The Mysterious ‘Suicide’ Of Rebecca Zahau, Who Was Found Bound, Gagged, And Hanging From Her Boyfriend’s Balcony

Published December 21, 2023
Updated December 22, 2023

On July 13, 2011, Rebecca Zahau was found dead at her boyfriend's California home — just days after his young son suffered a fatal fall while under her care.

Rebecca Zahau

Mary Zahau-LoehnerRebecca Zahau was found dead at her boyfriend’s home in Coronado, California.

On July 13, 2011, 32-year-old Rebecca Zahau was found hanging from a balcony at her boyfriend’s California home. It looked like a suicide — except that Zahau was found nude, bound, and gagged.

In the years since, debate over Zahau’s cause of death has raged. Authorities in California maintain that she was driven to suicide out of guilt. Just days before her death, her boyfriend’s six-year-old son suffered a fatal fall while under her care. But Zahau’s family believe that she was murdered.

They point to the unsettling circumstances surrounding her death, including her bindings, a bloody knife found at the scene, and an eerie message written on a door which reads: “She saved him, can you save her.”

Here’s everything we know about Rebecca Zahau, the 32-year-old who was found bound, gagged, and hanging from a balcony at her boyfriend’s home.

Who Was Rebecca Zahau?

Rebecca Mawii Zahau was born on March 15, 1979 in Falam, Myanmar, and eventually made her way to the United States via Nepal and Germany, according to Oxygen.

Around 2009, she met Jonah Shacknai, the millionaire founder of the Medicis Pharmaceutical Corporation, and started dating him. Jonah had three children from two previous marriages, and Zahau eventually quit her job to help care for them, especially his youngest son Max.

That’s what Zahau was doing on July 11, 2011 — watching Max. But on that day, the six-year-old somehow fell over a second floor railing and onto the floor below while Zahau was in the bathroom. Though Max was rushed to the hospital, his condition quickly deteriorated.

Staircase Where Max Fell

San Diego Sheriff The staircase where Max Shacknai took his fatal fall.

After midnight on July 13 Jonah called to tell Zahau that things had taken a turn for the worse. According to ABC News, Jonah wasn’t able to reach her but he left her a voicemail around 12:30 a.m.

Hours later, Rebecca Zahau was found dead.

The Strange Suicide Of Rebecca Zahau

On July 13, 2011, Jonah’s brother Adam Shacknai, who was staying at the house, found Rebecca Zahau hanging by her neck from a balcony. Adam called 911 at 6:48 a.m., grabbed a knife from the kitchen, cut her down, and performed CPR. But the 32-year-old Zahau was dead.

Her cause of death, however, has remained controversial to this day.

When Adam Shacknai found Zahau’s body, her ankles were bound together and her hands were tied around her back. She was gagged with a t-shirt that had been wrapped three times around her neck. Eerily, investigators also found blood and tape residue on her legs and hemorrhages on the side of her head which could have come from someone hitting her. They also found a knife with a handle covered in Zahau’s menstrual blood.

And then there was the message on the bedroom door. In block letters and black paint, someone had written: “She saved him, can you save her.”

Message On Door

San Diego Police DepartmentThis strange message was discovered near the scene of Rebecca Zahau’s death.

The meaning of the message was unclear — though authorities suspected it had to do with Max Shacknai’s fall — but investigators found black paint elsewhere on Zahua’s body. The paint was also found on her right hand, left breast, right nipple, right upper chest, right upper index finger, and neck. Zahau’s thumbprint was also found on the paint cap, but handwriting experts were unable to determine who wrote the message.

Yet to the horror of Rebecca Zahau’s family, investigators determined that the 32-year-old had died by suicide. Her family is adamant that that’s not what happened.

“Nothing adds up,” Zahau’s sister, Mary Zahau-Loehner, told ABC News.

To the San Diego Reader she elaborated:

“[Rebecca] had two detailed plans for the next day: to take things for Jonah [at the hospital], to fix something for him to eat. She told me to tell our mom that she would call her on her way to the hospital in the morning. That she was going to text me throughout the day. I mean, that’s somebody who’s planning to kill herself?”

As for the fact that Zahau was found nude? Zahau-Loehner remarked: “No. No way. It’s just not something that she would do. We were raised in modesty. Yes, she dressed herself well, but she was not one who’s going to go out there and say, ‘Hey! Look at me!’ to the whole world.”

So why are investigators convinced that Rebecca Zahau died by suicide?

Suicide Or Murder?: Here’s The Evidence

Though Rebecca Zahau’s death looks suspicious, authorities have stuck by their determination that she took her own life, likely out of guilt.

“After a thorough and comprehensive review of all of the existing evidence and searching for potential new evidence, we’re confident that the initial investigation was handled properly, and we’re confident in the science behind our conclusions, the evidence, the evidence collection and the work of the lab,” Lieutenant Rich Williams of the sheriff department’s homicide unit said according to Oxygen. “They all point to a suicide.”

The authorities say that Zahau tied her own hands and feet, then went face first over the balcony. She “slid down the wall, breaking the foliage, as well as leaving marks on the wall before the full length of that rope was reached, and did, in fact, hang herself,” Dr. Glenn Wagner, the San Diego County Medical Examiner, said in a press conference.

Rebecca Zahau Bedroom

San Diego Sheriff The scene in Rebecca Zahau’s bedroom, where she tied a rope to her bed.

Indeed, the police conducted a reenactment to prove that it was possible for Zahau to bind herself. They demonstrated how a woman could wrap a rope around her hands in front of her body, then slip one hand out of the binding before placing her hands back behind her back and retying them.

As strange as it may seem, the police noted in a 2011 press conference that it’s not unheard of for suicidal people to bind themselves so that they can’t change their minds.

And Zahau’s boyfriend agrees that that’s most likely what happened.

“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,” Jonah told ABC News. “And that was too much to bear.”

Still, many believe that the police investigation into Rebecca Zahau’s death left too many unanswered questions — including her family. In 2013, they filed a wrongful death suit against Adam Shacknai.

“This is all about finding the truth,” Zahau-Loehner told ABC News. “That people understand that my sister did not commit suicide.”

Did Adam Shacknai Kill Rebecca Zahau?

Adam Shacknai

Police HandoutAdam Shacknai said he used a knife to cut the rope around Zahau and tried to save her life with CPR.

In 2018, a civil jury found Adam Shacknai liable for Zahau’s death and awarded her family five million dollars (Adam’s insurance company later settled with the family for $600,000). Though Adam has always maintained his innocence, some believe that he could have had something to do with Zahau’s death.

For starters, he had access. Adam was the only other person at the house when Zahau died. What’s more, he worked as a tugboat captain, and some have alleged that only someone with nautical knowledge could have bound Zahau with such intricate knots (though this is debatable).

Could Adam have killed Rebecca Zahau out of anger or grief following Max’s accident? Perhaps, but he denies it. And investigators maintain that Zahau died by suicide.

As San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore commented: “Was Rebecca’s death a homicide?… [T]he answer is no. It was a suicide.”

But for many Rebecca Zahau’s death remains an unsettling mystery.

After reading about the strange death of Rebecca Zahau, go inside the mysterious “suicide” of teenager Tiffany Valiante who died after being hit by a train in New Jersey. Or, learn about the unsettling murder-suicide of wrestler Chris Benoit and his family.

Rivy Lyon
True crime expert Rivy Lyon holds a Bachelor's degree in criminology, psychology, and sociology. A former private investigator, she has also worked with CrimeStoppers, the Innocence Project, and disaster response agencies across the U.S. She transitioned into investigative journalism in 2020, focusing primarily on unsolved homicides and missing persons.
Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
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Lyon, Rivy. "The Mysterious ‘Suicide’ Of Rebecca Zahau, Who Was Found Bound, Gagged, And Hanging From Her Boyfriend’s Balcony.", December 21, 2023, Accessed June 12, 2024.