By Caitlin Rother
It’s been six and a half months since the family of Rebecca Zahau filed a 204-page petition with the medical examiner’s offices in San Diego and Los Angeles counties, trying once again to get Rebecca’s death certificate amended to designate her death as a “homicide,” or with an “undetermined” cause, rather than a “suicide.”
In July 2011, Zahau was found hanging naked, gagged, with her ankles tied and her wrists bound behind her, in the rear courtyard of Spreckels Mansion in Coronado, California, which was owned by her then-boyfriend, Jonah Shacknai. My book on the case, Death on Ocean Boulevard: Inside the Coronado Mansion Case, came out in 2021. The photo above shows the recent makeover of the historic house, originally built in 1908.
Other than a phone call upon receipt of the petition—that came in the form of a letter from the Keith Greer, the Zahau family’s attorney—the San Diego County ME’s office has still not issued a substantive response. That’s because it considers this to be a second “courtesy review” of the case, the first being in 2018, after a civil jury found Adam Shacknai, Jonah’s tugboat captain brother, responsible for Zahau’s wrongful death. Adam Shacknai claims he is innocent, but his insurance company settled with the Zahaus for $600,000 against his wishes, to avoid the costs of an appeal.
Although Greer claimed to have handed over transcripts or findings that came out of the civil trial, then-chief ME Glenn Wagner said he didn’t consider any such data because “no new information was forthcoming from the Zahau lawyers.” County officials have always maintained that the Zahaus presented only new interpretations of existing evidence at the trial, which they didn’t consider “new information.” If that is the disconnect, it’s unlikely that the second “courtesy review” will go any differently.
Because “there is no required timeline” for performing a second such review, Chief Medical Examiner Steven Campman “has been examining the material presented in the letter as time permits” and has “no definitive completion date at this time,” according to county spokesman Chuck Westerheide.
Despite acknowledging “the public interest and complexities of the case” and promising a careful examination and consideration of the petition, the county’s lack of urgency speaks louder than words.
I’m doubtful that Chapman will voluntarily grant the Zahaus’ request, if he responds at all. The new sheriff, Kelly Martinez, told me before she was elected last November that she wouldn’t ask an outside agency to re-open the criminal case until or unless the ME changes its “suicide” finding. This was after two of her challengers in that election, Dave Myers and John Hemmerling, both said they would re-open the case if elected.
Greer also sent his recent letter, dated October 27, 2022, to Dr. Jonathan Lucas at the Los Angeles Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner, because Lucas was the pathologist who conducted the autopsy, made the original “suicide” finding and signed the death certificate. Lucas, who was the chief deputy ME in San Diego at the time, left for a better job in Los Angeles in 2017, to head up the county’s medical examiner-coroner’s office.
Greer’s letter states, “The reason for this request is that the large body of evidence and expert analysis developed after you signed Rebecca’s death certificate, as discussed in detail below, shows that it is “more likely than not” that Rebecca did not commit suicide. “More likely than not” is the standard in civil court, vs. “beyond a reasonable doubt” in criminal court.
The letter outlines 13 points of forensic evidence the jury supported in its wrongful death verdict, establishing “Adam Shacknai as the killer.” Greer has said that if the petition is ultimately rejected, he will go back to court to request a change to the death certificate in what would be a third round of court proceedings.
After winning the civil trial against Adam Shacknai in 2018, the Zahaus filed a lawsuit against the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department (SDSD) in 2020, trying to force the release of investigative documents that would show the department hid or ignored internal communications, notes or emails pointing toward or discussing the homicide theory.
This was somewhat of a fishing expedition, because they had no proof such documents existed, and the judge wouldn’t force then-Sheriff Bill Gore—or anyone else from the SDSD—to testify about the issue, because law enforcement is protected from having to release, and apparently to discuss, investigative documents under California law.
It is legal, however, to publish findings from such documents if they are released through a party who has access to the discovery process, which is how I obtained investigative reports and witness interviews in the case. Greer maintained that the documents he was looking for were never made part of that process due to corruption within the SDSD, which Gore always denied.
After a promising start in the lawsuit against the SDSD, the Zahaus ended up asking for a dismissal last year when the judge indicated he was about to rule in the SDSD’s favor, saying that a writ of mandate was not the proper legal vehicle to go about getting such documents.
Neither Lucas nor his office in LA responded to Greer’s recent letter and don’t plan to, because the agency “is not a party to the San Diego case, nor has jurisdiction to conduct a case review of another county’s case,” according to an agency spokesperson.
Lucas did receive the letter, the spokesperson said, but he left the office days later. “No additional information is publicly available” about why Lucas left the job or where he went. His position was immediately filled on an interim basis by the agency’s medical director, who was appointed permanently in March.
Greer’s letter and lengthy attachments cite findings by Lucas with which the Zahaus’ expert witnesses in the civil trial differed. For example, forensic kinesiologist James Kent testified that Rebecca’s injuries didn’t gibe with a suicide death caused by a nine-foot fall. He said her height, center of gravity and bound hands would have made it virtually impossible for her to propel herself over the balcony railing, and she should have been partially or completely decapitated if she’d found some way of doing so.
The question is, how long are the Zahaus willing to wait for an answer from the ME’s office before they take this case back to court for round three? It’s been such a long, and I’m sure, costly, road for them, but they have always said they intend to keep fighting. . . until they get justice for Rebecca.