8 years after a woman was found hanging in Coronado mansion, her family settles wrongful-death case

Adam Shacknai sits in court in Coronado in a civil trial over the death of Rebecca Zahau.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)
San Diego Union-Tribune

In a surprise move, the $5.1-million judgment and the jury finding that blamed Adam Shacknai for the death of Rebecca Zahau in a Coronado mansion eight years ago have been wiped out and the entire case dismissed after the family of the deceased woman reached a settlement with Shacknai’s insurance company.

The announcement Wednesday by the lawyer for the woman’s family, C. Keith Greer, at the start of a scheduled hearing to argue post-trial motions took Shacknai by surprise as well as his own lawyer.

It also added yet another twist to the controversial death of Zahau, which has now been investigated twice by the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and was the subject of a captivating civil trial last year.


Greer gave no insight into the settlement. “All I’m at liberty to say is the case has been resolved,” he said outside court. He declined to say how much, if any, money was involved in the settlement.

Shacknai — the brother of Zahau’s boyfriend at the time of her death, Jonah Shacknai — said outside court that his insurance company “did an end-around” on him and that the settlement was for far less — “a pittance” — than the $5.1-million jury award.

“They were tired of throwing money at it,” he said. Both he and his lawyer, Seth Weisburst, said Adam Shacknai himself was not paying out any money.

In April, a civil jury found by a 9-3 vote that Shacknai was responsible for Zahau’s death.

Shacknai planned to appeal that verdict. But with the judgment vacated and the case dismissed, legally it is as if they never occurred. It was unclear what appeal, if any, is possible. But that clearly did not sit well with Shacknai, who bitterly complained about Greer, the judge, the trial and the outcome.

Greer flatly said the case is over with the confidential settlement.

He also repeated what he said earlier: The family would press the county medical examiner to change the official cause of her death from suicide to homicide. If that fails, he said, the family would head back to court, seeking a judicial ruling to change the finding.

Zahau’s nude body was found July 13, 2011, hanging from a balcony attached to a second-floor guest bedroom at the historic Spreckels mansion. Her hands and feet were bound, a T-shirt was stuffed in her mouth and a cryptic message was scrawled in black paint on the bedroom door.

The message read, “She saved him can you save her.”

County authorities said there was no evidence — no fingerprints, DNA or footprints belonging to anyone other than Zahau — indicating she was killed.

Greer argued that Shacknai battered his brother’s girlfriend, hit her on the head, sexually assaulted and strangled her, then staged the hanging to look like she took her own life.

Two days before her body was found, Zahau was the only adult at the Coronado home when her boyfriend’s 6-year-old son suffered major head trauma in a fall, and she tried to perform CPR. The boy died several days later.

Moran writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.