Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Killed first, made to look like suicide

ROSEMARY HARRIS: I was at a tennis match a few weeks back when I got an email with the above subject line Killed First, Made to Look Like Suicide. I showed it to my friend and we agreed that Killed First would make a good book title (unfortunately not for my WIP.) Even before I read the posts - which may have been on a SINC listserv -I knew to what they wewre referring.

Following is a pastiche of a few articles that ran in newspapers this summer concerning the death of a southern California woman.

San Diego area authorities have concluded that the July hanging death of the girlfriend of the CEO of drug maker Medicis Pharmaceutical Corp. was a suicide.
At a news conference, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said Rebecca Zahau, who lived with Medicis Chief Executive Jonah Shacknai in Coronado, Calif., died by suicide, not by homicide. The 32-year-old woman was found July 13 hanging naked from a small bedroom balcony at their home with her feet and hands bound.

Her death was all the more shocking because it happened just two days after Shacknai's 6-year-old son, Max, suffered fatal injuries in a fall down a set of stairs at the home.

I don't pretend to know more than the Sheriff and at the risk of sounding heartless, I think if I handed in a story like this to my agent or editor I'd be told it was wildly implausible.

Wouldn't there be some drugs at the home of a pharmaceutical executive that could get the job done in less dramatic fashion?

Naked? What woman over thirty wants the entire planet to see her naked body - especially after the effects of a hanging which I gather from movies is not particularly pretty or tidy. Hands and feet bound? Let me put on this noose (made of sheets, I believe)tie my hands and feet and hop over the balcony?

This doesn't strike me as someone overcome with remorse over the accidental death of a child in her care who - if I were writing the story would probably take a bottle of pills with a bottle of vodka and simply slip away.

RHYS BOWEN: I'm always fascinated by real crimes and how completely dumb and clueless the real police departments can be. How do they think the order of this death went? Strips. Binds feet. Hops across to balcony. Puts noose of bedsheets round neck before binding hands. Hops off balcony?? Just not possible and so stupid too. Of course it was a homicide and one designed to deliver a strong message to her boyfriend who hasn't been supplying drugs to the right people etc. Death of son should also be investigated as homicide. What they need is a team of smart mystery writers, ready to travel around the country to help out clueless sherriffs departments!

HALLIE EPHRON: This news story so unbearably sad. I can't even imagine the level of despair that would lead someone to kill herself in this way, but losing my six-year-old son could do it. True stories are often so sad and incomprehensible that they make lousy fiction.

RO: The death of any child is heartbreaking ..although this was her boyfriend's son not her own and there's been the suggestion that she was at fault and perhaps her death was in retribution. I hadn't read about the possibility of drug dealers being involved.

What do you folks think? Would you write this story? Have you already?


  1. I think I read at the time that the police actually did a kind of reenactment to see if someone could physically tie themselves up in the way she had and then self-administer the noose. They concluded she could have.

    It's a terribly sad story all around.


  2. I read that too, Edith. Still, it's one thing to be technically possible and another to be plausible. So bizarre. For me, the fact that she was naked was very telling. I mean...why naked unless some measure of humiliation was involved?

  3. I'm not familiar with this case, but remember the DC Madam scandal? She hanged herself in a storage shed at her mother's home, after receiving incarceration papers. She was up for 50 years of jail time, though she'd have likely served only 6 or 7.

    I can't fathom the kind of fear and loneliness she must have felt. Hanging is not an easy way to go.

  4. I didn't think it could be a suicide, but the news story on the police report pretty much convinced me - until I read this blog. One of those stories where we'll never know the real ending.

  5. Come on, cops, there's a vast difference between possible and plausible! I keep thinking official corruption. Something hinkie there, for sure, Shaknai being a rich as he is...Makes me think that the real mystery is who caused the son's fall...Quite convenient that the girlfriend can be blamed, with her supposed suicide masquerading as proof of her guilt.

  6. Oh, yes, wasn't this suspicious from moment one? Fascinating.

    And how about the Florida case currently in trail? Where the man shot his wife--called 911 and said "I shot my wife"--and now the defense is he was trying to stop her from killing herself. It COULD happen, I guess..

  7. All stranger than fiction, aren't they? I hear the San Diego suicide is even more suspicious than the national news is reporting. Cover-up?

  8. I love crime fiction. But my sense is that reality and crime fiction have almost nothing to do with each other. Fiction borrows details from reality to give it texture, but that is as far as the relationship goes, I think. Reality is messy and has open parameters. Fiction, especially crime fiction, has a frame and a structure that is predetermined: victim, sleuth, villain, red herring, etc. Even the most noir of noir mysteries comfort me because the horrors they describe are contained within this structure. Perhaps others feel differently. But that's what happens to me when reading them.

  9. Let me start by saying that I have no real knowledge of this case but in my experience as a forensic scientist I have come to realize that the actions and motives of individuals choosing suicide can be quite complex and defy logic. I actually investigated and reported on a case of suicidal hanging staged as homicide a few years ago. In short; a man tied his feet, put on handcuffs (magicians), and put a gag in his mouth all in an effort to lay guilt on a woman who broke up with him and didn't want to reconcile their relationship. It was a long and protracted investigation with many clues to consider but in the end it was obvious to us. There are surely details of this investigation not revealed to the public that may better explain their conclusion or as the author points out they could be clueless (but I suspect there is evidence to support their conclusion because they realize how far-fetched this finding would be to the family and public). The statement "Truth is stranger than fiction" comes from an actual trial in the late 19th Century (H.H. Holmes) in Chicago and it has been my experience that people can do things that totally shatter our paradigms. Just one guys thoughts.