The mysterious death of Rebecca Zahau still haunts me
By Caitlin Rother
Sometimes I choose cases to write books about and sometimes these cases choose me.
As I explain in my new book, DEATH ON OCEAN BOULVEARD: Inside the Coronado Mansion Case, my husband hung himself, using a cord he put over the bathroom door of a motel room in San Quintin, Mexico, in 1999.
It took me many years before I could even say the words out loud that my husband “hung himself,” but I don’t think I’ve ever gone into any detail, verbally anyway, about how he did that. Honestly, talking about the scene only makes me picture him making the preparations and doing it, which is really not an image I want in my head.
It also took me a long time before I could watch a movie about suicide, particularly when someone drank himself to death, which was my husband’s affliction. That’s partly the reason it took me 19 years before I could finish my short memoir, SECRETS, LIES, AND SHOELACES: A story of hardship and healing, and that was only after I’d sat through every day of the Zahaus vs. Adam Shacknai civil trial.
It had been 12 years since my husband’s death when Rebecca Zahau’s body was found in the rear courtyard of her wealthy boyfriend Jonah Shacknai’s mansion in Coronado, California, on July 13, 2011. It’s taken nine years since then for my book to be released, time I spent comparing the two deaths, looking for similarities and differences.
You can see why the case caught my attention—on a personal and professional level—when I heard that Jonah’s brother Adam had called 911 to report that he’d found Rebecca’s body hanging naked, bound, and gagged from an exterior balcony, but had cut her down before the police arrived. It was even more intriguing when I learned what he’d told the 911 dispatcher: “I got a girl, hung herself in the guest house,” where he’d stayed the night.
Given the state of Rebecca’s body—not just naked, but with her hands tied behind her back and her ankles bound together—the public’s immediate reaction was that this was a murder. Rebecca’s family and many other people still adamantly believe this today, saying there’s no way a woman, and Rebecca in particular, would have done this to herself, outside, and in such an elaborate and bizarre way.
Although the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department (SDSD) investigated this “suspicious” death as a homicide, the agency ruled her death a suicide less than two months later, once toxicology results came back to reveal there were no drugs in her system.
That meant I couldn’t write a book about this bizarre and unusual case for liability reasons, because no one had been arrested or charged with a crime, let alone convicted of one.
At the time, when people asked me if I was going to write a book about “the Coronado mansion murder,” I had to say no, because according to law enforcement, it wasn’t a crime and I could get sued if I accused anyone of killing Rebecca.
I say this case came to me, because sources brought me information and the sheriff's investigative files, which I collected quietly, as I waited to see if the case would reach the courts.
To be honest, this case scared me. The parties were litigious and/or wealthy, and some were potential suspects in the public eye. Also, if Rebecca was murdered by a hitman or someone else, then the killer was still out there. I literally feared for my own safety. So, I stayed in the shadows.
Some cases just aren’t worth the trouble. Too dangerous, too much work, people involved don’t want to cooperate. Some of this was true in this case, but I just could not let it go.
I felt somewhat safer after the Zahaus filed their civil case in 2013, accusing Adam Shacknai and two women who were later dropped from the case (you can read my book for more details) of scheming to kill Rebecca and hang her from the balcony. But I still needed to wait to see what came out in court.
The case took another five years to go to trial, where a jury ultimately found Adam responsible for Rebecca’s death. That said, so many details that I’d learned from the sheriff’s investigative file and other sources had never been made public. They were never disclosed on the half-dozen TV documentaries either. So much of what I’d heard from various sources was never even mentioned in court.
With so many questions still unanswered, my research went into hyperdrive. After following the case since the beginning, I was the only journalist who attended every day of the trial so I knew what was new and what had yet to be said in or out of the courtroom.
Once the trial was over, I investigated all the leads I’d been given or uncovered, exploring the issues that went unresolved in the sheriff’s investigation or were raised at the trial by the Zahaus’ experts. Yet, turning over one stone only exposed more stones underneath. I became obsessed with trying to solve this mystery.
This was no simple investigation, mind you. I was told many, many crazy theories, read more of them online, and went down quite a few rabbit holes trying to find the truth, only to find that there was no there there. Many were based on speculation, false information, and conspiracy theories. I weeded through them, one by one, presenting only the best and most credible ones in the book, and using my own experience with suicide as a lens to examine this case.
The major reason why I write these books—and why readers tell me they buy them—is because we all want to know why. We all want to know the answers to those nagging questions that law enforcement doesn’t or can’t answer, and in this case there are plenty of them. You may think you know the facts of this case, but the new details I’ve uncovered will show you that there is so much more that you didn’t know.
For me, it’s like solving a puzzle as I gather clues and insights that were missed or ignored by the authorities. The urge to try and figure out what really happened is a powerful driving force.
That’s why I approached this and my other books from both a psychological and an investigative standpoint. Often, the answers lie in the characters’ backgrounds, the dynamics of their relationships, patterns of behavior, and who said what to whom and when. Cutting through agendas and finding holes in narratives that certain parties are pushing.
That means I dig deeper than the information that comes out in court or in the media, to solve the mystery and to answer the question why a suspicious death—or murder, as it may be—occurred. Then I share my findings, all woven into a suspenseful novelistic narrative, with my readers.
In this book, I reveal all the information I’ve learned and can legally present to readers about this case and the primary characters involved. But I wanted to let readers decide the ultimate question of whether it was a murder or suicide.
Another law enforcement agency, or even the SDSD—if Sheriff Bill Gore loses the next election—may ultimately choose to re-open this criminal case, or may be forced to do so. The Zahaus have filed a second lawsuit, this time against the SDSD.
There is a court hearing set for July, so we’ll see what happens next.
But if the primary characters are upset about one thing or another that I’ve included, that probably means I’ve done my job well. There seem to be quite a few closely-held secrets by the characters in this case, as people try to protect themselves or their family members. I still don’t think we know everything there is to know, and I’m not sure we ever will.
If you still haven’t purchased a copy of the book, I hope you will. If you want to order online, signed copies are available through the San Diego Public Library bookshop. I’ve also signed copies at Bay Books in Coronado, CA, and have sent signed bookplates to Book Carnival in Orange, CA, to the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, AZ, and to Peregrine Book Co. in Prescott, AZ.
If you want to come to a virtual event and listen to me talk about the book, you can do that from anywhere. Even if you miss one or more of them, you can still watch these events, listen to podcasts and interviews, or read articles about the book by going to my virtual tour calendar on this blog, where they are all listed.
I’ve got several more events coming up this weekend and next week as well. Details to register or get a Zoom invite are on the tour calendar.
Thanks for reading!