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Coronado mansion deaths: Jonah Shacknai thanks investigators

September 2, 2011 |  2:37 pm

Getprev Pharmaceutical executive Jonah Shacknai expressed his appreciation Friday for the "professionalism and dedication" of San Diego County law enforcement officials who, after investigating the deaths of his son and his girlfriend, declared that neither was due to foul play.

County Sheriff Bill Gore told a packed news conference Friday that the death of 6-year-old Max Shacknai was a "tragic accident" and that the death of Rebecca Zahau was a suicide. Zahau, 32, apparently killed herself after learning that the boy would not recover from a fall at the family's Coronado mansion that occurred while she was at home, officials said.

"While the investigation is over," Shacknai said in a statement, "the emptiness and sadness in our hearts will remain forever. Max was an extraordinarily loving, happy, talented and special little boy. ... Rebecca too was a wonderful and unique person who will always have a special place in my heart."

Zahau was found hanging by her neck in the courtyard of the mansion on the morning of July 13. Two days earlier, Max Shacknai had tumbled down stairs from a second-story landing at the Coronado home.

In his statement, Shacknai thanked those who tried to save Max's life, and also the Coronado Police Department, the Sheriff's Department and the San Diego medical examiner for "investigating and explaining these terrible events."

Zahau's nude body was found with her hands and feet loosely tied and a noose was around her neck and tied to a second-story balcony, officials said.

Although how she killed herself may seem unusual, it is not unprecedented and there is no evidence that there was foul play, Gore and others said.

"It's not something you come across every day, but it does occur," said Dr. Jonathan Lucas, deputy medical examiner.  "People bind themselves so they don't change their minds midway through."

Zahau's fingerprints and DNA were the only ones found on the rope, on the knife she used to cut it into pieces and place sections around her feet and hands and around her neck, and in her bedroom, said Sgt. David Nemeth of the Sheriff's Department homicide squad.

Investigators also said they conducted an experiment with a woman of similar size to see if she could tie herself up in the same way with the same knots, concluding that she could. 

"We had to see if it was possible," Nemeth said. A video of the experiment was shown at the news conference.

"Science does not lie," Gore said.

Zahau also had taken some black paint and painted a message on the door to a guest room where she had been staying, authorities said. Gore declined to reveal what the message said.

Toxicology tests revealed that there was nothing in her system that would have impaired her judgment, Lucas said.

Investigators said they spoke to someone who knew Zahau and that that person said she had been upset for months, was losing weight and not exercising. Authorities also said they found notes in Zahau's personal journal at the Coronado mansion indicating emotional distress.

The evidence is "all compelling and points persuasively" to suicide, Gore said.

 On July 11, Max Shacknai fell or tripped, possibly over a soccer ball or the family dog, while running on a second-floor landing. He then tumbled over the stairway and grabbed a chandelier during his fall. He landed on his head, according to investigators.

After a week at Rady Children's Hospital, during which Shacknai and his ex-wife, the boy's mother, kept a vigil at his bedside, he died. Shacknai was not at the mansion when Zahau committed suicide, investigators said.

Initially, Gore said, Zahau believed that the boy could survive his injuries. But shortly before 1 a.m., she received a telephone call informing her that the boy was going to die.

Lucas said it is believed she killed herself before 3 a.m. Her body was found around 6:40 a.m. by Shacknai's brother, Adam, a guest at the mansion.

Mary Zahau-Loehner, Zahau's sister, had told reporters Thursday night that her family does not believe Zahau took her own life. The family was briefed by investigators on Wednesday.

Shacknai, 54, and Zahau had been together for two years. She had quit her job to spend more time with him and his children.

Shacknai's main residence is near his company, Medicis Pharmaceutical Corp., in Scottsdale, Ariz. The Coronado mansion, built in the early 1900s by sugar baron John D. Spreckels, was his summer home.


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Photo: Jonah Shacknai. Credit: Associated Press