I have been patiently waiting for a week when Tess needed a cover again for #MurderMonday so I could talk about this completely bizarre case. As you might be able to tell based on my last pick for #MurderMonday, complex, unsolved cases are kind of my thing.
But before we get into it, I’m excited to tell you guys that this is an extra special #MurderMonday because we have teamed up with True Crime Magazineto offer you guys 40% OFF your first purchase! True Crime Magazine is a best-selling true crime publication offering you the ultimate journey through the criminal mind. You can’t possibly call yourself a true crime enthusiast without a subscription to this e-magazine and now you can get it for a great price using the code HEXFILES at checkout. I’ll give you all a moment to go get your subscriptions and then I’ll meet you back here for this week’s #MurderMonday feature.
Okay, now that you’re all subscribed to True Crime Magazine, let’s get back to your regularly scheduled #MurderMonday. This case was actually introduced to me by my aunt (I have to say, it’s pretty fantastic how supportive my family has been about me starting a blog and podcast about murder, demons, etc. — hi, Aunt Jan!) and I’ve been dying to talk about it more. So, without further adieu, I present to you: the Spreckles Mansion mystery.
I use the term “mystery” because, well, that’s what it is. Was it a suicide? Or was it a murder? I know what my opinion is, but I’ll give you the facts and let you decide.
Photo courtesy of travelandleisure.com
Welcome to beautiful Coronado Island, California.
On Coronado, there is a magnificent home known as Spreckels Mansion, a gorgeous 26-room French Baroque chateau designed for Adolph Spreckels, son of sugar tycoon and entrepreneur Claus Spreckels. The stunning mansion was purchased in 2007 by pharmaceutical tycoon Jonah Shacknai for close to $13 million dollars as a summer home. According to Shacknai’s former wife, Dina, Coronado was the chosen location because “… you felt like nothing bad could happen in Coronado.” But unfortunately, something bad did happen. In fact, multiple bad things happened.
Sprenkels Mansion, photo courtesy of welcometocoronado.com
In July of 2011, Dina received the call that no parent ever wants to receive: Dina and Jonah’s 6-year-old son, Max, was in a medically-induced coma at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego. Max had suffered a fall over a railing on the second floor of the mansion. Unfortunately, Max’s devastating fall would not be the only tragedy the mansion would see that week, but hold that thought.
It was concluded that Max had been running down the hallway at the top of the stairs when he went over the balcony, hit or tried to grab onto a chandelier, hit a banister before finally crashing to the floor. The young boy was found face-down beside the fallen chandelier.
Photo courtesy of the San Diego Sheriff’s Department
At the time of Max’s fall, his father, 54-year-old Jonah, was not home. Watching Max was Jonah’s girlfriend of two years, 32-year-old Rebecca Zahau, who claims she was using the restroom at the time of the accident but rushed out the moment she heard the crash. Two days after Max’s fall, Rebecca was found hanging naked from one of the mansion’s balconies, her hands and feet bound with rope.
“I got a girl, hung herself.”
The balcony where Rebecca Zahau was found hanging, photo courtesy of ABC News
Rebecca’s body was discovered by Adam Shacknai, Jonah’s brother. Adam had flown in from Tennessee to be with his brother during the difficult days following the accident, but was in the mansion’s guest house the evening of Rebecca’s death while Jonah was at the children’s hospital with Max. Only Rebecca and Adam were home the night of July 12th. Adam told investigators he had been watching porn that evening in the guest house and had not gone into the main house. Maybe it’s just me, but if I’m going to fly across the country to be with my family during a tragic time, I’m probably going to actually be with my family and not be back at their house watching a porno (if that’s what he was actually even doing, if you catch my drift). Regardless, the morning of July 13th, Adam discovered Rebecca’s body, cut her down and then called 911. Below is the audio of Adam’s call.
As you can hear in the audio clip, Adam performed CPR on Rebecca while waiting for emergency services to arrive. However, the only fingerprints and DNA found at the scene were Rebecca’s, despite the fact that Adam had cut her body down and also tried to resuscitate her. Investigators did not find Adam’s fingerprints on the knife he had used to cut Rebecca down. Adam also showed investigators the table he had stood on to cut her down — a 3-legged table. As you can imagine, it would prove quite difficult for a grown man to stand on a 3-legged table and be supported enough to then cut down a lifeless corpse.
If you think all this is strange, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
When investigators discovered the scene left behind in the bedroom attached to the balcony from which Rebecca’s body was found, it was certainly puzzling. On the door to the bedroom was a cryptic message written in black paint: “She saved him, can you save her.” Investigators also took note of a book found on one of Rebecca’s shelves: “Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft” which included images of a rite with a woman with her hands tied behind her back. Rebecca’s toe and heel prints were found on the balcony, as well as a print from a male boot.
Rebecca Zahau’s bound feet, photo courtesy of cbs8.com
Let’s jump back to how Rebecca’s body had been found. She was naked. She was gagged with a T-shirt. Her feet were bound. Her hands were bound in complex sailing knots that Rebecca would have had to do blindly considering her hands were bound behind her back (seriously, think about how difficult this would be to do). Oh, and did I mention Adam Shacknai worked for a tugboat company and was very familiar with various nautical knots?
Dr. Lisa Boeski is a clinical psychologist who specializes in suicide cases. According to her, there are known suicides where the decedent had bound their hands as an attempt to keep them from changing their minds during the act, though very rare and never with such complex rope-tying. She also adds that she is unaware of any other suicide case, attempted or completed, where the decedent was gagged or their feet were bound, making Zahau’s suicide completely unique (if a suicide at all). Dr. Boeski also pointed out that the message on the door was written in the third-person, another unusual occurrence in a suicide case.
Rebecca Zahau and Jonah Shacknai, photo courtesy of people.com
As investigators sorted through the strange evidence and tried to make sense of Rebecca’s suspicious death, Max Shacknai died on July 17th, 2011 at the age of 6 from injuries related to the traumatic fall. In an interview, Jonah Shacknai stated, “All I can think of, is that Rebecca saw what happened, felt responsible in some way, not that she did anything, but she was entrusted with Max. And that was too much to bear.” But let us not forget, Rebecca’s suicide occurred days before Max’s death. At the time of Rebecca’s hanging, Max was in critical condition but still alive.
On August 20th, 2011, the San Diego Sheriff’s Department ruled Rebecca’s death as a suicide, stating that her autopsy as well as DNA and fingerprints left at the scene did not show a sign of an attack. They presented this video to show how Rebecca would have been able to bind her own hands behind her back to support. According to them, the boot print found in addition to Rebecca’s toe and heel prints on the balcony were accidentally left behind by a police officer when investigating the scene.
Adam Shacknai, photo courtesy of AZcentral.com
On April 4, 2018, a 12-member-jury found Adam Shacknai guilty of Rebecca’s death in a 9-3 vote. Jurors awarded $5 million dollars to Rebecca’s family, but for her mother and sister, it isn’t about the money. They just want to see justice for Rebecca. Because this was a civil trial, there does not need to be a unanimous decision. Also, Shacknai will not face any criminal charges and cannot be sentenced to prison.
In conclusion, did Rebecca go over a railing because Max went over a railing? Or did this poor woman feel so much guilt related to the young boy’s accident that she took her own life in such a dramatic fashion? I hope for the sake of Rebecca’s family that one day, this case will be reopened.
ABC News 1
ABC News 2
AZ Central 1
AZ Central 2
Marcia Clark Investigates the First 48: The Spreckels Mansion Mystery
NBC San Diego
Town & Country