Death on Ocean Boulevard by Caitlin Rother

Death on Ocean Boulevard: Inside the Coronado Mansion Case (Kensington Books 2021) by Caitlin Rother is a deep dive into the infamous Rebecca Zahau case. Rebecca was found hanging nude from a balcony at San Diego’s Spreckels Mansion with her wrists and ankles bound. Her hands were behind her back, and she was gagged with a t-shirt. Rebecca lived at the residence with her boyfriend, Jonah Shacknai, a pharmaceutical CEO. An ominous message was drawn crudely on the door of the room that led to the balcony where Rebecca was found. It read: “She saved him, can he save her”. This message was investigated as a possible link to the death of Max Shacknai, Jonah’s six-year-old son. Max was in Rebecca’s care when he fell over a staircase banister and sustained serious injuries that he eventually died from. Rebecca’s body was found two days after Max’s fall by Adam Shacknai, Jonah’s brother, who was staying in the guest house overnight. Rebecca’s family, along with many in the true crime community, have long since suspected Adam of killing Rebecca. 

Rother’s book focuses on what has long been debated by investigators and true crime fans alike: was Rebecca’s death a murder, or did she die by suicide? The San Diego’s Sheriff’s Department, the investigating agency, has always maintained that Rebecca died by suicide. Conversely, Rebecca’s family believe that Rebecca was murdered. Rother herself struggles to identify a definitive answer. In her quest to understand the case, Rother hunted through “public records…the sheriff’s investigative files and photos, discovery materials from the various lawsuits, witness interview transcripts and audio files, trial depositions, and outside expert analysis.” She also conducted many interviews herself. Despite all this information, Rother still found it difficult to come to a conclusion about this case. There are complex reasons for this, none of which have to do with Rother’s reporting, which is detailed and excellent. Death on Ocean Boulevard serves as the definitive account of this case and includes new information that likely would have never seen the light of day had Rother not run down every lead. The lack of a conclusion to this case is largely, as Rother’s text suggests, because of the initial investigation by the San Diego’s Sheriff’s Department. The poor testing of evidence, as well as their reluctance to test or re-test evidence has plagued this case from the beginning. 

Rother enters this chaotic case via a personal connection of her own: in 1999, Rother’s husband died by suicide. Rother states in her preface that “[w]hen I first heard about the Rebecca Zahau case, I was intrigued, just like everyone else. But due to the parallels in my own life, the more I learned, the more haunted I became.” Rother does not use this personal connection as a major thread in the book—in fact, she only explores her feelings about her husband’s death alongside the Zahau case a few times throughout. I found this strategy effective. In a case that is already complicated, having too much biographical content about the author would have been distracting. Instead, Rother quietly develops and explores the details of her husband’s death throughout and explains how it motivated her to keep investigating the Zahau case. The brief places where Rother explores her husband’s death alongside the Zahau case were some of my favorites in the book. 

Rother also does an excellent job of developing, in minute detail, every direction this case has taken. She seriously considers, via all existing pieces of evidence as well as the interviews she conducted, whether or not Rebecca was murdered, or if she died by suicide. Rother’s text seems to posit that jumping to quick conclusions is what has stalled this case, and she implicitly asks her reader to avoid this by considering both sides in tandem with her. Rother doggedly searches for the truth, often at great personal cost. Rother develops a relationship with Adam Shacknai, who discovered Rebecca’s body, and his girlfriend, Mary. She interviews them both multiple times, but eventually Adam begins to send her angry and insulting emails. Rother states that “[a]ll told, he sent me forty emails over three months, sometimes four a day, and offensive to the end”. Even though Adam’s harassment made Rother reconsider if Adam was in fact an innocent man, she still presents evidence, as well as interview transcripts excerpted from her 2020 interview with Adam’s brother Jonah, that could suggest Adam’s innocence. Her reasoning for this was simple: 

“I believe that the [true crime] community at large still actively engages in conspiracy theories about this case partly because many evidentiary details weren’t released…I’ve tried to remedy that here, by exploring all evidence and theories—in context. The result is a more detailed, balanced, and current account of what happened to Max and Rebecca than you’ll find anywhere else.”

I have to agree with Rother’s assessment of her own reporting.  Rother’s book not only presents evidence that had previously been withheld from public view, but it places these pieces of evidence in chronological order, and it contextualizes and grounds this evidence in order for the reader to have a complete picture. Even after being harassed by a key suspect in the case, presenting pieces of the truth was still Rother’s goal. Rother leaves us to assemble these pieces, and after reading her account, we are much better equipped to do so. This book is a must read for anyone interested in the Zahau case. 

Please add Death on Ocean Boulevard  to your Goodreads shelf and follow Caitlin Rother on Twitter. Check out Caitlin’s website here

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A copy of this proof was graciously provided to True Crime Index via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. 

About the Writer: 

Jesyka Traynor is an academic living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. When she’s not writing or researching her dissertation, she’s consuming all the true crime and non-fiction she can find time for. Jesyka holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a doctorate in contemporary Californian literature. Her work on women in twenty-first century true crime is forthcoming from Crime Fiction Studies. 

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