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Karla Peterson: San Diego true-crime author's latest case: the mysterious death of Rebecca Zahau
AP

Karla Peterson: San Diego true-crime author's latest case: the mysterious death of Rebecca Zahau

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"Death on Ocean Boulevard" by Caitlin Rother.

"Death on Ocean Boulevard" by Caitlin Rother (Kensington Books)

SAN DIEGO — Caitlin Rother did not set out to become a true-crime writer. But if you look back at the San Diego author's life, the clues were there all along.

When she was a general-assignment reporter for the Berkshire Eagle and the Springfield Union-News in western Massachusetts in the late 1980s, Rother spent her spare time reading about sensational murder cases and devious criminals in New York magazine.

From 1993 until 2006, Rother was a reporter at The San Diego Union-Tribune, where she ended up writing some memorable stories involving bizarre deaths. Like the case of Steven Jean Hoover, a 50-year-old computer programmer who starved himself to death in his Clairemont condominium in 1995.

And before all that, Rother was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, where the La Jolla High School graduate majored in psychology and laid the groundwork for the career she did not see coming.

"I am interested in why people act the way they do. I am always wondering, 'Why do people do this?'" Rother, 58, said during a phone interview from her home in Kensington.

"I was thinking of being a therapist. At Berkeley, Psychology of the Brain was one of my favorite classes. And then I took Abnormal Psychology, and I thought, 'This is too much. I can't do this every day.' And this is what I do now. I am basically doing abnormal psychology every day."

Since 2004, Rother has written or co-written 14 books, most of them nonfiction accounts of real-life crimes. That lineup includes 2005's "Poisoned Love," Rother's look at the made-for-tabloid TV case of San Diego toxicologist Kristin Rossum, who was found guilty of first-degree murder in the death of her husband. In 2012's "Lost Girls," Rother wrote about the heartbreaking deaths of Amber Dubois and Chelsea King, two San Diego teenagers who were killed by convicted sex offender John Albert Gardner III.

Rother's new book came out on April 27. On the surface, it looks like another true-crime saga. Except for the fact that the death Rother writes about may not have been the result of a criminal act.

The book is "Death on Ocean Boulevard: Inside the Coronado Mansion Case." The case concerns the mysterious death of Rebecca Zahau, whose body was found hanging from a balcony at the historic Spreckels Mansion in Coronado in July of 2011. Her body was naked, and her hands and feet were bound.

Zahau's death happened just two days after 6-year-old Max Shacknai, the son of her boyfriend, Jonah Shaknai, took what turned out to be a fatal fall while Max was in the house with her. Investigators from the San Diego County Sheriff's Department ruled that Zahau's death was a suicide. Her family believes she was killed.

In 2018, a San Diego Superior Court jury found Jonah Shacknai's brother, Adam Shacknai, responsible for Zahau's death. Later that year, the Sheriff's Department reviewed the investigation and concluded once again that Zahau's death was a suicide. Just last month, a San Diego Superior Court judge agreed to hear arguments from Zahau's family that they should be allowed to see investigative materials that the Sheriff's Department did not make public.

A death that doesn't seem to make sense as a suicide or a murder makes for a puzzle that people can't stop trying to solve. The Coronado mansion story has been covered by CNN Headline News and the Oxygen and Investigation Discovery cable networks. It has also become a breeding ground for a wealth of conspiracy theories.

And even after her years of research and many hours of interviews — including eight hours of Skype interviews with Jonah Shacknai that didn't come through until the book was being edited — Rother herself can't say for sure what happened.

"My agent pressed me to take a position, and I just wasn't comfortable with doing that," said Rother, who is working on a sequel to her first (and only) novel, "Naked Addiction," a mystery set in La Jolla and Pacific Beach. "I went back and forth and I did a lot of investigating, and I don't know what happened. I can see both sides of it, and I have never been convinced either way. There are big holes in the investigation that will never be filled."

For Rother, there was another way in which "Death on Ocean Boulevard" was more than another true-crime story.

In 1999, after years struggling with alcoholism and mental illness, Rother's husband, Rich Rose, hung himself in a motel room in Mexico. Rose's death, which Rother wrote about in her frank 2018 memoir, "Secrets, Lies, and Shoelaces," gave her firsthand insights into the mysteries of being human. Including the mystery of why people go to such great lengths to hide their pain from the ones they love most.

Rother talks about Rose's death in the new book, and her insights helped her write a full, empathetic profile of Zahau as well as a detailed accounting of her death, baffling complexities and all. In return, the process of researching and writing about the death on Ocean Boulevard helped her come to terms with the death in the motel room in San Quintín, Mexico.

You can't always know why people do what they do, but in "Death on Ocean Boulevard," Rother reminds us of how much you can learn by doing your best to find out.

"This is not a parlor game. It isn't about judging," said Rother, who dedicated the book to Max and Rebecca. "Rebecca's family still cannot let go of this case, and they are not going to until they get the death certificate changed. And the Shaknais lost a little boy. This is a tragedy, no matter how you look at it."

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