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Sorting out deaths at Spreckels Mansion could take time, police say

July 19, 2011 |  7:51 am

Add to that oddity some other factors in the case -- the owner's 6-year-old son died days after falling down some stairs, the mansion is owned by a rich business executive and is one of the upscale community’s most famous landmarks -- and the case has the makings of a mystery.

Or does it?

Sgt. Roy Frank of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department homicide squad cautions that suicides can sometimes look like something else, even like murder.

Until forensic tests on Rebecca Nalepa, 32, the girlfriend of mansion owner Jonah Shacknai, are completed, the Sheriff’s Department won’t say what the cause of death was. That could take weeks.

The public may think that the fact that Nalepa's hands and feet were tied rules out suicide. Frank does not.

“We have not been able to rule out suicide,” Frank said Monday.

Rick Carlson, retired homicide detective for the San Diego Police Department, author of a book on suicide and suicide notes (“I’m in the Tub, Gone”), said it is not unknown for someone committing suicide by hanging to tie their hands and feet. Tying their hands prevents them from trying to loosen the rope around their necks as they strangle to death, he said.

People committing suicide can be very creative in their methods, said Carlson, asked to comment on the Coronado case by The Times. “Very creative,” he said for emphasis.

The death of 6-year-old Max Shacknai, the son of Jonah Shacknai and his ex-wife Dina, is being investigated by the Coronado Police Department, which has preliminarily labeled it as an accident. The boy fell from the staircase at the mansion last week, was rushed to Rady Children’s Hospital, and died Sunday.

 Sheriff’s investigators have said they have found no link between the boy’s accident and Nalepa’s death two days later.

Nalepa’s nude body was found in the courtyard of the mansion. Shacknai’s brother, Adam, told investigators he found her hanging from her neck and cut her down in hopes she was still alive.

Frank cautions patience from the media and public. He’s confident the case will be solved, just not right away.

“We all watch [the television show] 'CSI,' ” he said. “But in the real world, cases don’t get solved in an hour.”

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 --Tony Perry in San Diego

Photo: Rebecca Nalepa and Jonah Shacknai. Credit: Fox 5 San Diego

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