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Family of woman found dead at Coronado mansion does not believe she committed suicide

July 20, 2011 |  7:22 pm

The family of the woman found dead at the Spreckels mansion in Coronado does not believe that she committed suicide.

In a statement to San Diego television channel KFMB, Mary Zahau-Loehner, a sister of Rebecca Zahau, on behalf of the family, said her sister was upbeat the night before she was found dead:

"Obviously, the investigation is not complete yet, but as far as what I know about my sister, my sister did not commit a suicide. My sister was not depressed, my sister was not frantic, my sister was planning to call my parents the next day and was planning to keep me posted about Max the next day."

Max was the 6-year-old son of Rebecca Zahau's boyfriend, Jonah Shacknai, owner of the mansion.

The boy fell down the stairs at the mansion July 11 and was pronounced dead July 17 after a six-day vigil at his hospital bedside by his father and mother, Shacknai's ex-wife, Dina, who also lives in Coronado.

Zahau, 32, was found on July 13 by Shacknai's brother, Adam, 47, a Memphis resident who was a house guest at the mansion. He told investigators that she was hanging from a balcony.

The Zahau family statement does not include the fact that has apparently led many members of the public to believe that suicide is not plausible: that Zahau's feet and hands had been tied.

But San Diego County Sheriff's Department Sgt. Roy Frank and Coronado police Chief Louis Scanlon, in separate interviews, have stressed to reporters that there are suicide cases in which the person ties their hands to keep from trying to loosen the knot around their neck.

The Sheriff's Department, taking the lead in the investigation of Zahau's death, has said it cannot yet decide between suicide and foul play as the cause of death.

A  battery of forensic and toxicology tests are pending. A team of 15 detectives is working on the case, the Sheriff's Department said. The determination could be weeks away, the department said in an announcement Wednesday.

Jonah Shacknai, 54, and other members of the family have been interviewed by investigators, who consider them witnesses, not suspects or even "persons of interest." Shacknai has returned to his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he is the owner of a major pharmaceutical firm specializing in skin-care treatments.

It is not unusual, even in high-profile death cases, for San Diego agencies to take weeks to determine the cause of death. No cause has yet been announced, for example, for two recent deaths of County Jail inmates. Tests are pending in those cases as well.

When firefighters, paramedics and police arrived at the mansion early on the morning of July 13, after receiving an emergency call from Adam Shacknai, Zahau's nude body was found in the grassy courtyard, below a balcony, near a table. Her feet were still tied; her hands were no longer tied.

The table was taken away as evidence.

Max Shacknai, immediately after the fall, was found unresponsive at the foot of the stairs. His family announced his death by email; his organs were donated for transplantation. Coronado police have tentatively listed his death as an accident.

Zahau was initially identified by investigators by her married name, Nalepa. But court records in Arizona show that after she and her husband were divorced, she reclaimed her maiden name. She is reportedly being buried in her native Myanmar.


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--Tony Perry in San Diego

Photo: Investigators remove evidence from the mansion. Credit: John Gibbins, San Diego Union Tribune