Episode 48: Halloween Hanging: Can You Save Her?

It’s the time of year when well-meaning suburbanites stage miniature shock and awe campaigns on their front lawns. The sweet retirees on the corner are building a graveyard. Across the street, a soccer mom is arranging a life-sized skeleton in a lawn chair. The is a zombie invasion, comprised of wax dummies just one block down. So who would notice, could notice, the body hanging from a noose fastened to a tree? It’s just one more macabre Halloween decoration, right? If it wasn’t, if it was a corpse, that would ruin all the fun; that would make us question everything we know and love about this harmless holiday. Well, according to the legend of ‘The Halloween Hanging,’ it was a corpse; and that is exactly what we will be questioning on this episode. We will explore some dark territory, looking staged suicidal hangings, homicidal hangings and the history of hanging as a method of execution. We will also discuss the phenomena of crime scene staging, and try to reach our own verdict on the case of the mysterious death of Rebecca Zahau.

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Robert Chauncey, Creator The Tunnels Podcast

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SOURCES:

San Diego Sherriff’s Department Death Investigation

County of San Diego Autopsy Report Case Number 11-01517 Zahau, Rebecca

Cornado Death Investigation San Diego County Sherriff’s Department

Mansion mystery: News 8 reenactment reveals new questions

Naked Suicide Robert I. Simon (Journal of Psychiatry and the Law)

Cervical spine injuries in suicidal hanging without a long-drop–patterns and possible underlying mechanisms of injury: an autopsy study. Nikolic, S. Zivkovic, V.

True and simulated homicidal hangings: a six-year retrospective study. Sauvageau, A.

A homicide by suspension Ruwanpura, R.

The Staged Crime Scene Vernon J. Gerberth

Staged Crime Scene Clues to Suspect Misdirection of the Investigation – Arthur S. Chancellor, MCJA Grant D. Graham Sr. MFS – Investigative Sciences Journal

Crime Scene Staging – Laura Pettler, Ph.D.

Youth Hangs Self at Halloween Party – Washington Post

Teen Dies During Halloween Hanging Stunt – Chicago Tribune

Corpse Mistaken for Halloween Decoration – NBC News

Police ID Woman Found Dead Dangling From Fence in Chillicoth – WCPO Cincinnati

Death Scene Investigation From the Viewpoint of Forensic Medicine Expert = Demirci and Dogan

Factors Influencing the Decision to Use Hanging as a Method of Suicide, Biddle, British Journal of Psychiatry

Murder Masquerading as Suicide: Postmortem Assessment of Suicide Risk Factors at the Time of Death

The Anatomy of Motive by John E. Douglas

Staged Crime Scenes: A preliminary study of 25 cases by B. Turvey

3 thoughts on “Episode 48: Halloween Hanging: Can You Save Her?

  1. First time listener and really enjoyed the podcast, scary, sad, and informative. However, I was very disappointed with the Rebecca Zahau segment because so many of the details were incorrect. Those “Websleuths” you mentioned have spread rumors about this case that simply are not true. The real story is even more disturbing

    Rebecca’s little sister arrived on Sunday for a three-week visit. On Monday, Jonah’s six-year old son was being watched by Rebecca while he was at the gym. Rebecca called him around 10 to say she had found Max at the bottom of the stairs, unconscious and injured. EMTs had arrived within 2 minutes of the 911 call and found the boy unresponsive, the chandelier down, and a Razor scooter lying on his legs. Rebecca later told Jonah she had given Max CPR, but told the EMTs she did not. She also claimed Max said, “Ocean”, the name of the dog, when it was medically impossible for him to do so.

    When Max was examined by doctors at Rady’s, they did not believe his injuries were consistent with the story Rebecca gave, and also did not believe she had given him CPR. His brain had gone at least 30 minutes without air, although Rebecca had said she heard the crash, ran out of the bathroom to find Max on the floor, and immediately started to give him CPR while her sister (who had been in the shower) called 911. Max is put into Intensive Care. On Tuesday, they called Child Protective Services to investigate.

    Monday night, Max’s Aunt Nina flew into town and Rebecca picked her up at the airport. Rebecca was very evasive when asked about Max’s accident, and very quiet

    Tuesday morning, Rebecca boards the dog, takes her little sister shopping, then puts her on a flight home even though she had just arrived the day before for a 3 week visit. She does not inform the detective that is investigating Max’s case.

    She picks up Adam from the airport, Jonah’s brother, who she called the evening before and asked him to fly out from Memphis to be with Jonah, and takes him to Rady’s to see Max and Jonah. She returns a little later, and she, Adam, and Jonah leave to get something to eat. She is quiet and will not talk about what happened to Max.

    She and Adam get back to the mansion at 8 pm. The both say they are going to bed and part ways. Adam is staying in the guest house, and she is in the main house on the 2nd floor

    About 9:45, Nina calls her to ask again about Max’s accident, butt Rebecca does not call Nina back- even with lttle Max lying brain-dead in the ICU. Nina walks to the house and knocks on the door and rings the bell, but Rebecca refuses to answer.

    At 12:50, Jonah calls and Rebecca does not answer. He leaves a message that Max is not

    First time listener and really enjoyed the podcast, scary, sad, and informative. However, I was very disappointed with the Rebecca Zahau segment because so many of the details were incorrect. Those “Websleuths” you mentioned have spread rumors about this case that simply are not true. The real story is even more disturbing

    Rebecca’s little sister arrived on Sunday for a three-week visit. On Monday, Jonah’s six-year old son was being watched by Rebecca while he was at the gym. Rebecca called him around 10 to say she had found Max at the bottom of the stairs, unconscious and injured. EMTs had arrived within 2 minutes of the 911 call and found the boy unresponsive, the chandelier down, and a Razor scooter lying on his legs. Rebecca later told Jonah she had given Max CPR, but told the EMTs she did not. She also claimed Max said, “Ocean”, the name of the dog, when it was medically impossible for him to do so.

    When Max was examined by doctors at Rady’s, they did not believe his injuries were consistent with the story Rebecca gave, and also did not believe she had given him CPR. His brain had gone at least 30 minutes without air, although Rebecca had said she heard the crash, ran out of the bathroom to find Max on the floor, and immediately started to give him CPR while her sister (who had been in the shower) called 911. Max is put into Intensive Care. On Tuesday, they called Child Protective Services to investigate.

    Monday night, Max’s Aunt Nina flew into town and Rebecca picked her up at the airport. Rebecca was very evasive when asked about Max’s accident, and very quiet

    Tuesday morning, Rebecca boards the dog, takes her little sister shopping, then puts her on a flight home even though she had just arrived the day before for a 3 week visit. She does not inform the detective that is investigating Max’s case.

    She picks up Adam, Jonah’s brother, who she called the evening before and asked him to fly out to be with Jonah, from the airport and takes him to Rady’s to visit Max. She returns a little later, and she, Adam, and Jonah leave to get something to eat. She is quiet and will not talk about what happened to Max.

    She and Adam get back to the mansion at 8 pm. The both say they are going to bed and part ways. Adam is staying in the guest house, and she is in the main house on the 2nd floor

    About 9:45, Nina calls her to ask again about Max’s accident, butt Rebecca does not call Nina back- even with lttle Max lying in tthe ICU. Nina walks to the house and knocks on the door and rings the bell, but Rebecca refuses to answer.

    At 12:50 a.m., Jonah calls and Rebecca does not answer. He leaves a message that Max is not expected to make it. He probably tells her she is going to be investigated and to move out of the mansion until the investigation is completed.

    She completes all the steps in her suicide, then falls over the balcony. The entire sequence probably takes an hour or less.

    Adam finds her early the next morning at 6:45 a.m. when he steps out into the courtyard to go get some coffee.

    He calls 911, and in a frantic panic, cuts her down at their instructions.

    Medical arrives within minutes and she is pronounced dead. It has only been 40 hours (not two days as widely reported) since Max Shacknai was rushed to the hospital.

    Adam is immediately taken in for questioning, is kept all day and into the night. He is extremely cooperative, has no defensive wounds whatsoever, freely gives DNA, fingerprints, give them his shoes, takes a poly, and does not request a lawyer.

    Now, to cover some the specifics in your broadcast:

    1. When Rebecca Zahau was found, she was still holding the tightening end of the rope that bound her hands in her stiff fingers. I believe she tied wrists and ankles to avoid any struggle in her last moments.

    2. The room Rebecca hung herself from was on the 2nd floor of the mansion and it served as her office. A book on witchcraft was found in her bookcase was taken into evidence that contained drawings of people bound in various poses, how to bind yourself, and how to tie knots. It also speaks of using red rope. She used a red marine tow rope she got from the garage.

    3. Also taken into evidence was a 2010 Korean film, the Housemaid. The story is about a maid who watches the child of a wealthy man and his wife. In the end, the housemaid hangs herself by jumping from a balcony with a noose around her neck to punish the couple. Her hair is under the noose. The original version of the movie has the Housemaid throwing the rich man’s son down a flight of stairs.

    4. This was not a clinical long-drop hanging. Rebecca likely bent over the railing, falling head first, or did a hop to sit on the railing and went over.

    5. Rebecca slept in the nude, and her clothes were neatly folded on the bed. Naked suicide can also mean feeling of guilt.

    6. I believe she hung herself in the courtyard because she thought that Jonah would come check on her when she does not call him back, and that he will come in the front door and up the stairs and find the cryptic note she painted on the door, then rush in to find her hanging from the balcony, or if he comes through the court yard, he will find her hanging there. Either way, she had it covered.

    7. Christians hang themselves all the time, and she had not been attending any church while she was with Jonah, who is Jewish. She also had a book on witchcraft, and lived with Jonah while she was married.

    8. The door that was painted on was not in the guesthouse, where Adam was staying. It was on the 2nd floor of the home, and was the door to Rebecca’s office, with the balcony she used to hang herself from.

    9. I believe she painted the note at Jonah’s height. At any rate, the woman in the News reenactment video was only 5′ 1″, and she had no trouble painting the note at that height.

    10. Rebecca had no defensive wounds at all. The accounts and diagrams of her “injuries” that are on the internet are wildly inaccurate. The ME who did the original autopsy found the small and superficial bumps on her head. The largest was about the size of a quarter. The ME stated they would not had given her a headache, much less make her unconscious. I personally believe she got them from the bed frame when she was tying the rope to the bed – the size of them leads me to that conclusion.

    11. The head contusions the 2nd autopsy found were not new. They were the same ones as above.

    12. There was no “duct tape” reside found. There was a tiny bit of “sticky tape-likeep” on her mid shin – could have been from waxing or sports tape as she was a runner. The ME said it would have been an odd area of the leg to try to bind someone with tape.

    13. The bruise on her lumbar back was a ‘patterned” bruise that she likely got from hitting something after going over the balcony. The other injuries are puntures and scratches from the large Cactus she swung into.

    14. Her fingernails were scraped for the first autopsy. No DNA was found.

    15. The News video reenactment was not scientific. They did not have the same carpet, mattress and box spring. The bed frame was similar, but not exact.

    16. According to the autospy report, there was no blood found on her hands, only punctures from the cactus.

    17, Max’s mother, Dina, and her sister, Nina, are fraternal twins, not identical. They do not look alike. Dina was at the hospital with Max during the time of Rebecca’s suicide.

    18. As reported in her autopsy, the knots in the ropes were simple slip knots, not any type of difficult knot. The ankle and wrist bindings were figure 8’s, and tied haphazardly. Only her DNA was found inside the knots.

    19. The searches for Asian bondage etc; happened before Adam Shacknai arrived at the home Tuesday at 8 p.m. The searches were done on Rebecca’s computer Monday evening and Tuesday afternoon before Adam arrived when only Rebecca had access to her computer.

    20. The 911 operator told Adam to cut her down, and he pulled over an outdoor table to stand on. He would have held her with one arm, while sawing the rope with the knife with the other. He would not have touched the rope. Besides, LE knew he cut her down so why would they test for that?

    Rebecca’s death was fully investigated by four agencies (including the FBI) for almost two months. The physical evidence proves only Rebecca was responsible. It is Max’s fatal accident that is the mystery. The ring on the chandelier was found to be cut, and Rebecca’s sister told police the scooter was a foot or two away from Max and his body was turned the other way when she first saw him. Plant material was found in his lungs.
    Rebecca changed her story several times about what happened and let him go for 30 minutes with no air. It is clear she staged the scene, but why? What really happened to Max? Sadly, instead of answering questions about what happened, she choose to take her life 40 hours later and took all of those answers with her.

    The only good thing to come out of this tragedy is that Jonah and Dina donated Max’s organs to three children, who will now have better live because of him.

    Sure hope you guys will do another story with all of these facts. The only site that seems to have real information is the Rebecca Zahau – Max Shacknai forum which I am including in the details.

    Happy Halloween!

    Like

    1. Hi Marie,

      Thank you for providing this information. I questioned whether or not this case was something we should take on, as we are not an in depth crime reporting podcast. I know people feel strongly about what happened to Max and Rebecca. I worried some listeners might find our coverage lacking in one way or another, but as we were preparing to examine this legend, I felt strongly that this real-world recent event was a necessary inclusion.

      Our wheelhouse is in the domain of cultural phenomena that become legend. I believe, after spending some time on forums, and taking in coverage of this case that it absolutely qualifies. So many people feel so passionately about the case on both sides, and it seems that there is no ‘general consensus’. I knew that we were not going to have time to cover everything that investigators have discovered.

      However, I chose to follow the officially documented elements, using the structure of the narrative that is provided in the San Diego SD’s power point presentation, statements and the official ME Autopsy as they pertain to Rebecca. I also mentioned the reenactment done by Channel 8 because the method was well documented, and in theory, because of journalistic tradition, should have been conducted without bias. Because I knew we would only be able to dedicate part of one episode to the case, that seemed the best course of action.

      I think it’s fair to say the information pertaining to any ritualistic aspects of the event and the film you mentioned are well suppressed by investigators, it is absent from police reports and statements. Therefore it was omitted, as were the rumors of the other children being present at the house, and chatter about Jonah’s behavior after her death. We really tried to focus on the official reports.

      The information on long drop hangings is taken from medical literature. The official criteria has to do with the length of the rope, not the the position from which the person drops. We do mention that if a knot is not applied appropriately, it can result in an atypical presentation of injury.

      The information about clothes being strewn about the room was taken from the ME’s report.

      The injuries we mention are all documented in the ME’s autopsy report. There is no mention of fingernail scrapings in that report, however; in other reports I have read, that information is included even if there are no findings. It’s possible that these tests were conducted and not included in the report that was released.

      Blood on her hands is specifically cited by the ME in the section of the report detailing the appearance of her hands. However we did mention other reasons that this might have been present.

      In a thorough investigation, many times controls are tested and assessed to eliminate suspects or erroneous evidence. One example of that procedure in this case is the tracking down of the LE officer’s boot which left a print on the balcony. I am surprised the section of rope that was cut was not tested for DNA for similar reasons. That is a procedural note and has little to do with the reconstruction of the narrative.

      I mentioned the fact that Nina and Dina are twins because in the drama of the case it seems like a cinematic contrivance. I do not seriously believe that the twins switched identities and conducted some sinister scheme.

      I purposefully tried to use the information that has been put forward by LE, that I could look at or listen to on my own in order to draw conclusions, and focus on the portion of the story that pertained to her hanging.

      We covered the case because it is an elaborately staged hanging that left many people with questions; because it obscured tragedies; and highlighted the idea that we often look past people who are deeply disturbed and need help in one way or another. I tried approach the information in a clinical way, while still expressing my thoughts honestly.

      It was my hope that we could take on the themes of the story that have become legendary, and look at what the fascination with the case says about society as a whole. Removing myself from discussion and reading the reactions of those who feel strongly about the case, it seems there are interesting reasons that both sides can draw such dramatically different conclusions after combing through the same evidence. One could say that people need to believe it was a murder, because if it was suicide, everyone missed the warning signs. Equally compelling on the other side, people need to believe it was a suicide because an innocent child lost his life, and in this way, at least the person who was responsible held herself accountable. The reactions of the public to the case were the only true ‘conclusions’ I wanted to put forward.

      I appreciate your thoughtful response, and I hope that you understand the reasons we approached the case the way we did.

      Thank you for listening, and happy Halloween 🙂

      Like

  2. Thank you for your response. This case certainly qualifies as a Urban Legaend since so much of the information out there is incorrect.

    Much of the misinformation is due to the “Justice for Rebecca” group that began posting in the Coronado Patch the day Rebecca was discovered hanging. They were convinced it was murder.
    Once the death was determined to be a suicide, they would not accept that and began twisting the facts to fit their agenda, and began a coordinated effort to frame someone in the Shacknai family for Rebecca’s death.

    Much of the information I gave comes from documents recently released due to the Civil Case that the Zahaus filed in order to make money from this tragedy. That includes official SDSO reports from the detectives and interviews with both families.

    Like

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