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Sheriff launches forensic exam of Zahau’s cell phone; new witness accounts reported

The San Diego County Sheriff's Department has opened a new forensic examination of data contained in the cell phone of Rebecca Zahau.

SAN DIEGO (CBS8) - The San Diego County Sheriff's Department has opened a new examination of data contained in the cell phone of Rebecca Zahau, the woman found hanging at the Spreckels mansion July 13.

Sheriff's homicide Lt. Larry Nesbit said that within the past week technology experts from his department started using newly-identified software to download data from Zahau's phone for forensic review.

"It constitutes a new examination of the evidence," Lt. Nesbit told News 8.

Sheriff investigators want to copy and save all the data contained in the smart phone used by Zahau, 32, in the days and weeks before she was found hanging from a balcony at the Coronado mansion.

"If it leads us to new information that's relevant to the case, then yes, you could consider that a re-opening of the case," Nesbit said.

News 8 has learned Sheriff's detectives never attempted to recover a deleted voicemail message, which Nesbit confirmed was left for Zahau by her boyfriend Jonah Shacknai, 54, hours before she died.

Investigators have said the voicemail may have caused Zahau to commit suicide, because the message allegedly informed her that Shacknai's 6-year-old son, Max, would not survive injuries he suffered during a fall at the mansion while under Zahau's care.

In the early days of the investigation, Jonah Shacknai told detectives he had left the voicemail message, Lt. Nesbit recalled.

"If we could have gotten it (the voicemail), yes, it would have been helpful but it was not critical to the case," said Lt. Nesbit.

On Sept. 2, investigators ruled Zahau's hanging death a suicide.

Zahau's Samsung Focus Windows Phone, which operated on an AT&T wireless plan, was recovered from the mansion via search warrant on July 13.

In order to preserve evidence stored in the phone's memory, forensic investigators follow complex protocols that dictate when the phone should be powered on, and how voicemail messages should be retrieved.

Unfortunately, Zahau's phone was relatively new and examiners were unable to identify a software package that would properly copy the phone's data, Lt. Nesbit said.

"Once we found out that the technology did not exist to forensically examine the phone, the detective manually opened the phone and learned that the message had been deleted; and she knew from prior case experience that if the message had been deleted from the phone, it would not have been stored on an AT&T server," Nesbit said.

Nesbit explained further that the voicemail "is not stored on the phone itself but once it's deleted from the phone, after a certain number of days it's also deleted from the AT&T server; and at that point it had been at least a week and she (the detective) knew that it was no longer on the server."

A spokesperson for AT&T did not respond to repeated News 8 messages seeking clarification on the company's ability to retrieve deleted voicemail messages.

Zahau's smart phone still contains text messages, a history of incoming and outgoing phone calls, and a journal she had written months before her death, Sheriff's officials said.

Lt. Nesbit said experts within his agency recently identified the technology they needed to begin a forensic download and examination.

"We have now obtained, apparently, some new technology to examine the phone and the phone is being examined with that new technology," Lt. Nesbit said.

Zahau family attorney Anne Bremner questioned why detectives never tried to retrieve the deleted voicemail from AT&T.

"My information is that you can retrieve that kind of data and I would hope that if they're doing a forensic examination of the phone, that they would also make an attempt to get the information that was erased," Bremner said.

To date, sheriff investigators have served no search warrants or subpoenas on AT&T seeking to obtain either the deleted voicemail or call logs related to Rebecca Zahau's phone, according to Lt. Nesbit.

Nesbit said because they had possession of the phone itself, there was no need to subpoena Rebecca's call logs.

"We had the phone in custody and if the case had gotten to a point where we needed to obtain other records, we would have done another search warrant to obtain those records," said Nesbit.

Anne Bremner released two pages of Zahau's AT&T phone bill and call logs to News 8 last week. They revealed several calls and text messages in the hours before she died, including calls from Zahau's sister, Mary Zahau-Loehner, and a final text message from Jonah Shacknai's ex sister-in-law, Nina Romano.

Two of three search warrants unsealed this week were issued for cell phone records from AT&T and Verizon, but officials would confirm what individuals they related to.  Lt. Nesbit said the warrants did not seek Rebecca's phone records, nor did they relate to the phone records of Adam Shacknai, Jonah's brother.

Bremner, a Seattle-based attorney, welcomed the new forensic examination of Rebecca's smart phone.  Still, she said the family remains interested in obtaining the device and doing an independent inspection.

"It is something we'd have hoped they would have done before they made the decision – that was public – that this was a suicide," said Bremner. "So we'll be interested in the results, of course."

Meanwhile, Bremner came forward Wednesday with new reports from witnesses in the Coronado neighborhood.

"We are now confirming information from a witness that there may have been a cry for help from a woman in the mansion around 11:30 p.m. the evening prior (to Zahau's death)," Bremner said. "So that's important in terms of the time of death and in terms of the surrounding circumstances."

Bremner said her private investigation on behalf of the Zahau family also uncovered a mystery woman spotted at the Spreckels mansion an hour or so earlier that same evening.

"There also was a witness who spoke to law enforcement who indicated that they saw a person outside the house at the 10 o'clock hour," Bremner said, referring to the evening of July 12. "I think it's important information in the investigation in determining whether this is a suicide or a homicide."

None of the reported witness accounts were confirmed by Sheriff's investigators.

In yet another development, Bremner said she sent the following email message Wednesday evening to California Attorney General Kamala Harris:

Please be advised that I represent the family of Rebecca Zahau. I understand that you have received a letter from Jonah Shacknai requesting a review of the SDSD's investigation of Rebecca's death (and their conclusion that she committed suicide).

I will be respectfully submitting to you a formal and detailed response to Mr. Shacknai's letter (which was not copied to me nor to my clients). In the interim, I want to be on record that we are not requesting a review. Rather, we are requesting a full independent INVESTIGATION into the circumstances surrounding Rebecca's tragic death - with full input from us, our investigators and our experts.

We have significant and compelling information, analysis and crucial and pivotal facts to share. We have also retained nearly ten unimpeachable experts who with ample bases challenge the finding of suicide. We also have new compelling evidence to be investigated and new critical witnesses to be interviewed.

Thank you.

Anne M. Bremner
Attorney at Law


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