The death of Rebecca Zahau has Coronado buzzing.
Rarely has Coronado been so abuzz. In the early morning of July 13, a young naked woman hanged herself (or did she?) at the Spreckels mansion on Ocean Boulevard. Two days before, a six-year-old boy fell down the house’s grand staircase (or did he?) and was put in a coma from which he never recovered.
Sensational mystery deaths are a rare thing on the isle. The last great murder-or-was-it-suicide drama took place in 1892, when Kate Morgan died of a self-inflicted (or was it?) gunshot wound to the head at the Hotel Del.
Reaching Jonah Shacknai, the wealthy CEO father of Max and lover of Rebecca Zahau (she had dropped Nalepa, the surname of her ex-husband), will not be easy. He has turned over management of his media relations to Citrick and Company, a PR/crisis management firm.
So, meantime, I went around seeking not the truth, but the buzz. These are transcripts with, in most cases, changed names. The opinions and theories are all over the place because there is so little information.
* * *
KELLY and JAN are bank employees. It’s Friday night. They’re closing up. ALICE is their friend and last customer.
KELLY: It’s horrible. Just horrible. The first couple of days, every customer was saying, “What do you think?”
Also, if I was in a horrible frame of mind because my boy, my son, had just died, and I felt it was my fault that he fell down the stairs, why would I get naked?
ALICE: I have a friend, and he’s a world-renowned forensic psychologist. And he says that women never, ever commit suicide in the nude. Only if you’re in a bathtub and you slit your wrists.
KELLY: I think it’s interesting that the brother [Jonah Shacknai’s brother Adam] cut her down. Why, unless he thought she was still alive? I think the brother did it.
ALICE: I think it’s the husband.
JAN: I said the same thing.
KELLY: Because she let the little boy die.
ALICE: I met him before, though.
KELLY: What!? I hear they worked out at the gym I work out at, but I don’t remember seeing him.
ALICE: I actually met him at the [Coronado city] council meeting. Because...when he came to Coronado, he wanted the Mills Act [which provides tax relief for historic homes, but also restricts what alterations you can make]. Then after he got the Mills Act, he wanted to change that whole wing on the house. And they denied him. He’s one of those...he’s got the greed syndrome. Not trustworthy. That’s what I thought at the meeting. Manipulative. This is a man who gets what he wants.
KELLY: He’s so powerful, everybody around him are yes-man people. And [if] his girlfriend let his little boy die on her watch, well, you know what?
ALICE: And all that injections and stuff, it’s got to poison your head. All that Restylane and the Botox.
He injected himself?
ALICE: Well, that’s what business he’s in.
KELLY: I think the brother did it for the husband. And the reason he cut her down... Because I thought the reason he cut her down was “I tried to revive her” but maybe to explain why his DNA is on her.
ALICE: No. You don’t see someone hanging without calling 911.
KELLY: First. And then you tell 911, “She’s hanging, and I’m going to cut her down,” and they’re going to say, “Don’t touch her.”
ALICE: No, the whole thing’s fishy. That little boy didn’t fall down those stairs. It’s all marble.
KELLY: I wondered if he was playing with the dog, and that’s why she called the [dog-care] people. She said, “I can’t keep the dog because of what happened to the little boy.” So, I was wondering, did he trip over the dog?
ALICE: Six-year-olds climb on everything. Just like being at the park.
KELLY: So, you think it was really and truly an accident? Because you know what everybody was saying? That the chandelier fell on him. That’s what everybody in town was saying. And then the next day it was, “No, he fell down the stairs.” The story keeps changing.
* * *
GEOFF, contractor and ex–Navy SEAL. We’re in a hardware shop.
My theory? It’s a double murder, with the arrow pointed towards the boyfriend/father. The father has got an enemy. And the enemy went after somebody dear to him. He took both of them. [Killing the child] is what hurts him more than killing him himself.
The two are connected. But the Coronado police would like it to go away. Because they don’t want to tarnish the reputation of their golden city. They would like to think the first one [the son] is an accident, the second was suicide. But that’s not the case. They’re connected.
It might have something to do with his girlfriend’s ex-husband, too.
It has also crossed my mind that the mother has an axe to grind with the girlfriend. And if there was an accident where the boy fell down the steps or if the girlfriend actually hurt him, might the mother put a hit on the girl? There’s something there.
They’re very influential people. They know people. They know people around the world. They can do these things.
The boy fell?
He might have been purposely dropped from a high altitude. On his neck or head. “Fell down the steps” is an old excuse. They use that one a lot.
Why hang her?
Make it look like it was a motive by the ex-wife, who lives in Coronado. Make it look like that.
A drug thing?
Could be. It could be he made somebody very angry. He knows what’s happened. But you or I or the police will never get to him. He’s got too much money. The lawyers will protect him.
Was it right to let Jonah Shacknai leave the state?
What are they going to do? They can’t arrest unless they have evidence. And letting him go back to Arizona? Give him a long leash. Doesn’t mean they’re not watching him.
The Coronado police?
They shouldn’t be involved. They don’t have the intel to do that. And they don’t have the intellect. No, these are traffic cops. They shouldn’t be investigating a missing dog. They should turn it over to the sheriff. Seriously. This police department can’t even find a missing bicycle in town.
So, not the greatest admirer?
Oh, I think it’s the greatest police force in the world. They know the traffic code.
If it’s so clear to you, why are the cops still talking “accident/suicide”?
They know a lot. But to us, they say, “We’re looking at a suicide and an accident. We don’t think they’re connected.” They don’t want the tourists to think that Coronado’s tarnished. The Golden City. Playing it down, just like the mayor of Amity Island in Jaws.
If I was in charge, I would probably put out some leads to the underground world. They would find out for me.
I think he’s a person who has pissed off somebody. And that’s what they did. They took the dearest thing to him. The dearest thing is the little boy. Now he’s going to suffer because of it. A cute little guy, too.
* * *
KELLEN, works at Bay Books.
I’ve lived in Coronado for about seven years now. I never heard of anything like this. This is serious. I think there’s been one other murder since I’ve been here. Not much crime. But I don’t think that we should be worried or threatened by it. Because it seemed to be a personal thing. I don’t think it was a murderer on the rampage. I think someone knew her. I guess he has a history of domestic violence. I don’t know how they’re going to be able to live here anymore. If they’re innocent.
Who did it? The only person you can think of is the guy. But why would he do that? Because he’s so successful and why would he want to threaten his success? Because he’s obviously going to be pointed at.
* * *
BOB, landscape architect/gardener, ex-military.
I only get the news from the stock market. The story there is that he made a lot of money transfers a week before the [deaths].... Stocks went down as soon as it happened. Now the stocks are going back up again. He’s moved a lot of money out and sold a lot of shares.
But it could be a suicide. People can tie their hands in front and then step over it, if you have enough agility. Tie your feet first, then put a long rope and tie it around your neck, and tie it to the railing, and then the last straw is to tie your hands, and then put your feet over, one at a time. Not everybody has that dexterity. But she certainly looked like she could. That’s a possibility. But the reason I find that doubtful is that most women are vain enough that they would not commit suicide in the nude. They’d be wearing good makeup, good jewelry.
* * *
Desi Ochoa, trainer at Hollywood Fitness, points out equipment used by Zahau.
DESI OCHOA, a trainer at Hollywood Fitness, a gym near the Hotel Del, where they say Coronado’s smart set goes to muscle up. Jonah and Rebecca were regulars.
Rebecca came here and would do the step mill, the elliptical, and she probably did some of the weights. Yes, she was actually in the gym with her boyfriend on that last Friday, the 8th. He seemed a little standoffish. I got a weird vibe from him.
She seemed like she was very nice. Laid back, down to earth. And she worked out a lot, so she was in pretty good shape. I kind of got a vibe from him that he’s rich, don’t try to be too friendly. So, I never really got to talk with them. She’s only been with the gym for a year. He was in good shape; not ripped, but not bad, either.
Who did it? I think, with the brother living in the house, maybe she was messing around with his brother, and that set things going. The kid falling down the stairs? Don’t know. But here’s the thing: one of our trainers saw Jonah here two days after it happened, after Rebecca died. He was here at the gym by himself.
* * *
CAROL LEBEAU, Channel Ten’s retired anchor, is standing in line at Rite Aid.
I know a little about suicide. My mother killed herself when I was 26 and she was 54. She had untreated, end-stage depression when it wasn’t talked about. We have depression that runs in our family. But, let me tell you, nobody — nobody, especially a woman — is going to commit suicide by stripping naked and binding hands and feet and hanging themselves.
* * *
Brant Sarber outside his Costa Azul restaurant, probable watering hole for Rebecca Zahau and Jonah Shacknai
BRANT SARBER, owner, Costa Azul restaurant. I meet him on Orange Avenue. We sit down at the 901 bus stop bench.
The two of them looked so familiar in photographs that I think they’ve been in to Costa Azul, as a couple.
In all the scandal-mongering, people forget how tragic it is to lose a son. That’s just a tragedy, and the boy sounded like a great little kid, from what I’ve read. I mean, that’s two terrible things, and...wait a bit, this is happening here in Coronado?
And reaction? Oh, my goodness! Customers are coming in here from everywhere. Like from Boston. They’re going, “Oh, my God! How about the murder! What do you know about the murder?” Nobody’s ever asked me that question before.
What an interesting event for our sleepy little town.
* * *
ALEX is sitting with his wife Lydia at the Café Madrid on Orange Avenue. He has been in Special Forces and is now in business.
Who did it? It must have been the butler [kidding]. Or someone who has a vendetta against the owner. Because the girl couldn’t have tied herself up to commit suicide. I think somebody else perpetrated the deed. A professional.
I know how those things work. They just accomplish the mission, nobody sees them, and then they’re gone. That’s the main thing, is no witnesses. It’s done in under two minutes. It’s called “force of action.” Compress the most violence into the smallest time. Accomplish it with explosive force. Smash through the windows, out the door.... They could have broken her neck before they threw her off. It’s easy to break a person’s neck. It only takes about 14 pounds of pressure.
* * *
CHARLIE S., who collects cans and bottles around Coronado every day.
I collected bottles two doors away from the Spreckels house that morning. Nothing unusual. No cries, no people rushing around.
* * *
PETE, an artist.
Where was she from, Burma? Could someone in Burma have disapproved of her lifestyle? Getting tied up with this lifestyle here and moving in with a foreigner, an American...that’s a possibility. They could have sent people over to...uh, express that disapproval in dramatic fashion.
* * *
ALEX: But this guy [Shacknai] has the right idea. Put up a wall of lawyers between him and his tormentors. I have a lawyer friend, ex–Special Forces. And on his [business] card, he has: “Nobody talks, everyone walks.” Truer words were never spoken.
* * *
TOM, an accountant.
What I heard was that there were two women, one of them naked and bound up. And it was another female who made the 911 call. And when the paramedics arrived, she also was half naked. That’s what the police said, according to a friend of mine. She emailed me the day it happened and said that 911 had been called, and when they arrived, the naked girl was still alive, and the person who made the call was also Asian. So, two Asian females.
I’m not surprised. If the boyfriend is an alpha type — I deal with alpha-type businessmen at tax time — they’re domineering, they’re pushy. They surround themselves with people who do things for them, and they’re used to getting their way. People wait on him hand and foot, and naturally that sort of trait would carry over to the bedroom. Luckily, most of us just can’t perform to that level.
So, with these people, if you take away the constraints, you take away the social norms, some people think they can get away with, well, murder. These guys take chances. I call it the fighter-pilot mentality, the swashbuckler. The Navy SEALs push things to the extreme, too. They also do it with their spouses. The same sort of thing that makes them thrive in Afghanistan, surrounded by 100 Taliban, is the same mentality they use to deal with their spouse. They don’t recognize the same social controls as you and me.
I don’t have a clue what happened in this case, but I’m guessing they were playing a [sex] game and it got out of hand.
* * *
CAROLINE, longtime resident, sitting in a booth at Clayton’s Coffee Shop.
I used to come over to the Spreckels house when I was 20, 21. I remember my friend’s mother had a huge collection of snuff bottles. It was a very formal house. Everything had to be just so. There were butlers, cooks. You couldn’t imagine anything unplanned, untraditional ever happening there. I thought it was so-o stuffy. Now, I wonder if that wasn’t a good thing.
* * *
Spreckels mansion: the site of two mysterious deaths.
The lawn in front of Spreckels mansion shines luminous green in the setting sun.
“People come and leave flowers and messages,” says the Elite Security lady, who’s keeping looky-loos at bay. Right now, in the early evening, she’s rearranging the flowers in the pot that someone has set up on the front lawn facing the Pacific Ocean. “It’s a tragedy, all right,” she says.
One little bunch of flowers had no name, but it was clearly addressed to Rebecca.
“It is the way you listened, the way you comforted, the way you related to my every heartache, my every victory, even my losses, you were a true friend.” ■