Update 6:40 p.m. Tuesday, adds Sheriff’s department comments.
The doctor who performed the second autopsy on the woman who died in the Spreckels mansion said he has “grave and serious doubts” about the conclusion that Rebecca Zahau killed herself.
Dr. Cyril Wecht, a Pittsburgh forensic pathologist criticized law enforcement officials, alleging that they decided within a matter of days that Zahau killed herself. He has worked on high-profile cases, including the deaths of President John F. Kennedy and murdered beauty pageant contestant JonBenet Ramsey.
Detectives spent seven weeks examining the case before announcing on Sept. 2 that she had hanged herself.
Wecht discussed his findings Tuesday on the closing installment of the two-part Dr. Phil talk show featuring Zahau’s death. Zahau’s family members and their attorney, Anne Bremner, were also guests.
“I lean very strongly toward it being a homicide,” Wecht said.
The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, which headed the investigations into Zahau’s death, stood by its conclusions.
“To date, neither our detectives nor the Medical Examiner’s Office have been presented with any evidence from this second autopsy,” according to a Sheriff’s statement. “If Dr. Wecht or Miss Bremner would like to share information they believe is pertinent with our investigators, we would be glad to meet with them, rather than hear their results on television, provided as entertainment.”
Wecht, who has followed the case for weeks, said before he conducted the second autopsy – which took place Oct. 28 – that he thought Zahau’s manner of death should have been labeled inconclusive rather than as a suicide.
He reiterated that point on the program, taped Nov. 7 in Hollywood, but said he believed a thorough initial autopsy had been conducted. His concerns lie not with the examination, but with the conclusions detectives drew based on it.
He focused on these findings:
- Four bruises atop Zahau’s head, which Wecht said were unlikely to have been suffered in a drop from a balcony, but instead inflicted by an item with a rounded smooth surface. Suffering the blows also might have left Zahau incapacitated, he said, explaining the lack of defensive wounds on her body.
- A long drop from the balcony almost certainly would have fractured or dislocated Zahau’s neck. “That bothers me greatly with this kind of situation,“ Wecht said.
- Zahau’s nudity, her bindings and the movements she would have had to make while bound, which Wecht compared to feats by escape artist Harry Houdini.
- Of the 17,000 autopsies he’s conducted and 30,000 he’s supervised, Wecht said 3,500 have been suicides. He said he can’t recall any of them including a woman who chose to kill herself naked and outdoors.
After Wecht shared his conclusions, Bremner and Zahau’s sister, Mary Zahau Loehner, repeated that they would seek a new investigation, but not by the Sheriff’s department.
“I would prefer that they not touch my sister’s case any more at all,” Zahau Loehner said.
Zahau, 32, died at the mansion July 13, two days after her boyfriend Johan Shacknai’s son fell and suffered head injuries at the residence.
She was found nude and bound by her boyfriend’s brother, who said she was hanging from a second-floor balcony. Authorities concluded that Zahau killed herself after being informed that the boy’s condition was deteriorating. The child died three days after Zahau.
Her sister and loved ones have pointed to other injuries she suffered, a mysterious message painted on a mansion door and the manner in which she was found to argue that Zahau did not die by her own hand.
City News Service contributed to this report.