Max while the boy was in her care.
But Zahau’s family believes Rebecca was murdered, though their theory about who did it has changed since they filed a civil complaint of wrongful death in 2013.
The Zahau family’s attorney Keith Greer addressed the changing theory of who killed Rebecca Zahau during his closing statements Monday. Greer told the jury that interrogatories —questions answered by both parties about the case — show the Zahau family initially believed three people conspired to kill Rebecca — Adam Shacknai, his brother’s ex-wife Dina Shacknai and her twin sister Nina Romano.
Greer said that theory “changed over time” and that Dina Shacknai and Romano were dropped from the lawsuit after the attorney found evidence they were not at the mansion at the time of Zahau’s death. Dina was at the children’s hospital with her son Max that night, Greer said.
The Zahau family, including mother Pari and sister Mary Zahau-Loehner, asked for one penny in economic damages on behalf of Rebecca and $5,000 a year for the rest of Pari Zahau’s life, for loss of support from by her late daughter.
Greer would not put a price on noneconomic damages, saying: “I don’t know what value to put on a mother’s loss of a daughter.”
Closing arguments were peppered with vivid demonstrations for jurors, including a lifelike mannequin with long black hair hanged 82 inches off the ground, the distance Rebecca Zahau was found hanging from the ground when Adam Shacknai cut her down.
The bedroom door with the cryptic message “She saved him can you save her” painted in black, jagged letters, found after Zahau’s death, was brought into Superior Court Judge Katherine Bacal’s courtroom.
Greer said Adam Shacknai had a “confrontation that went awry” with Rebecca and mentioned an overturned chair and knives found in the room Rebecca was staying in as evidence of a struggle.
Greer said the lack of DNA evidence was “remarkable”: that while Zahau’s DNA was found in several places in the bedroom and on the ropes used to bind her ankles and wrists, lack of discernible DNA evidence on places like doorknobs indicated the room had been “wiped down” by someone attempting to clean up a crime.
“No DNA where there should be DNA is consistent with items being wiped down. … It supports murder,” Greer said.
Injuries documented in the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s autopsy of Zahau were not consistent with hanging, Greer said, including abrasions on Zahau’s back and hips. Greer said that if Zahau had hanged herself, the force of throwing herself off the balcony would have cause more severe injuries to her neck, and possibly partial or full decapitation.
Greer played the 911 call Shacknai made to first responders after finding Rebecca hanging, and suggested the call was fake and that Shacknai knew she was dead, because he’d killed her.
“What’s the motive here? What happened comes straight down to one of the oldest reasons in the world: It’s sex,” Greer said. He said “sexual deviation” was involved, citing a steak knife found at the scene, with its handle covered in Zahau’s menstrual blood. Black paint, such as that used to paint the message on the door, was found on Zahau’s buttocks and nipples, which Greer said were “tweaked” before her death.
“Everything is just bizarre, and it all came to a head at the Spreckels Mansion that evening,” Greer said. “We’re here today so somebody independent can see the sheriff’s investigation was wrong.”
Adam Shacknai’s attorney Dan Webb told the jury his client has been charged with “the most serious, despicable acts” and that Shacknai’s “entire future depends on the verdict in this case.”
“I want you to understand in some detail there has been a complete failure in this case that my client has done any of the acts,” Webb said.
When Greer cross-examined Shacknai during the trial, Webb said: “I waited and I waited and I waited” for Greer to connect the alleged murder to Shacknai and attack his credibility to “show he was a liar.”
“He didn’t confront my client with any evidence about that because he doesn’t have any,” Webb said.
Webb directly addressed Greer during his closing argument, asking him to cite one witness of the 29 who testified during trial who said that Adam Shacknai killed Zahau.
As for the lack of Adam Shacknai’s DNA, Webb said, it was “extremely powerful [evidence] that Adam Shacknai had nothing to do with the death of Rebecca Zahau.”
“There’s not a single speck of evidence to contradict him,” Webb said.
Closing arguments were to resume Tuesday morning.