LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A prominent forensic pathologist said a woman found hanged, bound and nude at the mansion of her wealthy boyfriend was less likely a victim of suicide, as police concluded, than of murder, and he urged a reopening of the case.
Dr. Cyril Wecht, a private consultant in high-profile investigations ranging from the Kennedy assassination to the death of Anna Nicole Smith, made a nationally televised appearance on Tuesday on the “Dr. Phil” show to render his opinion about the bizarre death of Rebecca Zahau.
Wecht performed a second, independent autopsy on Zahau’s body last month at the request of relatives who have challenged the official determination of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and coroner that she took her own life.
Zahau’s sister, Mary Zahau-Loehner, said on the show she firmly believed her sibling was murdered.
A lawyer and a private detective for the family who also spoke on the program cited clues they said police failed to thoroughly examine after Zahau’s lifeless body was found dangling from a rope around her neck at the estate of her boyfriend, Jonah Shacknai, founder and CEO of the Medicis Pharmaceutical Corp.
Sheriff Bill Gore later issued a statement saying he had personally watched the two-part “Dr. Phil” segment on Zahau’s death and determined that “no new information has been provided by this second autopsy.” He added the case remained closed.
Zahau’s death on July 13 came two days after Shacknai’s 6-year-old son, Max, took a fatal fall down a staircase at the same oceanside mansion near San Diego. The boy, who was in Zahau’s care at the time, died six days later from his injuries. Police determined the fall was an accident.
Homicide investigators themselves have said that the circumstances surrounding Zahau’s death were baffling, but in the end ruled out foul play.
They concluded that Zahau, 32, had committed suicide after learning in a late-night telephone call that Max, then still hospitalized, had taken a turn for the worse.
Seeking to allay public skepticism, police released an unusual video reenactment of how investigators believe Zahau had tied up her own wrists and ankles, hands bound behind her back, before slipping a noose over around her neck and hurling herself off a second-story balcony.
Shacknai, whose company makes the wrinkle-filler Restylane and the acne treatment Solodyn, asked the California attorney general’s office in September to review the case, but that was denied. Shacknai was never considered a suspect, police said.
Wecht agreed with the official autopsy finding that the cause of Zahau’s death was asphyxiation by hanging, but said he strongly doubted she killed herself.
“While I am not prepared to unequivocally, with absolute scientific certainty, say that it was a homicide and that it was not a suicide, I lean very strongly toward it being a homicide, something involving foul play. And I lean very strongly against it being a suicide,” he said.
Wecht said he was particularly troubled by findings in both autopsies that Zahau had suffered blows to the top of her head, indicated by four separate hemorrhages beneath the scalp.
He said such an injury pointed to the possibility that she was knocked unconscious with a blunt object and could explain why police said there was no sign of a struggle at the scene.
Wecht said he was also puzzled as to why Zahau’s neck was not broken by the force of her fall from the balcony. He said the way in which Zahau would have had to tie herself up was possible, but implausible.
Appearing separately, private investigator Paul Ciolino said police apparently discounted reports from two Shacknai neighbors that a woman was heard screaming for help several hours before Zahau’s death.
Sheriff Gore stood by his department’s investigation, saying in his statement that guests on the “Dr. Phil” segment had “altered and misrepresented facts” in their critique.
“To date, neither our detectives nor the medical examiner’s office have been presented with any new evidence from this examination,” he said.
The host of the show, Phil McGraw, said Zahau’s family reached out to him for help in reexamining the case.
Zahau’s sister said her family wants an independent agency to probe Zahau’s death, rather than the sheriff’s department.
“We do not trust them anymore,” she said.
Editing by Cynthia Johnston