To those who knew and loved her, nothing about Rebecca Zahau’s death made sense.
The certified ophthalmic technician was found gagged, bound by the hands and feet, nude and hanging by a makeshift noose from the second-floor balcony of her boyfriend’s mansion in Coronado, California, in July 2011.
Her body was discovered hours after she allegedly accessed her voicemail, where a message had been left noting the worsening condition of her boyfriend Jonah Shacknai’s 6-year-old son, Max. The little boy had fallen over a second-story balcony while in Zahau’s care and suffered critical injuries that would end his life days later.
Officials found a message painted on the door of the room leading to the balcony below Zahau’s body that read: “She saved him, can he save her.”
None of it added up for Zahau’s devastated friends and family, but what may have been most maddening was the authorities’ determination that her death was a suicide.
The San Diego County Sheriff's Department has long maintained that Zahau killed herself because she felt responsible for Max’s death.
But Zahau’s family has for years remained adamant that their loved one’s death was needs a deeper examining, and after nearly eight years, it appears they may have gotten it, as former prosecutor Loni Coombs, crime journalist and victims advocate Billy Jensen, and forensic criminologist Paul Holes have dived into the case.
"Soon after [Zahau's death], law enforcement ruled this to be a suicide, and ever since, people have questions about whether this was a suicide or something else," said Coombs, a former prosecutor for the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office, who was struck by the way in which Zahau's body was discovered. "As a woman, I had this strong reaction, there's just no way a woman would choose to end her life this way."
The result of their work is Oxygen’s “Death at the Mansion: Rebecca Zahau.”
“Whatever you’re thinking of the case, [the details are] intriguing,” Jensen said.
Having premiered earlier this month, the limited series follows Jensen, Coombs and Holes as they speak with witnesses, family members and authorities connected to the case.
Each brought a different perspective and experience to the investigation, which proved fortuitous, Jensen said.
“I’m not a prosecutor, I’m not a scientist, but there’s certain things I can do … I put out different geo-targeted campaigns [on social media],” Jensen said. “I was trying to find anybody who might’ve heard or seen anything that night. It was a shot in the dark because it was a long time ago, but we were able to get a little bit of information.”
The trio also re-examined the theories surrounding Zahau’s death, of which there were many.
“With this case … there was just so many aspects to it,” Jensen told InsideEdition.com. “From the rope, to the note, to the 911 call, to all the different characters … there’s just a lot of things to investigate.”
Zahau’s family believes she was sexually assaulted, strangled and killed before her body was hung off the balcony.
They alleged that her boyfriend’s brother, Adam Shacknai, who was the first to find Zahau’s body, is responsible for her killing, but police said he was not culpable in her death.
Her family filed a wrongful death suit against Adam, and in April 2018, he was found liable by a civil jury in Zahau’s death. After a judge refused to reverse the jury’s verdict, the case was settled in February for $600,000.
The settlement was paid by an insurance company covering Adam’s legal exposure. His attorney told NBC7 the settlement took place without Adam’s knowledge. He has maintained he is innocent.
The Shacknais would not speak with Coombs, Holes and Jensen in the course of their investigation, during which Jensen said they did not take the results of the civil trial “at face value.”
“You always have to remember, there are two people that died in this situation: one, a little boy, and one, a young woman – always be respectful of that fact, and be respectful of the victims,” he said of the approach he and his team took, and that which the audience should take, when watching the series. “Go into it with an open mind.”
By the end of their investigation, Coombs, Holes and Jensen were able to create a case file with evidence they said was new and strong enough to present to the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department for review.
Though unable to delve into specifics, Jensen said that while they were conducting a recreation of a room involved in the investigation, “I discovered something that I never would’ve seen in the photographs, because I did it in 3D. It was a big clue.
“There’s a lot in there to be investigated,” Jensen continued. “[Even] when seemingly the books have been closed from an official perspective.”
“Death at the Mansion: Rebecca Zahau” airs on Saturdays on Oxygen.