Author Ann Rule: Someone Killed Rebecca Zahau

The Spreckels mansion as it appeared in July 2011; work has continued on the property for most of this year. The two deaths at the mansion are featured in new book by crime author Ann Rule, who disagrees with the explanation for Rebecca Zahau's demise. (Insets, Simon & Schuster and authorannrule.com)

The sheriff says she died by her own hand, but Ann Rule says no, Rebecca Zahau was slain.

“The physical evidence, her injuries, the way she was tied up—that all seems to veer away from the suicide theory for me,” said Rule, a best-selling crime author and one-time police officer who has been called upon to lecture law enforcement officials from local agencies to the FBI.

Her take on the Spreckels mansion case is part of her new crime compilation Fatal Friends, Deadly Neighbors and Other True Cases, released Tuesday. 

“I don’t think I have ever written an article or a book that puzzled me more than this case,” she said during a phone interview from her Washington state home.

That said, it’s not surprising that despite the time she’s spent on her research, reviewing case files and interviewing witnesses, she does not know who could have killed Zahau.

But she is firm about who could not have done the deed, if Zahau didn’t take her own life. On that point she agrees with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department – Zahau’s boyfriend, Spreckels homeowner Jonah Shacknai, can be accounted for during the hours leading up to the discovery of her naked body outside the residence early on July 13, 2011.

“I absolutely don’t think Jonah was responsible because we know where he was at all times and I think he cared about Becky,” Rule said of the Arizona pharmaceuticals magnate. 

Rule announced late last year that she would be tackling the Spreckels case, which drew national attention for a number of reasons: The bizarre manner in which Zahau died, the baffling coincidence of another tragedy happening at the home just two days before her body was found and the oddity of it all taking place in Coronado, known for its iconic hotel and its wealthy seaside lifestyle. 

Zahau, 32, died two days after Max, her boyfriend’s 6-year-old son, suffered what ultimately would be a fatal head injury during a fall from a staircase at the residence. Detectives found her to the rear of the main house, on the lawn, bound by the neck, hands and feet with a shirt raised and looped about her neck. 

They determined she had hung herself from a balcony overlooking the mansion’s courtyard. Her loved ones vehemently disagree and are urging the state to launch a new investigation.

The Spreckels case is one of the two anchor pieces in Rule’s book, which also features a look at the 2009 disappearance of Utah mom Susan Powell, whose husband killed himself and their two sons earlier this year. Rule discusses seven other cases in less detail.

The author suggests a couple of theories regarding Zahau’s death, even considering the possibility that someone stalked her or that she was involved in a sex act gone wrong, using a rare form of Japanese bondage. 

In the day prior to her death, a computer in the room leading to the balcony where Zahau was found to have hung herself had been used to search various styles of pornography, including graphic Japanese cartoons. There were no searches for terms associated with suicide or hanging.

Other Rule observations:

  • Coronado police chief Louis Scanlon spoke to Adam Shacknai, Jonah Shacknai’s brother, the only other person investigators said was on the property when Zahau died. Scanlon commiserated with him and Shacknai, who found Zahau’s body, cursed, then said “I don’t think my bedside manner is that bad …” Rule wrote that Scanlon found his response to be “off the wall.”
  • Investigators amassed mounds of evidence, from the mansion, guesthouse and courtyard – clothing and hair, fingerprints and DNA, knives and paintbrushes – but failed to test all of it or, she wrote, to thoroughly search all of the property’s vast grounds.
  • Prominent San Diego attorney Paul Pfingst had a cozy relationship with the Sheriff’s Department that could have impacted the case. The former San Diego County District Attorney was allowed behind police tape at the mansion while Zahau’s body remained onsite and used an unpublished Sheriff’s department phone number to reach Adam Shacknai as he was being questioned. “In 35 or more years of writing about crime scenes, I’ve never seen a case where a potential defense attorney or someone not actually the current prosecutor would be behind the police ribbons that early in the case,” she said.
  • Zahau’s teen-age sister was so traumatized after being informed of the tragic news that she sent a desperate text message to the dead woman: “becky I don’t believe it com (sic) back!!!!! Im not gonna live without u!!!! I love u becky. Come back. nothing is your fault.”

One of the more tantalizing pieces of evidence in the case involves a mysterious two-line message, with no punctuation, painted on a door inside the mansion: “She saved him Can you save her.”  Investigators stopped short of calling it a suicide message. 

Rule said the seven words “just drive me nuts.”

“It’s so inexplicable,” she continued. “I’ve looked at that and looked at that and I’m not sure.” 

Part of what attracts her to unsolved or unexplained cases, which comprise about 20 percent of the articles and books she writes, Rule said, is drawing in witnesses who might have been holding back evidence. She said she has been contacted by people with important information via the Internet and acts as a conduit to police when necessary. 

“I wrote it to bring out the truth,” she said of her new book. “I’m not trying to cause anybody pain or embarrassment. I’m trying to be as kind as I can with it.”

New questions raised by Dina Shacknai, Max’s mother and Jonah Shacknai’s ex-wife, are not explored in detail by Rule, because she received materials from the woman’s team of attorneys and consultants too late for the book’s publication.

The allegations may be included in future editions, Rule said.

Dina Shacknai announced in July that she wanted her son’s case re-opened as well because she feared his death was not an accident, as Coronado police determined. Zahau and her younger sister were the only people police found to be at the mansion when Max fell.

The police refused to re-open the case and the Coronado City Council did not intervene, though Dina Shacknai made an emotional plea before the panel in September. 

Fatal Friends … is dedicated to the 16 people whose deaths Rule depicts in its pages, including as she calls them, Max and Becky, “in the hope that losing you and your innocence will teach us to save others.”