The death of Rebecca Zahau remained a mystery for weeks after the 32-year-old girlfriend of pharmaceutical tycoon Jonah Shacknai was found hanging naked from the second-story balcony of his Coronado, California mansion in 2011.
Her hands and feet had been bound, and her death was first thought to be a homicide. But after a lengthy investigation, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department concluded that she killed herself.
But Zahau’s mother and sister have never accepted that Zahau — a certified ophthalmic technician — committed suicide. The pair filed a wrongful death suit, which is now going to trial this week in downtown San Diego, with opening statements set to begin Wednesday.
Zahau’s mother and sister believe that Shacknai’s brother Adam, who authorities say found her hanging but then cut her down and called 911, is actually responsible for her death, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports.
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Her body was discovered just hours after she accessed her voicemail, on which was a message about the grave condition of Shacknai’s 6-year-old son Max, who was in the hospital after falling down a staircase in the home. Zahau was the only adult present at the home during the accident. The child later died from his injuries.
The two deaths stunned the posh beachside community and initially confounded local police, but after a seven-week investigation, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department concluded that Zahau killed herself because she felt responsible for the boy’s death.
“We came to one conclusion that these deaths were not a result of a criminal act,” San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said during a press conference at the time. “Science is our best witness in this case. It is not biased and it doesn’t lie.”
During the press conference, authorities showed reporters a video reenactment in which an investigator found that it was possible for a person to bind their own hands behind them with slip knots. Investigators said they also found her fingerprints on a knife that was used to cut the rope and her toe impressions on the balcony floor.
A message that Zahau had allegedly written in black paint — reading “She saved him can he save her” — was found on the door of the guest bedroom.
According to the Union-Tribune, the wrongful death suit was initially filed in 2013 against Adam, Jonah Shacknai’s ex-wife, Dina Shacknai and her sister, Nina Romero. The lawsuit alleged that the three attacked and killed Zahau and then hanged her. However, the sisters were dropped from the lawsuit after it was discovered they were elsewhere when the incident occurred, the Union-Tribune reported.
The Zahau’s family attorney, Keith Greer, claimed to KSWB last November that Zahau “was actually strangled and killed before she was hung off the deck.”
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Greer also alleged that his team of investigators concluded that Zahau had been sexually assaulted the night of her death.
In a statement obtained by PEOPLE, Adam Shacknai’s defense attorney Daniel Webb said he was disappointed that what he said was a “shameful” lawsuit was moving forward to trial.
“Multiple law enforcement agencies conducted thorough investigations and concluded that Rebecca Zahau took her own life,” the statement said. “There is no credible evidence that Adam Shacknai played any role in this tragedy other than being in the awful position of discovering Ms. Zahau’s body and immediately calling 911. Nevertheless, he and the rest of the Shacknai family has had to endure six years of baseless conspiracy theories, accusations and lawsuits that were eventually dismissed. We are confident that the trial will conclusively demonstrate that the allegations against Adam are false and finally bring some closure to the outrageous claims that have been made against him.”