The woman on the other end of the phone is in tears. “I was just praying to God when you called,” she says.
“That He’ll help us with what happened to our daughter. We are Christian. We are not allowed to commit suicide.”
It’s Pari (Mrs. Zung Tin Par), Rebecca Zahau’s mother. Rebecca is the 32-year-old Burmese-born millionaire’s girlfriend who died at the Spreckels mansion in Coronado. She was found hanging from a rear balcony, completely naked, on July 13.
And her mother, who lives in St. Joseph, Missouri, with Rebecca’s father (Mr. Khua Hnin Thang), wants to know why. Suicide, the official verdict, is not an option.
“Why would they say that?” she says. “That she committed suicide? Our family is hurting. We’re a poor family. We can’t pay for investigators. My husband says nothing. All his feelings are trapped inside. But we know for sure, she wouldn’t ever kill herself. And she was very modest. It is our Asian way. She would never do a thing like that, and never without clothes on. But nobody will listen to us.”
I didn’t make this phone call. My wife Lita did. We had been discussing how little the public knew about Rebecca.
“You should talk to the family,” Lita said. And in her direct way, she picked up the phone and dialed 411. In half an hour she was talking to Rebecca’s mom. But not for long. It was too emotional for Pari. She gave Lita the number of Mary Zahau-Loehner, Rebecca’s older sister.
And so began a conversation about what this investigation looks like from Rebecca’s family’s point of view.
∗ ∗ ∗
“We were pretty close,” says Mary. “We talked to each other almost every day, either by text or by phone. If not every day, at least two or three times a week.
“Rebecca is more outgoing than I am. She is a jolly person. She can laugh about simple things. She’s cheery, she likes to cheer everybody up. She just likes to live life. I don’t know how else to explain it. She’s a year and a half younger than me. We have another sister [living in Germany]. We’re all close, but Rebecca and I got really close because we can talk to each other here.”
The sisters were born in the town of Falam, in the Chin Hills of northwest Myanmar (formerly Burma), near the border with India. The Chin people live in a hard area, less fertile than anywhere else in Myanmar. To add to their woes, the Myanmar military has regularly persecuted the Chin people and reportedly used them for hard labor.
It’s what turned the Chin to Christianity. An early missionary, Adoniram Judson, first visited the area in 1813. The Chin have embraced Christianity, especially over the last century, despite the persecution it brought.
About two years ago, Rebecca became involved with Jonah Shacknai, who founded Medicis Pharmaceutical Corporation, based in Arizona, and owns the Spreckels mansion in Coronado.
Then on July 13 came the appalling news.
“I found out from my husband Doug that my sister had died,” Mary says. “Jonah had called him. He came to my work, and he told me that we need to go to my office to talk. And that’s when he told me.
“I felt desperation, wanting to believe it’s not true. Maybe some prank. He said he was told that it was suicide by hanging. I said ‘No!’ I remember saying, ‘No. Where is she? I need to talk to her.’
“We didn’t know Jonah well. I called him the day of [Rebecca’s death], and he said he didn’t know, he didn’t know [what happened]. That’s all he answered me.”
What sort of partner was Jonah Shacknai to her sister?
“We had met him a few times [before this]. My husband has met him twice, and I think that I have met him four or five times. Jonah is a difficult man to read. We didn’t [ever] have much of a conversation. Usually it was dinner or something like that. He was busy. Most of the time when I visited my sister, I just hung out with her. He was gone a lot, and we might have a dinner here and there, [but] it had to be arranged ahead of time.”
Mary thinks Rebecca, who was an ophthalmic technician, met Shacknai through work.
But she says it wasn’t easy for Rebecca to fit into the privileged family, which included two teenaged children from Shacknai’s first marriage; Max, 6, from Shacknai’s second marriage; and Max’s mother, Dina, Shacknai’s recently divorced second wife.
“I didn’t ever meet Jonah’s ex-wife,” says Mary. “I just know that she was making Becky’s life difficult. I think she was rude to her a lot of times, requesting that Becky not attend any function with the kids, especially Max. Things like that.”
Was Shacknai in love with Becky?
“I don’t know. I couldn’t read [them]. I mean, were they affectionate with each other? No, not really. Not in front of us. If I saw them, I probably wouldn’t get that impression. Becky told me that she did love him but that she was disappointed in a lot of ways because he wouldn’t…she was disappointed in his [teenaged] kids, [how] they were allowed to be openly rude to her. Those other two children didn’t want her, period. They resented her. And Jonah would not defend her [against them], stop that. Not really. Not by my impression.”
By this summer, it was coming to a crunch for Rebecca.
“We talked about it; that if the teenaged kids’ behavior doesn’t improve she was considering telling Jonah at the end of this summer that she…needed to have some time to herself.
“I don’t know if she ended up telling him or not.”
Did he give emotional support to his lover’s family?
“Emotional support?” says Mary. “No. He talked a few random times, yes. He talked more with my husband, but it was more of technical things like funeral arrangements and that kind of stuff.”