Rebecca Zahau's Death a Ritualistic Killing?

Forensic scientists find Zahau autopsy details troubling.

September 7, 2011, 10:56 AM

Sept. 7, 2011— -- Rebecca Zahau, found naked, bound and hanging at a Coronado, Calif., mansion, may have been the victim of a ritualistic killing, a forensic psychologist told today.

The bedroom near the balcony where Zahau was reportedly found hanging appeared "staged," said Maurice Godwin, who has a Ph.D. in criminal psychology and runs a forensic consultancy business in Fayetteville, N.C.

"This death has many hallmarks of a ritualistic killing," he said. "I think someone assaulted her physically. I think she was dazed, and they bound her."

Zahau allegedly used black paint to write the words "she saved him can you save her" on a bedroom door near the balcony where she was found hanging.

Godwin, who has been investigating crime scenes for 15 years, believes the black paint, which was also found on Zahau's breasts, collarbone and hands has a "ritualistic overtone."

The odd circumstances of Zahau's death, including the red rope tied around her ankles and wrists, as well as the autopsy report detailing hemorrhages, bruises, and blood on the body of 32-year-old Zahau, have raised several questions among forensics experts.

"It's the entirety [of the case] that's troubling. And I think to write it off as a suicide, it's premature," said Dr. Lawrence Kobilinsky, a DNA expert and forensic scientist who heads the Department of Sciences at the City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

According to both Kobilinsky and Godwin, the injuries as described in the autopsy report suggest "a substantial blow to the head."

"There are four hemorrhages in four different positions," Kobilinsky said. "When you see these kinds of scalp hemorrhages you have to explain them."

Godwin concurred, adding, "The chances of bumping into the railing, going over the balcony and hitting your head four times is highly unlikely."

On Tuesday San Diego medical examiner Dr. Jonathan Lucas issued a statement to respond to press inquiries about the autopsy report. With regard to the hemorrhages, he said, "Because there was evidence that she went over the balcony in a non-vertical position, she may have struck her head on the balcony on the way down."

Renowned forensic pathologist Dr. Werner Spitz, who testified during the Casey Anthony trial, told today it's entirely possible Zahau hit her head while hanging.

"When the body first dropped, she doesn't necessarily jump to her death, so she would drop directly downward and she could easily hit against the side of the structure from which she is hanging," he said.

Even so, he admits it's not a cut and dried case.

"I would love to see a picture of the body before the removal of the wrist bindings," he said.

The autopsy revealed blood on Zahau's legs, as well as bruises and tape residue. It also showed that part of a T-shirt had been in Zahau's mouth. The medical examiner said the blood could have been either from a menstrual period or an intrauterine device, but could not explain the significance of the tape residue or T-Shirt.

"As in any comprehensive investigation, some findings cannot be entirely explained," Lucas wrote in Tuesday's statement.

Rebecca Zahau Death Raises Questions

Anne Bremner, the lawyer representing Zahau's family, told that Zahau had painted as a hobby, but the message on the bedroom door didn't match Zahau's handwriting.

Police never saw Zahau hanging because Zahau's body was cut down by Adam Shacknai, the brother of Zahau's boyfriend Jonah Shacknai who owned the mansion.

This week Lt. Larry Nesbit of the San Diego Sheriff's homicide unit told, "Adam was interviewed and we found and confirmed that all of the statements he gave to us were truthful."

Zahau had been dating pharmaceutical mogul Jonah Shacknai for more than two years. Friends and family said they seemed happy together, and Zahau had been especially fond of her boyfriend's son, Max.

The 6-year-old was seriously injured two days before Zahau died after he fell down the stairs at the historic Spreckels mansion where they were staying. He died six days later and police eventually ruled his death an accident.

Investigators believe Zahau killed herself, in part, because she learned Max was not expected to live on July 13, the day she was reportedly found hanging.

"I'll be the first to admit this is not a clear cut case one way or another," Kobilinsky said. "But if you don't know, you just don't call it."

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