New book digs deep into infamous 2011 death of Rebecca Zahau

A new book out Tuesday takes a deep dive into the tragic 2011 deaths of Rebecca Zahau and 6-year-old Max Shacknai at Spreckels Mansion in Coronado.

Video Transcript

- Matter of emergency, what are you reporting?

- Yeah, actually, I got a girl hung herself.

PHIL BLAUER: It's a chilling call that still haunts so many nearly a decade after it was placed from a lavish Coronado beachfront mansion owned by pharmaceutical tycoon Jonah Shacknai. His brother, Adam, claiming to have found Jonah's 32-year-old girlfriend, Rebecca Zahau's lifeless body, dangling from a second story balcony. A civil jury would ultimately find him liable for Zahau's death, even though several sheriff's department investigations say that she committed suicide.

The grisly scene playing out just days after Jonah's six-year-old son, Max, suffered what would become a fatal staircase fall while under Rebecca's care. San Diego-based true crime author, Caitlin Rother, takes a deep dive into the tragedies in her book, "Death on Ocean Boulevard Inside the Coronado Mansion Case." You dedicated the book to Max and Rebecca. Why?

CAITLIN ROTHER: Well, because I don't want Max Shacknai, a six-year-old boy, to get lost in what I think, for a lot of people, kind of turns into a parlor game of what happened to Rebecca Zahau. You know, the tragic thing is two people died here and I don't want anybody to forget that.

PHIL BLAUER: What new information did you learn about Rebecca Zahau?

CAITLIN ROTHER: Rebecca was a woman who showed different faces to different people. She told conflicting stories to different people. And you know, I'm not saying she was a bad person at all. She must have had her reasons for doing this.

But I just thought that, that was really interesting and that's something that her family wouldn't have known about her. But the person that she showed to Jonah was very different, I think, than the person that she showed to her family. And so he was actually surprised by some of the information I told him that other people had said.

And so it was kind of a learning experience for both of us. I wanted to explore some of the things that Adam Shacknai's defense team brought up in passing to, you know, to make Rebecca look like she was some reckless harlot. You know, unstable and impulsive, and sleeping with all these different men. And you know, I didn't think that was fair. I wanted to really find out what was that about.

PHIL BLAUER: What did you learn from Jonah Shacknai in your research?

CAITLIN ROTHER: It started off slow with his relationship with Rebecca, and the dynamics between his ex-wives, his kids and Rebecca, which was a problem in their relationship. And that was chronicled in the notes that were on her phone and how upset she was about that. So you know, I wanted to hear his side of that. And I wanted to get some context for those notes that were on her phone.

PHIL BLAUER: You sat down with Adam Shacknai. What did you learn from him?

CAITLIN ROTHER: He's kind of an odd guy. Pretty eccentric. And he speaks his mind. And as you know, he's made comments to the media. Very defamatory and derogatory statements about Keith Greer, about the Zahau house, and even about his own legal team.

I learned more about him by going and listening to his testimony. And by listening to all of the 911 call and the interviews and comparing it all. So I basically just laid all that out for the reader. And you'll see toward the end of the book, there are some surprises there.

PHIL BLAUER: You looked into Max Shacknai's death, which still to this day generates more questions than answers.

CAITLIN ROTHER: You know, curiously even his own doctor said that the story of how he got his injuries don't match his injuries. That he thought maybe that it looked more like a drowning. So there was already some strange suspicions there. But the sheriff's department ruled it as an accident. There's still quite a bit of debate about what happened to the boy. But it's pretty much agreed, I think, that people think that the two deaths are inextricably linked.

PHIL BLAUER: What are some of the factors that complicated the writing and the publication and the research of this book?

CAITLIN ROTHER: I had to have a finding in court, which was that Adam was responsible for Rebecca's death according to the jury. And I had to, you know, also live in fear initially, that there could be a killer on the loose.

PHIL BLAUER: What do you hope your book leaves with the readers?

CAITLIN ROTHER: One of my goals was really just to tell the truth because I don't have an agenda. I'm not trying to control a narrative. I'm not even taking a position on this case of whether it's a suicide or a murder, because honestly, I still don't even really know. I think there's a lot of questions that still need to be answered. And some of them may never be answered.

PHIL BLAUER: Now Caitlin Rother also answers some of the lingering questions, including why former district attorney turned criminal defense lawyer, Paul Pfingst was called to the mansion on day one. And who was looking at Asian bondage porn on Rebecca Zahau's laptop 24 hours before her death. And even after covering this story, since the very beginning, I learned much more about this case from this book that I never knew. Again, it's available tomorrow. Kathleen.