Coronado Mansion Suicide Was 'Rushed to Judgment,' Says Dr. Cyril Wecht

Family will discuss Rebecca Zahau autopsy results with Dr. Phil.

October 26, 2011, 4:48 PM

Oct. 27, 2011— -- When Rebecca Zahau'sdeath in a Coronado, Calif., mansion was ruled a suicide investigators may have "rushed to judgment," according to a prominent forensic pathologist who will conduct a second autopsy on the woman Friday.

Zahau's body has been exhumed and will be examined by Dr. Cyril Wecht, the 80-year-old forensic pathologist who has weighed in on high-profile deaths such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the O.J. Simpson trial, and the JonBenet Ramsey case.

The fresh autopsy on Zahau's body will take place Friday in Pittsburgh, Pa., Wecht told today.

Zahau, 32, was found naked, bound and hanging from the balcony of her boyfriend's mansion in Coronado, Calif.

Zahau's family, which has repeatedly expressed frustration that investigators ruled her death a suicide, exhumed Zahau's body from a cemetery in St. Joseph, Mo., and transported it to Pennsylvania for the independent autopsy which should be finished in one and a half weeks, Wecht said.

"The first autopsy was quite thorough. I have not criticized the autopsy, I have raised questions with the haste with which they rushed to judgment regarding the manner of death," Wecht told

He added that he doesn't dispute hanging as the cause of death, but when investigators determined Zahau killed herself, he said, "I thought they concluded that too rapidly."

The family plans to discuss Wecht's findings with TV show host Dr. Phil McGraw next month, Zahau's sister, Snowem Horwath, told

"The family has asked for Dr. Phil's advice through this process in dealing with the findings -- whatever they may be -- and will be meeting with Dr. Phil in November," she wrote in an email message.

Was Zahau an Assault Victim?

Zahau, 32, was found on July 13 hanging from a balcony in Coronado, Calif., mansion owned by her boyfriend, pharmaceutical mogul Jonah Shacknai. She was found nude with her wrists and feet bound with red rope. She allegedly scrawled black paint on a nearby bedroom door: "she saved him can you save her."

Her death came two days after Shacknai's 6-year-old son Max fell down the mansion's staircase while Zahau babysat for him. Max later died of his injuries.

Dr. James Lauridson, an Alabama forensic consultant who has done autopsies on 10 exhumed bodies during his career, said even though Zahau has been buried since July, the second autopsy could provide additional evidence about Zahau's death.

"At this point, what the second autopsy is going to add is a further delineation of injuries, primarily to the limbs and tissues of the skin and muscles," said Lauridson, who has 25 years of experience as a forensic pathologist. "Looking at the timing of those injuries and the distribution of those injuries may suggest there is more than one person involved in this, or that this amounted to an assault."

He described the case as "highly suspicious," especially because bodies are usually found hanging a short distance from where they were anchored. The rope around Zahau's neck, however, was 9 feet, 2 inches long.

"A long-drop hanging is just like, wow -- I personally have never seen a suicide do a long drop," he said.

After reviewing Zahau's first autopsy, Lauridson noted the only tissues that appeared to have been examined under the microscope were from her heart, liver and an endometrial polyp.

"None of those have anything to do with the death here," he said.

In a typical suicide, Lauridson added, a detailed tissue analysis isn't necessary. But because this is an unusual case, such an examination could prove crucial.

"It appears to me there's a possibility of detecting more injuries. For example, the binding of the hands, the binding of the feet -- she also had a gag in her mouth. I've got to wonder about all of that," said Lauridson. "Occasionally, an extensive dissection of the tissues under the skin and muscles will reveal injuries that are not apparent from just a visual inspection of the intact body."

It's also possible to investigate whether or not all of Zahau's injuries were fresh or if some of them had been inflicted earlier, he added.

Although Zahau has been buried since July, embalming fluid has preserved the body, which would allow an investigator to reexamine the tissues.

"There's not so much decomposition at this point that there shouldn't be the possibility of new findings," Lauridson said.

Family Arranges for Second Zahau Autopsy

Exhuming a body and transporting it from Missouri to Pennsylvania could cost up to $10,000, Lauridson said.

Zahau's sister, Snowem Horwath, told the family paid for the exhumation "through the generosity of others," and that Wecht has "donated his services."

His usual fee for private autopsies is $500 an hour, according to the New York Times.

The family has also set up a website where people can donate to their ongoing investigation into Zahau's death.

"This is a battle far too great and far too expensive for our family to afford and to come against," reads a statement on a family website, Justice for Rebecca. "Nevertheless, we truly believe that the God we trust in, will move hearts of many throughout the world who are watching this injustice taking place and who are not willing to accept it."

Zahau Family to Appear on Dr. Phil

Reports surfaced late Monday that TV show "Dr. Phil" had made donations to the family's fund.

The show did not confirm or deny that allegation.

"We endorse the family's effort to search for closure to this terrible tragedy and will stand with them as they navigate through their grieving process," said "Dr. Phil" show spokeswoman Stacey Luchs.

But the second autopsy, Loridson warned, can never be as good as the first, because all of Zahau's internal organs have been removed and all of the major organs would have been dissected during the first autopsy.

"The pathologist who is doing the second autopsy needs all that information [from the first autopsy] and then he gathers all his additional information and combines the two and offers his report," he said.

The San Diego County Sheriff's Department has said the Zahau case will remain closed unless significant evidence emerges.

Investigating Zahau's death a second time may prove to be a long process, but one the family says they must pursue.

"It is our hope that Rebecca can be returned to her resting place with the truth of this tragedy finally confirmed and justice served," Horwath said.

The family's lawyer, Anne Bremner, did not respond to multiple interview requests from

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