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Update: Zahau Death Ruled a Suicide; Odd Painted Message Revealed

Investigators in the mysterious incidents at the Spreckels property say the cases are closed; they attributed message to Zahau.

Rebecca Zahau died by her own hand and Max Shacknai in an accident, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said Friday at a crowded news conference about the Coronado mansion death cases.

Gore was joined by detectives from his department’s homicide unit, which investigated the July 13 death of Zahau, 32. Officials from the department's crime lab, the county Medical Examiner’s Office and the Coronado police also appeared.

“These deaths are not the results of any criminal acts,” Gore said.

Police looked into the July 11 fall, and death five days later, of Max Shacknai, the 6-year-old son of Zahau’s boyfriend, Jonah Shacknai, the millionaire entrepreneur who owns Spreckels mansion. The boy was alone when he fell down a staircase in the home, and nobody witnessed the fall, said Mike Lawton of the Coronado Police Department.

The community’s police department, which does not maintain a full-time homicide unit, called in the Sheriff’s Department to handle Zahau's death.

The announcement of the conclusion to the investigation, nearly eight weeks in length, came on the eve of a holiday weekend amid criticism from Zahau’s loved ones, who contend it is not possible that she killed herself.

Autopsies were performed on both Zahau and Shacknai’s son, but until now no cause of death has been offered for either of them and detectives have released scant details about the cases since the week after the deaths.

It was revealed on Friday that a message authorities believe was written by Zahau was painted on a door in the home. Gore refused to disclose what the message said, and a photo of the door released by the Sheriff’s Department blocked the message. 

Zahau’s ex-husband Neil Nalepa said the message was: “She saved him, can he save her.” Investigators pointed to it as a factor in their finding of suicide.

“It's mysterious,” Nalepa said. “It’s not what Rebecca sounds like or talks like.”

Zahau, the authorities said:

  • Received a phone message at 12:50 a.m. July 13 informing her the boy's condition had worsened.
  • Gathered rope, knifes and paint on the property to kill herself. DNA and fingerprint evidence indicate she's the only one to have handled the materials.
  • Left an unspecified message, in paint and written in English, on an approximately one foot panel of a door.
  • Died at approximately 3 a.m. of asphyxia due to hanging.

Witnesses in Zahau's cause, said Sheriff's Sgt. Dave Nemeth were all cooperative “and we're confident in their truthfulness.”

The boy, Coronado police said:

  • Was not seen by anyone during his fall.
  • Had to have been running, according to an expert, in order to achieve the velocity that caused the fall.
  • Attempted to break his fall by grabbing onto a chandelier, which fell and shattered.
  • Suffered an injury to his “upper cervical spinal cord,” said Dr. Jonathan Lucas, of the Medical Examiner's Office, that caused him to stop breathing and led to irreversible brain damage, though doctors initially hoped he would survive. 

Shacknai issued a statement through a representative in the early afternoon thanking detectives for their “dedication in investigating and explaining these terrible events.”

“Nothing will ever be the same for our families after these losses, but with today’s information providing some much needed answers, we will try to rebuild our lives and honor the memories we carry with us,” the statement concluded, before adding a plea for privacy.

An attorney for the Zahau family, however, had a number of questions.

Anne Bremner said much of what was said Friday had already been delivered to the Zahau family Wednesday when officials met with them at their  Missouri home.

She said investigators did not check for Jonah Shacknai's fingerprints in the house, though they did for Rebecca Zahau’s. Both lived at the mansion, she argued, so both sets of prints should have been collected.

She dismissed signs of Zahau’s fingerprints and DNA found on the ropes and knives detectives say she used to hang herself. Bremner said a perpetrator could have worn gloves and left no traces.

She also questioned why authorities created a video to demonstrate how Zahau might have bound herself, but didn't do any re-enactments of other possible scenarios.

The family continues to want a further look in how Zahau died.

“Once you say it’s a closed investigation, you can open it again,” Bremner said.

The family also has called for detectives to consult with a forensic psychiatrist. When asked if they had done so or planned to do so, Gore replied, “No and no.”

To support the suicide finding, investigators cited a witness who said Zahau was upset in January, losing weight and not sleeping. They also pointed to a journal entry on her phone that indicated Zahau was distressed. They did not offer details of what Zahau wrote.

Based on the evidence collected, Nemeth said, suicide “is the best conclusion we can come up with.”

The case attracted national attention because of a number of factors:

  •  The condition of Zahau’s body, nude and bound, and according to Shacknai’s brother, hanging from a second-floor balcony.
  •  Detectives variously described Zahau’s case as bizarre, very suspicious and violent, during the first 24 hours of the investigation.
  • The timing of the tragedies, which occurred within roughly 48 hours of each other, costing a man his girlfriend, and then his son.
  • Shacknai’s prominence and wealth, due to his founding of Medicis Pharmaceutical, a Scottsdale, AZ, firm.

Authorities offered a diagram of how Max could have fallen and a detailed video about how Zahau could have bound herself before the hanging. See the media box to view the materials.

extra September 06, 2011 at 02:53 AM
I don't think it refers to "max" at all. She clearly didn't save max, as max died, and at the time she was to have painted that note she would have known max's condition was irrevesable. So why would she think "she saved him"? I think knute had a good theory about her religous beliefs. Maybe she saved him, refers to her praying for max, and can he say her is a reference to jesus. Why would Dina say "she saved him" if she is in the process of killing her because she blames her for max's death. That is the textbook definition of non sequitur. No one knows...
extra September 06, 2011 at 02:57 AM
I predict that after the momentum of this story dies down in a week or two, we'll hear nothing from Anne Bremner. She has made so many claims which are counter to the evidence without supporting corroboration, that she now looks ridiculous in the eyes of any person who is reasonable. She is only looking for the spotlight, once they turn that off, she'll be gone.
extra September 06, 2011 at 03:02 AM
Me and the SD sheriff, the participants of the house, the coronado pd, the sd county DA, the SD ME, many of the people of coronado, I'm not feeling to lonely. go to websleuths
extra September 06, 2011 at 03:07 AM
so jonah is now hiding Dina? He would have to know that Dina was not at the hospital when rebecca died. That not logical either. Its a sarcastic taunt to jonah, written by Dina? and jonah knows dina wasn't there, and could be the killer but covers it up why? Because from my standpoint, having dina in jail for life would be great for him. He is willing to risk his empire for an ex wife?
extra September 06, 2011 at 03:10 AM
I just eliminate the impossible and consider the likelihood of the rest.
extra September 06, 2011 at 03:43 AM
Wecht's credentials are impressive. But he wants to sell books too. He just got out of a 84 count federal indictment for conducting biz on county time. I don't see him finding any bombshells in the autopsy report. As for a civil suit, well she's an adult, cause and damages will be very hard to show for the family. You have to bring a cause of action, which I just don't see right now. Now, Dina suing Jonah, that's a different story, I think thats much more likely to end up in court. However, jonah may not want to deal with that in a public forum and just settle that one.
extra September 06, 2011 at 04:04 AM
That's a lot of anger at Dina. Sweetie, I was a Dina, I was a Kim, my husband had an affair with a younger woman too, told me our marriage was over in a bar on our vacation. I have no agenda, but I don't see what many on this board see, it may be my training or my work that makes me a skeptic about conspiracies, but I tend to think the simplest explanation is usually the most correct. If you think I'm dina, who is dina on websleuths? there are several people over there that don't think it's murder either?
extra September 06, 2011 at 05:00 AM
no sweetheart, I was never a mistress. I have no anger toward anyone here. I only call them like I see them.
extra September 06, 2011 at 05:04 AM
S, if LE is compromised, there is not evidence of it. Only strange omissions which leave possibilities open. If I see evidence which show me there compromised LE, ME, DA, etc, I'll change my position. People hang themselves all the time, people do it naked, yes this is atypical, but so are suicides in Coronado, and in the homes of very rich men. Its those factors that make it more interesting to the public than the circumstances of either of the deaths.
extra September 06, 2011 at 05:07 AM
S, there have been so many statements that the Sheriff is lying, the ME is hiding information, JS has paid people off. That sounds like a conspiracy to me.
Knute R September 06, 2011 at 05:49 AM
S - I think suicidal people are (or can be) distraught, highly emotionally charged, not thinking about every "logical" step of their ideation... Who knows why she wrote what/where (*if* indeed it was her). I'm clearly more open to this theory than most people here, but I'm obviously not completely convinced. I'm very interested in what Kathleen posted about her arm being broken. Does anyone have more info on that?
extra September 06, 2011 at 06:05 AM
Omissions are not lies, maybe they didn't think it was important. That could be the arrogance factor in LE. "This doesn't mean anything, so its not important", lots of investigator have that attitude, they think whats not important to them is not important to everyone. Doesn't mean someone is corrupt.
extra September 06, 2011 at 06:08 AM
ok so which one is it. He has financial reasons for protecting her or she is convenient to implicate?
extra September 06, 2011 at 06:20 AM
I've had a home here since I was first married. Hector campora was my subject at work back then.
extra September 06, 2011 at 06:43 AM
In my experience, most investigators are just as lazy as the fry cook at burger king. Despite what people say, its very hard to just let the "evidence lead you", so most take a scene at face value, develop a possible scenario and then fit "facts" into that scenario. Just look at that diagram of max's accident, he was bouncing off, swinging from and flipping around like a monkey. Remember they have to "make" a case. No DA is going to take something some family member said and build a case on it. You get the sister saying, she wouldn't kill herself, and then you have 20 journal entries that say, I'm sad. Well juries won't buy murder on that. I'm open to any theory, just show me some proof that someone is on the take, or that murder is more likely that suicide. My whole take on this is that its being played up by the media because of the "odd" circumstances and characters, they are in business to keep you watching their shows, believe me they aren't talking about this because they are doing a public service. There are no "smoking guns" or LE wouldn't have released all the information. This will all blow over in a few weeks and everyone will move on. I could be all wrong, but I've been doing this along time.
extra September 06, 2011 at 07:22 AM
S, that's a tough one. I don't think hanging is a common instrumentality in murder, so they probably leaned toward suicide from the beginning. Naked, bound, doesn't matter, people do strange things, but the mode of death would be my focus. Its very unlikely you can murder someone by hanging without some struggle from the victim. I don't rule out murder, but I just find it highly unlikely. The only issue I see are those injuries to her head. I'm not sure those are enough to render her unconscious, but its possible. Someone tied her up and tossed her over the balcony. But they did it like ghosts, no foot prints, no hair or fibers, no prints. Hard to believe. Operators like that well they work for the gov, not some CEO.
extra September 06, 2011 at 07:44 AM
I didn't say I "disliked" rebecca. I challenged her character that she may have been with jonah while he was married, leads me to believe she is just as morally compromised as any of jonahs ex wives. Hence she is capable of suicide. I guess you have a grudge against dina for some reason and that you haven't read my posts. I was disgusted that someone would infer that a child would kill another child and blame rebecca, a baseless accusation. My counter to that was to question rebecca's credibility with the public knowledge we have. You are reading too much into my statements, if you believe I'm not who I say I am, then so be it. I don't defend dina, I don't doubt your story of her throwing herself at a married jonah. I didn't "attack" rebecca, I was just pointing out that rebecca wasn't such an innocent actor in all this, and is quite capable of having some mental breakdown, more so than a 15 year old girl is to being a party to the death of her dad's girlfriend. My personal belief is that dina is not involved in either of the deaths. Too many details for her to put together in too short of time. If that is the bias you're speaking of, then I'm guilty.
extra September 06, 2011 at 07:24 PM
Please don't paraphrase my comments. I never said people with degrees were better, I said people with higher educations, tend to be more contemplative and deliberate in their actions. They tend not to do thing when they are in a rage.
extra September 06, 2011 at 07:27 PM
well ann your skill are at deduction are exceedingly poor. I'm not related to anyone involved in this case, nor do I receive a paycheck from anyone. I don't think anyone is better, I just don't think Dina killed anyone. If you have an intelligent argument about the case that would make me think there is some vast conspiracy then present it. Don't attack the messenger just because you don't like the message.
extra September 06, 2011 at 07:29 PM
really kate? where did you get your doctoral degree? I'm sure you can't sit for a state license from a diploma mill.
extra September 06, 2011 at 07:40 PM
joe, I've stated from my first post that I don't believe in the murder theory. I just don't see it and I don't believe in conspiracies. I have not "smeared" rebecca, but pointed out truths that speak to her character, which in my opinion she is capable of killing herself. Joe, you're lack of knowledge about the investigative process is speaks volumes about why you would focus on me and my "tone" vs. the facts. You can take that how you wish.
extra September 06, 2011 at 07:49 PM
Thank you ann, I never heard of that case. One killer with a higher education out of tens of thousands of killings last year, that almost makes me believe that rebecca could have conceived and executed an elaborate suicide. As they are both seeming rare.
Knute R September 07, 2011 at 04:14 AM
Kathleen - Was the fractured arm mentioned in the autopsy report? Do they know if it was pre- or post-mortem? Thanks!
theinshwe September 22, 2011 at 04:42 AM
You hit it right on the nail!
theinshwe September 22, 2011 at 04:46 AM
Mr. 'Roger', YOU SHOULD BE THE SHERIFF! AND THE SOONER, THE BETTER. TO GET TO THE BOTTOM OF THIS!
theinshwe September 22, 2011 at 05:15 AM
Do a Google about Scott Petersen (or Peterson?) trial, Modesto, pregnant wife, dumped in San Francisco Bay, no remorse, no expression at trial, now on Death's Row.
theinshwe September 22, 2011 at 05:23 AM
It's easier to write in block letters than in cursive with a paint brush. Maybe a spray can can do cursive.
inthelight August 03, 2012 at 06:22 PM
Poor Max. Left under the care of an anally retentive babysitter with a criminal record and poor impulse control. RIP Max. Justice is coming.
Mystery Writer September 22, 2012 at 03:00 AM
That doesn't say much for Max's parents, does it? Just blame the babysitter as if she deserved to be murdered. Justice has not been served yet because the case was "solved" way too fast to explain the complex evidence and all the loose ends. At least one psychic probably knows the answers to Rebecca's murder, but the police will never listen to them. One can only hope a competent investigator will see the light.
Mickey Mouse October 02, 2012 at 08:03 PM
Even more tragic is the little boy in the picture wearing an "AIG" t shirt. American International Group or AIG defaulted on CDS coverage for Bear Stearns was the initial cause of the 08 market crash. Things become even more curious....Hmmmm Maybe sheriff gore needs to look up a fella named louis ranieri...I understand he lives in France now....close to jon corzine of MF Global fame.

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