SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - A San Diego jury on Wednesday awarded $5 million in damages to relatives of a woman who was found hanged, bound and nude at the estate of her boyfriend, a wealthy pharmaceutical executive, in a mysterious 2011 death that police ruled was a suicide.
The civil court jury found that tugboat captain Adam Shacknai was liable for the death of Rebecca Zahau, 32, who was found dangling by her neck from a second-story balcony at the landmark Spreckels Mansion in Coronado, an upscale island beach town.
Zahau was living there at the time as the girlfriend of Shacknai’s older brother, Jonah Shacknai, founder and then-chief executive officer of Medicis Pharmaceutical Corp, which made the acne treatment Solodyn and wrinkle-filler Restylane.
Adam Shacknai, who was staying at a guesthouse on the property, reported discovering her body, bound by the hands and legs and with a T-shirt stuffed in her mouth, in the courtyard of the home.
The death came two days after Jonah Shacknai’s 6-year-old son, Max, was critically injured in a fall from a staircase while Zahau was babysitting him. The boy’s death days later was ruled an accident.
The San Diego County Sheriff likewise ruled out foul play in Zahau’s death, and no charges were brought. Authorities even released an unusual video demonstration of how investigators believed Zahau had managed to tie her own hands behind her back before binding her own legs, slipping a noose around her neck and hurling herself off the balcony.
They said signs of trauma to the top of Zahau’s head and blood on her legs were consistent with their conclusion. But Zahau’s family vehemently insisted she was murdered and demanded authorities reopen the investigation.
The case drew national attention, with prominent forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht appearing on the “Dr. Phil” show to challenge the county sheriff and coroner’s conclusion that Zahau had taken her own life.
Her mother and sister, Pari Z. Zahau and Mary Zahau-Loehner, ultimately brought a wrongful death suit against Adam Shacknai. Their lawyers argued in court that the victim was bludgeoned into unconsciousness before her body was hurled from the balcony of an upstairs bedroom.
Defense lawyers countered there was no evidence their client ever touched Zahau.
Jonah Shacknai, who was at his son’s hospital bedside when Zahau died, testified during the month-long trial he found his sibling’s involvement “inconceivable.”
The San Diego County Superior Court jury reached its verdict a day after beginning deliberations, essentially rejecting the notion Zahau killed herself.
“Our family can’t get her back,” her sister told reporters afterward. “But hopefully people will know that she didn’t commit suicide and she was murdered, and she doesn’t deserve to be treated the way the sheriff’s department treated her.”
Reporting by Marty Graham in San Diego; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Leslie Adler