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Pathologist: Zahau’s head injuries unexplained by hanging scenario

Explosive new details contained in an autopsy report suggest Rebecca Zahau was gagged with a T-shirt wrapped around her mouth and neck.
Pathologist: Zahau’s head injuries unexplained by hanging scenario

Audio excerpts: forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht:

CORONADO, Calif. (CBS 8) -- A renowned forensic pathologist said Sunday that injuries on the top of the head of Rebecca Zahau described in her autopsy are unexplained by the circumstances of her hanging death, which was officially ruled a suicide by the San Diego County Medical Examiner.

Pathologist Cyril Wecht reviewed Zahua's entire autopsy report, obtained Friday by News 8.

"She has subgaleal hemorrhages; those are hemorrhages on the undersurface of the scalp. I see no reason why she should have those." Dr. Wecht said. "You get those when your head strikes something or is struck by something."

Wecht said the scenario described by investigators where Zahau used a rope to tie her own hands, feet and neck before rolling off the balcony of her boyfriend's Coronado mansion leaves many unanswered questions.

"Even if (her) scalp hit bushes, that kind of impact would not produce subgaleal hemorrhage," Wecht said. "We're talking about contusions on the top of the head. So, even as the body is falling down – let's say there are branches – how do you get bruises on the top of the head as the body is falling vertically downward?"

The autopsy report describes four hemorrhaging injuries under Zahau's scalp:

"On the right superior parietal scalp there is a 2 x 1 inch subgaleal hemorrhage. On the right lateral frontal scalp there are two subgaleal hemorrhages measuring 3/4 x 1/2 inch and 1/2 x 1/4 inch. On the right lateral frontotemporal scalp, there is a 3/8 inch diameter subgaleal hemorrhage."

On Friday, investigators with the San Diego County Sheriff's Department closed their criminal investigation into the case, saying there is no evidence of foul play in Zahau's July 13 death, a conclusion questioned by Dr. Wecht.

"I don't have enough to come right out and say this is a homicide. As a medical examiner, as a coroner, in my opinion the manner of death should have been left as undetermined. Sometimes we can't be sure and sometimes you leave it as undetermined because more investigation is to be conducted," Wecht said.

Wecht said Zahau's head injuries – which caused bleeding underneath her scalp – would have occurred while she was still alive or in the minutes shortly after her death. He said it is impossible to determine whether Zahau's head traumas would have rendered her unconscious.

"A blow or blows sufficient to produce subgaleal, subscalpular hemorrhage could be sufficient for someone to be knocked out, just temporarily, not to produce any damage to the brain, not to cause any prolonged unconsciousness; but one cannot say," Dr. Wecht said.  "They are clearly indicia of some kind of blunt force trauma. So, for someone to say there is no evidence whatsoever of any kind of a struggle is not correct."

Wecht, 80, is a former president of the American Academy of Forensic Science who has consulted on numerous high profile death investigations, including the murder of JonBenet Ramsey and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

He also questioned why, according to the autopsy report, sticky tape residue was found on the legs of Zahau. Investigators have said Zahau used rope, not tape, to bind her feet.

"Where is the tape and what was it used for?" Wecht asked. "Let me give you two scenarios. One could say maybe she was going to bind her feet with duct tape and she switched to the rope. Well then, where's the duct tape if that's the case?"

"And, the other scenario is maybe somebody else was attempting to put duct tape around her feet, or maybe did put duct tape around her feet when she was being subdued, and then took it off."

"Those marks – clearly from tape like duct tape – where do they come from? Why are they there?" asked Wecht.

THIS IS A NEWS UPDATE. The previous report is below:

CORONADO, Calif. (CBS 8) – An autopsy report obtained by News 8 indicates "tape residue" was discovered on both legs of Rebecca Zahau, 32, when she was found hanging at a Coronado mansion on July 13.

The report does not indicate what type of tape may have left the residue or how it may have ended up on Zahau's legs. On Friday, the San Diego County Medical Examiner and the San Diego Sheriff's Department officially ruled Zahau's death a suicide by hanging.

The exact language included in Zahau's autopsy report reads:

"On the anterolateral mid left shin there is a 1 x 5/8 inch gray piece of material and two smaller similar pieces just distal to it, measuring 1/4 inch and 3/8 inch (Comment: appears similar to tape residue). On the lateral distal right lower leg there is a 1-1/4 x 5/8 inch area consisting of three horizontally oriented, parallel somewhat evenly spaced, areas of sticky, tan-gray apparent tape residue. They are situated between 3/16 and 5/16 inch apart."

During a 90-minute news briefing Friday, investigators never mentioned any sort of tape or tape residue during their review of the evidence.  Officials said Zahau used rope to bind her hands and legs before hanging herself.

A Sheriff's department spokesperson referred News 8 to the medical examiner's office for information regarding the tape residue.  The medical examiner's office did not respond to messages seeking comment Saturday. The office is closed for the holiday weekend.

THIS IS A NEWS UPDATE. The previous report is below:

CORONADO, Calif. (CBS 8) -- Explosive new details contained in an autopsy report suggest Rebecca Zahau was not only found naked, bound and hanging at the historic Spreckels mansion in Coronado; but she was also gagged with a T-shirt wrapped around her mouth and neck.

"She had a reddish-orange rope ligature around her neck and a blue piece of fabric, possibly a shirt, around the neck outside of the ligature. A portion of this shirt was reportedly originally in the decedent's mouth," Deputy Medical Examiner Jonathan Lucas wrote in the autopsy report obtained by News 8.

The new revelations came just hours after the Medical Examiner and the San Diego Sheriff's department ruled the woman's death a suicide.

Zahau, 32, was found hanging from a second-story balcony on July 13 at the Ocean Blvd. home of her millionaire boyfriend, 54-year-old Jonah Shacknai.

The only other person home at the time of Zahau's death was Jonah's brother Adam Shacknai, 48, who was staying in a guest house and discovered the body in the early morning hours.

"Adam ran into the main house to get a knife, pulled a nearby wooden table to the decedent's body, stood on top, cut the rope and laid the decedent's naked body on the grass," the report continued. "He removed a blue cloth which had been in her mouth in an effort to perform CPR and at 0648 hours, placed a 9-1-1 call to request assistance."

During a 90-minute news conference Friday, San Diego Sheriff William Gore said Zahau was distraught that her boyfriend's 6-year-old son, Max Shacknai, was gravely injured in a fall down the stairs July 11. The boy died July 16, days after Zahau's hanging.

Investigators said nobody witnessed the fall but the boy's autopsy report revealed new information about the possible cause of that incident.

"Rebecca was in the restroom (and) she heard a loud crash. She found Max unresponsive on the floor beneath the banister," the report said. "She heard Max say the dog's name ‘Ocean' and (Max) then became unresponsive."

"A ‘Razor' type scooter was lying across his right shin," the report continued. "(Max) had been told in the past not to ride his scooter in the hallway."

Max was rushed to the hospital and "a pulse was regained after approximately 25 – 30 minutes," the report said.

Two days later, on the morning of her death, phone records showed Zahau retrieved a voicemail at 12:50 a.m. that Max's condition had worsened and that he was unlikely to survive, investigators said.

The autopsy and investigation concluded Zahau bound her own hands and feet, before looping the rope around her neck and rolling off the balcony.

"The relatively well-preserved bare footprints on the balcony and the lack of signs of a struggle or other footprints on the balcony indicate that she went over the balcony on her own," Deputy Medical Examiner Lucas wrote.

Medical Examiner Investigator Dana Gary also described a message found painted on a door inside the house.

"I noted black painted writings on the bedroom door that led into the room with the balcony," Gary wrote. "The writing ‘She Saved Him Can You Save Her' in black paint was on the hallway side of the bedroom door," the report said.

The autopsy report does not explain why Zahau may have fashioned the T-shirt to gag herself. Investigators did not mention the gag during their media briefing Friday. However, the report does describe in great detail how the T-shirt was wrapped:

"There is a light blue or turquoise long sleeve T-shirt also around the neck on top of/outside of the rope. It was fashioned by tying the two ends of the long sleeves together near the cuffs in a double knot. The sleeves are wrapped three times around the neck with the abdominal and lower chest portion of the shirt extending from the anterior aspect of the ligature. The end of this has a small amount of what appears to be dried secretions."

Zahau's family said Friday they do not believe the suicide conclusion of the autopsy.

The family has hired high-profile Seattle-based attorney Anne Bremner to represent them. Bremner told News 8 she plans to formally request the Sheriff's Department re-open Zahau's death investigation.

"There are too many questions," Bremner told News 8.

"We don't want to point fingers at anybody," she added. "But if it's not a suicide, it's a homicide, and that needs to be looked at."

The report confirmed, "The decedent had no known history of being diagnosed with depression and no medical history."

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