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Tycoon’s brother found responsible for San Diego woman’s hanging, ordered to pay more than $5 million

Civil trial for the wrongful death of Rebecca Zahau
Adam Shacknai in court during the civil trial that found him responsible for the death of Rebecca Zahau.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

One of San Diego’s most compelling and controversial death investigations took another turn Wednesday when a Superior Court jury determined that Rebecca Zahau didn’t commit suicide at a Coronado mansion in 2011, and that her boyfriend’s brother is legally responsible for her death

The jury in the civil case found that Adam Shacknai must pay Zahau’s family $5 million for the loss of her love and companionship, plus $167,000 for the loss of financial support she would have provided her mother and siblings.

The verdict rebukes the finding by the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department that Zahau committed suicide, and supported her family’s long contention that the 32-year-old surgical technician — imbued with a strong Christian faith — would never have taken her own life.

Immediately afterward, both the family lawyer, C. Keith Greer, and Zahau’s sister, Mary Zahau-Loehners, called on Sheriff Bill Gore to reopen the case and investigate further.

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“This has always been about getting the sheriff to reopen this,” Greer said outside the courtroom minutes after the verdict. “Adam Shacknai doesn’t have money. This isn’t about money. It’s about getting the Sheriff’s Department to open this up, do their job. This clearly isn’t a suicide.”

After the verdict, the jury was dismissed until Thursday, when there may be another hearing regarding punitive damages.

On a 9-3 vote, the jury found that Shacknai, 54, had battered Zahau before her death with the intent to harm her, and also found him liable for her wrongful death. In civil lawsuits, nine votes are sufficient to prevail; decisions in criminal cases must be unanimous.

Shacknai hung his head as the verdicts were being read.

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An emotional Zahau-Loehners said outside court she was in shock and grateful for the jury. She also forcefully urged Gore to take a second look at her sister’s death.

“Hopefully people will know she didn’t commit suicide and she was murdered,” she said. “And she doesn’t deserve to be treated the way the Sheriff’s Department treated her.”

The department did not immediately respond to questions about whether Gore planned to heed the family’s plea or comment on the verdict.

Zahau’s mother and sister have long disputed the county’s finding in 2011 that Zahau’s death was a suicide. They also pointed to the unusual circumstances of her death. Zahau’s nude body was found hanging from a balcony attached to a second-floor guest bedroom, her hands and feet were bound, and a cryptic message was scrawled on the bedroom door.

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

County authorities said there was no evidence — no fingerprints or DNA 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 manually strangled her, then staged the hanging to look like she took her own life.

“Why did Adam Shacknai brutally murder Rebecca Zahau?” Greer asked Monday. “It’s one of the oldest reasons in the world — sex.”

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He said Shacknai used the handle of a steak knife to sexually assault Zahau. Traces of her blood were on the handle. Greer called it “a confrontation that went awry.”

The attorney said Shacknai used black paint to scrawl the message on the bedroom door, a reference to an incident involving his brother Jonah Shacknai’s 6-year-old son, Max, who suffered a deadly fall at the mansion two days before Zahau’s body was found.

Zahau was the only adult at the home when Max tumbled from a second-floor staircase landing. She tried CPR on the boy, while her younger sister called 911.

Jonah Shacknai, a multimillionaire pharmaceuticals tycoon, was at his son’s bedside when he got a call informing him that his girlfriend Zahau was dead.

The call came from his younger brother, who was staying in a guest house at the mansion.

Adam Shacknai has disputed having anything to do with her death, aside from finding Zahau hanging from the balcony on July 13, 2011, using a kitchen knife to cut the body down and then calling 911.

greg.moran@sduniontribune.com

Moran writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune

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UPDATES:

3:15 p.m.: This article has been updated with details throughout.

This article originally published at 12:10 p.m.


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