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.