Editor's note: One year ago two people died following incidents at the Spreckels mansion. Public fascination continued for weeks afterward, peaking in September as the cases were determined to have been a suicide and an accident, not crimes. This week, Patch revisits the deaths of Rebecca Zahau and Max Shacknai in pieces about the storied home connected to them, an upcoming book and Zahau's loved ones, who continue to maintain she did not kill herself.
What makes a sensational story stick?
Wealth. Prominence. Beauty. Sex. Troubled histories. Strange circumstances. A historic mansion. A prosperous community.
The Spreckels case had all that and more, with the final element being a truly heart-tugging victim – a young boy with a shining smile lost in an accidental fall.
“It's got all of the components that make something like this work on a national level,” said San Diego author Caitlin Rother.
For some time after the July 2011 deaths of Rebecca Zahau, 32, and Max Shacknai, 6, network news shows like ABC's Good Morning America and NBC's Today show featured segments on the investigations. Nightly cable shows from Dr. Drew to Nancy Grace welcomed everyone from Mayor Casey Tanaka and San Diego Sheriffs detectives to defense attorneys and rope experts to share their perspectives.
The interest reached as far as England and Australia and culminated in the Zahau family's November appearance on Dr. Phil's talk show, a two-part interview that included a look at the exhumation of Rebecca Zahau's remains.
“It was bizarre, it was gruesome, it was creepy, but you've got to admit, it was interesting,” said Dean Nelson, an author and founder of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University.
The falloff in national attention has been sharp since then, but Rother, the author of eight books – including her latest, Lost Girls, the story of local teen murder victims Chelsea King and Amber Dubois – said people often ask if she plans to explore the Zahau case.
But they rarely recall it as a suicide.
“They always say, ‘What are you going to do with that Coronado case, that murder?’ And I look at them and say, ‘It's not a murder,’” said Rother of the official conclusion.
For Nelson, that is one of the keys to the case – and it reminds him of a certain high-profile trial from the 90s.
“This is one of those O.J. Simpson kind of cases, where the official ruling is X, but pretty much everybody thinks Y,” he said.
Devoted crime watchers ate the Simpson case up, and seemingly, each of the made-for-television spectacles that followed. But their interest is not new, Nelson noted. Where amateur sleuths used to turn to pulp paperbacks and magazines for their mystery fix, they now opt for cable television.
And last summer, it was Coronado's turn.
“Without these kind of macabre things, it seems there would be far fewer stations on TV,” he concluded.