Renowned forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht expressed "grave and serious doubts" that the woman found bound, naked and hanging at her boyfriend's Coronado, Calif., mansion killed herself.
Rebecca Zahau, whose death has been ruled a suicide, died in July just two days after her boyfriend's son was fatally injured while under her care. Zahau's family believes she was murdered, and exhumed her body so Wecht could conduct a second autopsy.
Today he shared the results on the "Dr. Phil" show, which helped fund the exhumation.
"The autopsy itself was thorough, I have no criticism," Wecht said. "It's the findings that were there and some that were not there that … leave me to express grave and serious doubts that the manner of death was suicide."
Wecht, who has conducted more than 17,000 autopsies, suggested Zahau may have been hit on the head before she died of hanging. He told McGraw that four hemorrhages beneath Zahau's scalp aren't explained by a vertical hanging.
"You have to have blunt force trauma," he said after the show aired blurred footage from the autopsy.
"You have something of a rounded, smooth surface that impacts against the scalp, thus not producing a laceration," Wecht said.
Wecht said Zahau may have been knocked unconscious, which could explain why there are not defensive injuries on her body consistent with that of a struggle.
He agreed with the original autopsy report's conclusion that Zahau's cause of death was hanging, but he suggested she might have been placed in the noose.
Wecht also questioned the investigators' conclusion that Zahau had thrown herself over the balcony.
"We have no fracture of the cervical vertebrae [neck]," said Wecht. "That bothers me greatly with this kind of situation."
He suggested changing the manner of death from "suicide" to "undetermined" on Zahau's death certificate.
Dr. Phil devoted two episodes this week to the mysterious and complicated case that has generated national news headlines ever since the summer.
In July Zahau and her boyfriend of three years, Jonah Shacknai, were staying at his historic home in Coronado, Calif., when Shacknai's 6-year-old son Max seriously injured himself after tumbling off a balcony at the top of a stairwell at the mansion. The boy went into a coma and died several days later.
Zahau's death occurred two days after Max fell and just hours after police say Zahau received a devastating phone call from Shacknai about Max's grave condition.
Shacknai's brother, who was staying at the mansion as a houseguest, called 911 after he discovered Zahau hanging from the balcony. When police arrived they found Zahau's naked body on the lawn. Her mouth was gagged with a T-shirt and her hands were tied behind her back with red rope, secured by a slip knot. Her feet were also bound.
Police found a cryptic message written in black paint inside, on the bedroom wall. "She saved him. Can you save her," it read.
Investigators ruled Zahau's death a suicide, and Max's death an accident, but Zahau's family has never accepted the conclusion that Zahau would have killed herself.
Zahau's sister, Mary Zahau-Loehner, told McGraw that police "did not give my sister a fair investigation."
"My sister did not indicate that she was depressed, suicidal, or that she wanted to hurt herself," Zahau-Loehner said. "It still feels like a dream or some bad horror movie."