The woman on the other end of the phone is in tears. “I was just praying to God when you called,” she says.
“That He’ll help us with what happened to our daughter. We are Christian. We are not allowed to commit suicide.”
It’s Pari (Mrs. Zung Tin Par), Rebecca Zahau’s mother. Rebecca is the 32-year-old Burmese-born millionaire’s girlfriend who died at the Spreckels mansion in Coronado. She was found hanging from a rear balcony, completely naked, on July 13.
And her mother, who lives in St. Joseph, Missouri, with Rebecca’s father (Mr. Khua Hnin Thang), wants to know why. Suicide, the official verdict, is not an option.
“Why would they say that?” she says. “That she committed suicide? Our family is hurting. We’re a poor family. We can’t pay for investigators. My husband says nothing. All his feelings are trapped inside. But we know for sure, she wouldn’t ever kill herself. And she was very modest. It is our Asian way. She would never do a thing like that, and never without clothes on. But nobody will listen to us.”
I didn’t make this phone call. My wife Lita did. We had been discussing how little the public knew about Rebecca.
“You should talk to the family,” Lita said. And in her direct way, she picked up the phone and dialed 411. In half an hour she was talking to Rebecca’s mom. But not for long. It was too emotional for Pari. She gave Lita the number of Mary Zahau-Loehner, Rebecca’s older sister.
And so began a conversation about what this investigation looks like from Rebecca’s family’s point of view.
∗ ∗ ∗
“We were pretty close,” says Mary. “We talked to each other almost every day, either by text or by phone. If not every day, at least two or three times a week.
“Rebecca is more outgoing than I am. She is a jolly person. She can laugh about simple things. She’s cheery, she likes to cheer everybody up. She just likes to live life. I don’t know how else to explain it. She’s a year and a half younger than me. We have another sister [living in Germany]. We’re all close, but Rebecca and I got really close because we can talk to each other here.”
The sisters were born in the town of Falam, in the Chin Hills of northwest Myanmar (formerly Burma), near the border with India. The Chin people live in a hard area, less fertile than anywhere else in Myanmar. To add to their woes, the Myanmar military has regularly persecuted the Chin people and reportedly used them for hard labor.
It’s what turned the Chin to Christianity. An early missionary, Adoniram Judson, first visited the area in 1813. The Chin have embraced Christianity, especially over the last century, despite the persecution it brought.
About two years ago, Rebecca became involved with Jonah Shacknai, who founded Medicis Pharmaceutical Corporation, based in Arizona, and owns the Spreckels mansion in Coronado.
Then on July 13 came the appalling news.
“I found out from my husband Doug that my sister had died,” Mary says. “Jonah had called him. He came to my work, and he told me that we need to go to my office to talk. And that’s when he told me.
“I felt desperation, wanting to believe it’s not true. Maybe some prank. He said he was told that it was suicide by hanging. I said ‘No!’ I remember saying, ‘No. Where is she? I need to talk to her.’
“We didn’t know Jonah well. I called him the day of [Rebecca’s death], and he said he didn’t know, he didn’t know [what happened]. That’s all he answered me.”
What sort of partner was Jonah Shacknai to her sister?
“We had met him a few times [before this]. My husband has met him twice, and I think that I have met him four or five times. Jonah is a difficult man to read. We didn’t [ever] have much of a conversation. Usually it was dinner or something like that. He was busy. Most of the time when I visited my sister, I just hung out with her. He was gone a lot, and we might have a dinner here and there, [but] it had to be arranged ahead of time.”
Mary thinks Rebecca, who was an ophthalmic technician, met Shacknai through work.
But she says it wasn’t easy for Rebecca to fit into the privileged family, which included two teenaged children from Shacknai’s first marriage; Max, 6, from Shacknai’s second marriage; and Max’s mother, Dina, Shacknai’s recently divorced second wife.
“I didn’t ever meet Jonah’s ex-wife,” says Mary. “I just know that she was making Becky’s life difficult. I think she was rude to her a lot of times, requesting that Becky not attend any function with the kids, especially Max. Things like that.”
Was Shacknai in love with Becky?
“I don’t know. I couldn’t read [them]. I mean, were they affectionate with each other? No, not really. Not in front of us. If I saw them, I probably wouldn’t get that impression. Becky told me that she did love him but that she was disappointed in a lot of ways because he wouldn’t…she was disappointed in his [teenaged] kids, [how] they were allowed to be openly rude to her. Those other two children didn’t want her, period. They resented her. And Jonah would not defend her [against them], stop that. Not really. Not by my impression.”
By this summer, it was coming to a crunch for Rebecca.
“We talked about it; that if the teenaged kids’ behavior doesn’t improve she was considering telling Jonah at the end of this summer that she…needed to have some time to herself.
“I don’t know if she ended up telling him or not.”
Did he give emotional support to his lover’s family?
“Emotional support?” says Mary. “No. He talked a few random times, yes. He talked more with my husband, but it was more of technical things like funeral arrangements and that kind of stuff.”
Jonah Shacknai did praise Rebecca, along with his son. “Rebecca too was a wonderful and unique person who will always have a special place in my heart.” But this statement, issued after the press conference at which Sheriff Bill Gore ruled Rebecca’s death a suicide, was pretty much it.
“Yup. He didn’t say much to us either. And yes, that surprised me. For somebody that he was going to marry, it really surprised me that he didn’t even have one good thing to say about my sister. Though she said marriage was not being discussed at this point.”
What makes Mary so sure Becky didn’t commit suicide?
“All of it. All of it doesn’t fit. The conversation she and I had the day before [she died], none of it adds up. She had two detailed plans for the next day: to take things for Jonah [to the hospital where he was watching over Max, who had been critically injured falling down a stairwell at the mansion], to fix something for him to eat. She told me to tell our mom that she would call her on her way to the hospital in the morning. That she was going to text me throughout the day. I mean, that’s somebody who’s planning to kill herself?”
Could she have been depressed by the fact that Max was mortally injured while he was at home with her?
“She did not feel responsible. She said it was a horrible accident. She said she doesn’t know for sure what happened. She just remembered that he was playing in the hallway, and she told me that she was in the bathroom, and she heard this loud crash. And so she came out running, and she said she found Max on the floor, unconscious.”
Again, after Max was injured, her shaky status within the family was in evidence.
“She went to the hospital, but I don’t think that she was allowed to actually see Max,” says Mary.
And Becky’s death? She died trussed up in hand- and foot-binding rope but otherwise nude, in a death that Sheriff Bill Gore declared “suicide,” meaning she tied herself up and staged a suicide spectacular off the rear balcony of the mansion.
“No,” says Mary. “No way. It’s just not something that she would do. We were raised in modesty. Yes, she dressed herself well, but she was not one who’s going to go out there and say, ‘Hey! Look at me!’ to the whole world.”
Then there’s the bizarre message daubed in black paint on the bedroom door:
“SHE SAVED HIM / CAN HE SAVE HER?”
“I have no clue [what that’s about],” Mary says. “I just know that’s not my sister. And my sister’s very artistic, and if she has a message for the world, it wouldn’t be those two lines. And it wasn’t my sister’s handwriting either. They are trying to say that my sister was suicidal because she heard this news that Max was dying, or brain-dead. Obviously she didn’t save him. But I don’t know what that message means.”
But surely someone living has to know what that message means. The person it was addressed to. Who does she think wrote it?
“I don’t know. It would have to be whoever was involved. We don’t know if it’s one or two persons. We don’t know.”
It takes a moment to absorb the intriguing possibility. Two persons? After all, there were two paint brushes and two knives left at the scene.
“The police have been in contact only one time [with us] after we had called them dozens of times,” says Mary. “That’s the other thing. We never got an official death notification from them. That one call from Jonah [to husband Doug] was what we had. But the police did call us after my husband had contacted them several times. In the entire investigation they talked to me only once, to ask me a few questions but basically to convince me that it was a suicide. It bothers me. Why isn’t our family asked about who Becky was? They say the family was very reachable…no. I had a full conversation with them only once. And then the other time was for them to come and say, ‘Well, this is what our conclusion is.’ When the sheriff’s lead detective on the case called, she said that there were ‘no signs of foul play, so we’re concluding it’s a suicide.’ Basically, they didn’t have answers to questions we asked. Like, if there were internet sources on her computer to support what she did, because you are trying to convince me that my sister came up with this elaborate [suicide] plan in less than two hours? Because they said the time of death was around 3:00 a.m. possibly, and supposedly the message she got from Jonah saying Max was brain-dead was at about one o’clock in the morning.
“So supposedly in two hours she was able to work out what to do and how to do it and find the equipment and make it look like a murder. They essentially said, ‘It may look like a homicide, but it’s not. We came to the conclusion that it’s a suicide.’
“Our goal at this point is to have the case reopened and actively investigated. We are not here to point any fingers, but we definitely know there were more than one too many questions that need to be answered. And so it has to be relooked at. I read about the [residue] of masking tape on her legs, the hemorrhages on her head. [The sheriff’s lead detective on the case] didn’t tell us any of that. They omitted that part of it. But I specifically asked over and over, ‘Were there signs of trauma? Signs of struggle?’ And they kept saying, ‘No, there are no signs of foul play, there are no signs of struggle.’”
But why persist, when four independent law enforcement bodies have arrived at the same conclusion: suicide?
“Well, at this point, Rebecca was never given a chance to voice what happened to her. So we are her voice now, and I’m going to do everything I can to make known what her voice was.”
Mary says all this is very difficult for her mom. “Nobody ever thinks they’re going to bury their children. And then in this manner, the humiliation [of the naked hanging] that her daughter was exposed to. It’s horrible. My dad is a man of few words. He’s not doing too good. In Burmese culture, suicide by hanging is uncommon. Like, unheard-of. We were raised where there’s always a purpose in life. We were raised Protestant Christians. She wouldn’t kill herself, and definitely not in the nude. Asian people are too modest.”
What does Mary miss most, now, two months after Rebecca’s death?
“I miss her voice and talking to me. I just want to pick up the phone and call her. I keep thinking she’s going to call me.”