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Gruesome Ratings Stunt?' Dr. Phil to Air Episode of Rebecca Zahau's Second Autopsy


"It is a sad commentary on American society."

Dr. Phil McGraw and his guests cover issues on everything from child molestation, mother-daughter relationships, love triangles and more on his CBS show "Dr. Phil". But this Thursday he's taking on something a bit more serious, a bit more out of the ordinary; it's something that has caused many to question the show's intentions.

Thursday, "Dr. Phil" will air the second autopsy of the mysterious case of Rebecca Nepela Zahau, who was found hanged at her Colorado mansion in July, which after investigation was ruled as suicide and not murder.

Zahau was the 32-year-old girlfriend Chief Executive of Medicis Pharmaceuticals Corp. Jonah Shacknai. She was found dead, hanging naked at their Spreckels mansion, as reported on The Blaze, with hands tied behind her back and her feet bound as well. Her death occurred just two days after Shacknai's 6-year-old son took a fatal fall at the mansion from a banister. In September, it was declared by the San Diego Sheriff's Department that  Zahau's death was a suicide, but family members had their doubts.

The family shortly thereafter decided to exhume Zahau's body and hired Dr. Cyril Wecht, the same pathologist who conducted the autopsy on Anna Nicole Smith, do evaluate her. The Huffington Post reported that the autopsy results were delivered within 7 to 10 days to the family and will be revealed to the public on "Dr. Phil".

After this announcement in late October, the reports began emerging that "Dr. Phil" was paying for the exhumation. It was first reported on Radar Online and 10News had this statement from Zahau's sister: "I want to thank for all the support and donation we have received. Due to the generosity of the public, we will be able to proceed with exhumation of Rebecca to find the truth of her death."

Forbes reported RumorFix, a site run by Dr. Phil's son, as stating that neither Dr. Phil nor the show contributed to this fund and that while the family confirmed "Dr. Phil" hadn't paid for the exhumation, producers of the show apparently said they would donate to the fund. Forbes contributor Cathy Scott calls this episode a "gruesome ratings stunt" and further writing:

But is announcing on TV the results of a second autopsy the way to go in this case? The missing component – a big one – is law enforcement. The most important thing moving forward is that the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and the San Diego district attorney agree to reopen the case they closed early on. If they decline, then the second autopsy will have been for naught – other than increasing Dr. Phil’s ratings during television sweeps week. (Yes, the results will be made known during sweeps week in November.)

Christine Pelisek reports more perspectives on the airing of the show in an article on The Daily Beast:

“What is the point of the show?” said sheriff’s public affairs director Jan Caldwell. “To spike ratings? It is at the cost and mental health of the family. It is so distasteful for Rebecca and poor little Max… It is a sad commentary on American society that we are so caught up in this from the O.J. Simpson trial, Lindsay Lohan to Michael Jackson. It is voyeuristic. When it applies to this tragedy it is unspeakable.”

“There is no argument this is an odd but not an unprecedented suicide but it would be an incredibly bizarre homicide,” added Caldwell. “If you are going to stage a homicide, you aren’t going to do it like this. No sexual assault. No signs of a struggle… It doesn’t make sense. It is ridiculous beyond the point of ludicrous.”

Caldwell said show producers asked the police department to participate but they declined.


However, Caldwell said that the department would be willing to reopen the investigation if any credible new evidence was found, but “to date there has been a lot of chatter but no one has brought us evidence.”

Pelisek also reports this statement from the "Dr. Phil" show: “We endorse the family’s effort to search for closure to this terrible tragedy and will stand with them going forward as they navigate through their grieving process,” a Dr. Phil spokesman said.

According to the show description on "Dr. Phil's" website mysterious circumstances surrounding Zahau's death have convinced the family she was murdered and Dr. Phil will be "by the family's side as they hear the latest autopsy results."


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