If the Rebecca Zahau case baffled you in 2011 then be prepared for a double-feature rollercoaster in 2021. And no, that’s not giving away anything as the Zahau case has been covered extensively in the news.
Who can forget the helicopter images of her naked remains that were left on the lawn for a good part of the day, exposed to the elements?
In the book it say that the Medical Examiner’s Office was notified of her dead body around 8am but nobody came to collect her remains until 7pm. Apparently nobody thought about a canopy or even sheltering Rebecca from view by strategically surrounding her dead body with squad cars and open doors.
Rebecca was just left there where everyone could view her nakedness and dishonor the dead with photography.
The author, Caitlin Rother, has made no secret of the complexities that led to more questions and alas, not enough straightforward answers.
Rebecca Mawii Zahau (March 15, 1979 – July 13, 2011) died either from suicide or homicide. She was found hanging outside the mansion that she shared with boyfriend Jonah Shacknai and his children since April 2010, in Coronado, California. Rebecca was pronounced dead at the scene.
Two days prior, Jonah’s son Max (6) fell from either the second floor landing or the staircase inside the mansion. Max died of his injuries July 16, 2011. His death was ruled accidental.
These deaths raised numerous questions:
- were they both accidental or homicides?
- who would want to kill either or both?
- was Max’ death caused by Rebecca and did she therefore commit suicide?
- what was the relationship with Jonah and his ex-wives?
- would Rebecca commit suicide to punish Jonah for how he treated her?
- were any drugs involved?
- what was the mental health history of Rebecca?
- did someone mess up in the investigations?
If everything that has been written about Rebecca is true, especially her reactions and words, she may not have been an easy person to have around. There never seemed to be a moment where she was perfectly clear about her intentions, what she wanted, and from whom. The book reviews her life with her partners, husband, etc. but as it isn’t backed up by footnotes and literal quotes it makes it hard for the reader to understand why Rebecca was considered unstable. We get no answers how or if indeed she contributed to Max’ death or her own.
But that isn’t the only problem. None of the people around Rebecca were firm in their words. All said one thing and then changed leaving their true wants and needs a guessing game. All men in Rebecca’s life, as mentioned in the book, seemed to have a completely different view of her.
Take Jonah. In Chapter nine he explains Rebecca’s death to an ex-wife indicating harakiri which is Japanese. Rebecca was born in Burma. Ex-wife Dina in the book quoted Jonah as saying “Asian honor.” This just sums up the level of ‘how well do I know my girlfriend’ for me.
Even the author contributes on page 108 when she describes a Las Vegas trip Rebecca took with another boyfriend. I quote “Because Rebecca didn’t drink and Michael would only have a beer or two, it never occurred to them to see any strippers or hit any bars or nightclubs.”
Rother has clearly researched these cases for a long time and has extensive knowledge about all the characters and their lives. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage.
When a case is this vague, when we have many characters, when we know someone dropped the ball at some point in the investigation (intentionally or not), the true crime author is faced with difficult decisions:
- do I show the reader all that I found out and risk overwhelming the reader with a multitude of facts and open questions? Or, do I place the most important facts in the text body and the rest in end notes?
- do I introduce every person I spoke to even if they didn’t advance the case or do I place those narratives in end notes?
The book does not have a lis of contents. The chapters are just numbered and do not form one whole short piece of the story (some are just a page long), but there is an epilogue. There are no footnotes, no cross-referenced index, no bibliography, no listing of case materials or newspapers used, no list of characters and their role in the case, no timeline, no family trees, no glossary for definitions, abbreviations, and jurisdictions, and no refences for further reading. There are 16 pages with black and white photography.
Why would an investigative journalist not include references, sources, and an index? Maybe not every source can be identified but surely the book would have benefitted from footnotes to indicate where in the public domain the reader can find this piece of information.
Another issue is the use of fonts. Italics apparently mean quotations and text messages are simply printed in another font but in the main text so it looks sloppy.
The book would have benefitted from a thorough review to streamline the story. Help the reader get a firm grip on all the elements of the cases by giving an overview first. Then introduce your characters (a list would be excellent) and if they played a big role in the case, one character per chapter.
Giving the chapters well-chosen names can also help the reader find their way in the case’ timeline, and a summary here and there would help firm up the reader’s knowledge.
The books leaves you with the feeling that not everyone was asked the hard questions. It almost feels as if Rother, an investigative journalist, wrote this book, then handed it over for editing fully expecting to get feedback, only to see the book published without having had a further say in the matter. But then again, it was released in April, so right in time for the 10-year anniversary of Rebecca and Max’ deaths.
My other book reviews are here.