Countdown: Six-ish weeks until we learn if the Rebecca Zahau Case will be re-opened
By Caitlin Rother
Note: Due to my past life as a political reporter, I am still registered to vote as “decline to state,” so I’m not taking sides or endorsing any candidate in this race, and I hope to have good relations with whomever is elected sheriff. But I do hope that the criminal case into Zahau’s death will be re-opened, because there are still so many unanswered questions, and I am “thirsty for answers” like everyone else.
I finally got a chance to talk to Undersheriff Kelly Martinez at a candidate’s forum this week and ask her directly if she would be willing to re-open the controversial Rebecca Zahau death case if she is elected on November 8.
Although Zahau was found hanging naked, bound, and gagged from a balcony in the rear courtyard of the Spreckels Mansion in Coronado, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department (SDSD) has stuck to its ruling in September 2011 that her death was a suicide.
My primary goal in attending the forum was to ask Martinez and her opponent, John Hemmerling, to state their positions in public on this topic, which is obviously important to me and the Zahau family, but is also a nagging trust issue within the broader community.
Martinez’s answer was, essentially, not likely. First, she said she wouldn’t suggest the case be re-opened by any agency unless the Medical Examiner’s Office changes its suicide finding first. (The Zahau family has been pushing to change the cause of death from homicide or undetermined since 2011, filing two lawsuits in the process).
Second, she contended that other agencies have already been asked to re-investigate the case and have said no.
“Recently?” I asked.
“No,” she conceded.
Third, Martinez also stated, incorrectly, that the SDSD has already investigated this case twice and retested evidence in 2018, and she didn’t think the community would be satisfied even if it was investigated a third time. (Read below for more details, but, in short, the SDSD has done only one investigation that lasted less than two months, and it did not retest any evidence during a subsequent internal “review” of the case in 2018, which then-Sheriff Bill Gore said emphatically was not a full-blown re-investigation or re-opening of the criminal case.)
Hemmerling has already been pretty vocal about this subject recently, announcing that he has met with the Zahau family and, like retired sheriff’s Commander Dave Myers, who lost in the primary election, promised them that he would re-open the case if elected.
“The community is thirsty for answers,” he said, adding that he would close the case only after they got those answers. He noted, however, that “I’m not going to say there will be a different outcome.”
Still, re-opening this case is something that so far, the SDSD has refused to do, even in the wake of a civil verdict in 2018 that found Adam Shacknai responsible for Rebecca Zahau’s wrongful death. As a result, her family, who is convinced that she was murdered, has endorsed Hemmerling for sheriff.
The need for more transparency by the SDSD is one of Hemmerling’s major campaign talking points, and it was a major theme for Myers’ campaign as well. They both said they believe that the SDSD has been hiding behind its mistakes and has not been held accountable for far too long, while Martinez said the opposite.
“I’m a big believer in transparency,” she said, noting that they can’t always publicize certain details. “It looks like we’re hiding behind things, but . . . if we’ve made mistakes we need to be accountable and own up to them.”
Well, frankly, yes, it often does look like they’re “hiding behind things.” I’ve been wanting to write this blog post for quite some time, but I couldn’t get Martinez to return my calls, let alone respond to my request to sit down and talk. Not about the Zahau case, and not about the McStay family murder case, which is the topic of my next book, DOWN TO THE BONE, which will be released by Kensington/Citadel Press in 2024. Each time I’ve put a request in to her campaign manager or the SDSD spokeswoman, I’ve been told that Martinez declined to comment, or I got no response at all.
I was also told that no one else at the SDSD would comment for my McStay book either. Period. The agency investigated the family’s disappearance in February 2010 for several years as a missing person’s case, finally handing it off to the FBI, because the lead detective believed the family went voluntarily to Mexico. Seven months later, the remains of the family—Joseph and Summer McStay and their three- and four-year-old sons, Joey Jr. and Gianni—were found in two shallow graves in the High Desert in November 2013.
So last night, I showed up and introduced myself to Martinez before the forum, which was conveniently being held at a church in my neighborhood. When I asked if she knew who I was, she said no. (I should note that I was one of the few people in the room wearing a mask, and it’s not like I’m a famous person, even if I have been on TV numerous times locally and nationally.)
“I’m the author of the book on the Rebecca Zahau case,” I said, referring to DEATH ON OCEAN BOULEVARD: Inside The Coronado Mansion Case, which came out last year and, as I told Martinez last night, is in development for a dramatic TV series. (Update: All I’m allowed to tell you is that we are currently shopping the project to high-end studios and showrunners, and are getting “some serious interest.”)
“Oh,” she said in a less than enthusiastic tone. Kind of like, oh, she’s one of them, not a regular citizen, whom I’ve come to shake hands with tonight. And even worse, she’s going to hound me about the two cases that have caused widespread criticism of our department and its investigations for more than a decade now.
Of course, she didn’t say any of this out loud, but I covered politics for many years as an investigative reporter, most recently at The San Diego Union-Tribune, which I left in 2006 to write books full-time. I’ve done most of my interviews by phone over the years, so I’m pretty sensitive to someone’s tone. Maybe I’m wrong and she wasn’t thinking that at all. When I approached her again after the forum, she smiled and nodded, but asked if we could talk after the election, because she had more pressing matters to deal with. If you read on, you’ll see that is very true.
Martinez, who has spent all 37 years of her law enforcement career working her way up the chain of command at the SDSD, is the county’s first female undersheriff, and if elected, would be the first female sheriff. She is clearly not a seasoned politician, and the forced compression of words into two-minute answers, coupled with her often unemotional expression, made her responses sound almost robotic.
As a former prosecutor, Hemmerling seemed much more comfortable with the microphone, even when it didn’t work, as he repeated a set of rehearsed talking points throughout the evening. His constant refrain that the problems facing the SDSD stem from “a void of leadership” directly targeted Martinez. As the top prosecutor at the City Attorney’s Office, he served as legal counsel for two police chiefs, one of whom has endorsed him. He also was a police officer in San Diego for 10 years, and during his 30 years in the U.S. Marine Corps for 30 years, he ran detention facilities in Iraq.
But his aggressive calls to change the status quo at the SDSD and to criticize its new and existing policies and procedures, which Martinez said she is working to improve, were also aimed at her predecessor, Bill Gore.
“Whatever’s being done isn’t working,” Hemmerling said. “We can hope and wish all you want . . . [but] we can’t keep doing the same thing.”
Gore announced Martinez as his anointed successor just days before he retired months early, on the same day that a highly critical report on inmate deaths in his county jails was released.
In the past, this has been San Diego tradition: Gore was appointed to quietly lead the department as undersheriff before Sheriff Kolendar retired, and then acting sheriff when Kolendar actually retired, so that Gore was already in prime position when he ran in the next election. However, this time the Board of Supervisors responded to accusations of nepotism by appointing an interim sheriff, who was not running for the seat.
However, it still looked like a back-door deal. Even though Martinez had only just filed papers to declare her candidacy a couple of days earlier, she had already obtained a number of major endorsements by Democratic state and local lawmakers after a very recent party change from Republican to Democrat. Many political observers (including me) believe this was a strategic move to knock Dave Myers, who is an LGBTQ Democrat, out of the race in the primary.
That strategy worked: She won 37.5 percent of the vote in June 2022, Hemmerling garnered 20.4 percent and Myers lost with 19 percent. Still, a whopping 62.5 percent voted to change the status quo, i.e., someone other than Gore’s choice in Martinez.
Myers had also run against Gore in 2018, making a decent showing with nearly 44 percent against the incumbent’s 56 percent, after announcing that he would re-open the Zahau case if re-elected. Myers’ announcement came shortly after the civil jury ruled that Rebecca was murdered, and after Gore immediately stated that he would not re-open the criminal case regardless of what the jury decided. Myers’ announcement prompted Gore to appoint a new panel of SDSD detectives to “review” the case.
Nine months later, long after Gore had won the election, few people were surprised that the review simply restated the SDSD’s original findings of suicide. The detectives did not re-interview any people of interest, including Adam Shacknai, nor did they interview any new witnesses. They also did not retest any DNA evidence from the July 2011 case with more modern technology.
Martinez told me she thought one of the knives in the case had been retested, but if that was true, it was not announced to the public. We were told that no items were retested for DNA, and the only new item to be tested was a pair of panties found in the guest house, where Adam Shacknai said he’d spent the night. The panties, as it turned out, belonged to Adam’s niece, the daughter of his brother Jonah Shacknai, who was Rebecca’s boyfriend.
Martinez and Hemmerling spent most of the forum answering pre-scripted questions about pressing issues and possible solutions to change the culture within the SDSD. The agency has been embattled lately by an unprecedented number of inmate deaths and related lawsuits, a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by two female former deputies, an internal gun-sales corruption case, low staffing levels and mandatory overtime that have resulted in low morale, and claims that the agency lacks transparency and dodges accountability.
For those of you who don’t live in San Diego County, the SDSD has been subject to multiple studies and state recommendations to address the escalating problem in its local jails, which have had a higher number of inmate deaths than Riker’s Island in New York City. That number is still rising, and is now occurring at twice the rate since Gore retired.
Martinez contended that she has been implementing and developing new ways to deal with this and other internal issues plaguing the agency. But she blamed the inmate deaths largely on the county’s fentanyl problem, which is causing accidental overdoses in regular citizens as well as in the inmate population.
“The jails are a mirror of the community,” she said, offering anecdotes of a female inmate who tried to hide 28 grams of fentanyl in her bra, and a man who violated his probation four times so he could bring drugs into the jail.
Martinez noted that 82 percent of the male inmates and 67 percent of the female inmates tested positive for illicit drugs upon intake. However, what she didn’t mention is that those numbers haven’t changed much over time. In fact the female numbers have dropped since I covered these same jails as a Union-Tribune reporter. (I left in 2006 to write books.)
It’s the number of resulting fatalities that has changed. In the past, the problem was methamphetamine, which can be a killer over time, but today it’s fentanyl, which is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, and can be instantaneously fatal.
“We’re doing a lot and we need to do more, but a lot of that is going to depend on staff [levels],” she said, noting that she has instituted pay raises, but the jails are outdated, lack space for psychiatric care, and need to be upgraded, and “we’re all competing for the same work force.”
Thanks for reading. If you have any tips or information about the McStay or Zahau case, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.