When Rebecca Zahau’s loved ones saw her for the first time after her July 13 death, they stared long and hard at her face, her skin, her hands, looking for any signs of what they believed happened, even then: She was killed.
“In the darkest moment of our lives, when we stood in front of her casket and had to look at her, we still had the strength to go through at least that part of her body which could be seen in order to find things that could help us in the investigation, things which could prove that she couldn’t have done this to herself,” her sister, Snowem Horwath, recalled of first seeing Zahau’s remains.
Horwath, on the phone from Hamburg, Germany, spoke at length this week about her family’s shock and dismay upon learning Aug. 31 that detectives had declared Zahau’s death a suicide and were planning to close the investigation into what happened to her at the historic Spreckels mansion.
They’ve also reconciled themselves to one disturbing fact. If they are to convince investigators they should reopen the case and reconsider their finding that Zahau, 32, hung herself, they will have to have her body exhumed. She was laid to rest near another sister’s Missouri home.
“We have to,” Horwath said. “We have to at this point.”
Zahau was found nude and bound on the mansion grounds. Early on, investigators variously labeled her death “violent,” “very suspicious” and ”bizarre,” but by Sept. 2, they said she meticulously cut rope, wound it around the footboard of a bed, her feet, her neck and her hands, before slipping one hand free so she could place them bound behind her back.
She then leaned and tipped herself over a second-floor guest room balcony to hang herself, investigators say.
The reason, they said, was her distress over an early morning voice mail she received informing her of the failing condition of her boyfriend Jonah Shacknai’s son, Max, who had suffered a serious head injury two days before. He died three days after Zahau.
In more than an hour of official explanations offered Sept. 2, Sheriff Bill Gore and other investigators failed to mention bruises and small scratches on Zahau’s face, or tape marks and blood found on her legs.
After family members and critics challenged authorities about the findings, Dr. Jonathan Lucas, who conducted Zahau’s autopsy, said that “as in any comprehensive investigation, some findings cannot be entirely explained.”
The injuries are among several issues Horwath, Zahau’s younger sister, and her family want explained. The voice mail cited by investigators was reported to them in witness interviews and the fact that a call took place was confirmed by phone records, but the recording had been deleted from Zahau’s phone, so investigators never heard its contents.
Horwath also wants a more detailed explanation of comings and goings at the mansion, owned by Shacknai, phone records from other principals in the case and video evidence that shows their whereabouts in the hours before her sister died.
Horwath spoke and emailed with her sister after Max was hurt, and Zahau requested prayers and offered updates on his condition but never said anything about feeling responsible for his injuries. She believes her sister would have been likely to act in a supportive rather than a despondent manner upon hearing dire news about the boy.
“If someone told her that Max was going to die, or not going to make it, she would immediately put on her clothes and gone there … to be with him until the end,” Horwath said.
The family also wants Zahau’s computer and phone, but Horwath says investigators have not responded to repeated requests to return them.
Attorney Anne Bremner is representing the family and has appeared on national talk shows to argue their case. Shacknai’s attorneys have threatened her with legal action for her statements.
Horwath does not understand why and said neither Bremner or the family has directly accused anyone of being responsible for Zahau’s death.
“What wrong did we do to them? We’re just trying to find what happened to our sister. What is it that’s illegal about doing that?” she said.
Zahau’s relatives, who are not wealthy, also established a website, justiceforrebecca.org, explaining the case and soliciting donations to hire experts for a private inquiry into Zahau’s death.
Horwath hopes that the investigation will be reopened or that information uncovered by independent experts will force authorities to do so.
An officer of the law, she said, who has taken “an oath and is true to that … will [want to] help our family and fight this fight and find justice for Becky.”
“If they stick to this,” she continued, “there is no reason for them not to reopen the case, and help and stand by the family and support us until all the evidence is crystal clear.”