Death on Ocean Boulevard
reviewed by Cara DiCostanzo
Death on Ocean Boulevard tackles one of the most bizarre true crimes in recent history: the deaths of Maxfield Shacknai and Rebecca Zahau. These deaths occur two days apart in the same house in Coronado, California, and while both are ruled accidental, the evidence points to murder. Caitlin Rother has written a book about this unusual case, tackling evidence and personal interviews that were not presented in the trial.
On July 11, 2011, 6-year-old Max Shacknai took a tumble off of a 2nd floor railing while home with his Father’s girlfriend, Rebecca and her younger sister. According to police, he grabs onto a chandelier and swings, falling down two flights and lands on his face, breaking facial bones and severing his spinal cord. What stands out to the first responders is that somehow a scooter lands on top of him, along with the chandelier. He is rushed to the hospital, where he dies a few days later. Max’s death is ruled an accident, but was it?
During Max’s hospital stay, Jonah Shacknai’s brother, Adam, comes to stay to support Jonah. Adam is an interesting character and the complete opposite of pharmaceutical magnate, Jonah. He is a tugboat Captain who has been with the same woman for decades but has not introduced her to family. The morning after he arrives, he leaves the guest house and sees Rebecca’s nude body hanging off a second floor balcony with her hands and feet tied behind her and a gag in her mouth. He calls 911 while simultaneously cutting her down and trying to resuscitate her. Despite mounting evidence that points to murder, including a strange sign outside the bedroom door, that the balcony railing was above her center of gravity and other evidence that points to her being murdered before she goes over the balcony, the responders rule it a suicide. They believe she committed suicide out of guilt over what happened to Max, who was under her care at the time of the accident. But if a murder, who would have murdered a woman who had no enemies?
Rebecca’s family, not believing she would ever commit suicide, especially suicide by hanging while in the nude, files a wrongful death civil suit against Adam Shacknai, stating he sexually assaulted her and then murdered her. Claiming evidence of the intricate knots that only a riverboat captain would know. The Zahaus win the civil suit, having said all along that Rebecca would never embarrass her family like this. Since then, there have been multiple investigations to explain how Rebecca went over a balcony with both her hands and feet bound, and no one has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Rebecca committed suicide.
Ms. Rother has done an amazing job giving her readers a detailed description of who Rebecca really was, which serves to thicken the mystery surrounding her death. Her extra-marital affairs, lies, and a covered up shoplifting crime only muddle the truth. She also admits to a strong personal connection with the case, as her husband also died by suicide. In the last chapters of Death on Ocean Boulevard, Rother talks about her personal interviews with all involved, including Jonah and Adam Shacknai. It is interesting to hear their takes on Rebecca’s death and to see their personalities which come across in the interviews. She also brought other theories in, including the idea that Jonah Shacknai was the original target. Death on Ocean Boulevard is a fascinating view of an unsolved crime, even after a decade has gone by. The perfect book for true crime junkies!