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Coronado mansion death: Early homicide theory was quickly dropped

September 21, 2011 | 10:18 am

Spreckels mansion
A sheriff's homicide detective believed that the girlfriend of Coronado mansion owner Jonah Shacknai was the victim of foul play when he first arrived on the scene, according to a search warrant unsealed Tuesday.

But San Diego County Sheriff's Det. Brian Patterson quickly changed his mind about Rebecca Zahau's death once he had the legal authority to search the mansion.

In the application for the warrant, Patterson said he suspected Zahau had been murdered because her legs and feet had been tied.

Based on that suspicion, a judge approved the warrant for detectives to search the Spreckels mansion owned by Shacknai, Zahau's boyfriend and a multimillionaire pharmaceutical executive.

But the search warrants suggest that Patterson and other investigators quickly decided that, although the circumstances were unusual, Zahau had committed suicide by hanging.

Inside the mansion, investigators found Zahau's journal and discovered that she had painted a kind of farewell note on the wall of her bedroom. Later, forensic evidence found only her DNA on the rope around her neck.

Also, Shacknai's brother, Adam, who found Zahau's body, voluntarily took a polygraph exam soon after her death. Although the examiner said the tests were inconclusive, she also said that she felt he was telling the truth when he denied any involvement in the death, according to the warrants.

Seven weeks after the July 13 death, the Sheriff's Department, the Coronado Police Department and the San Diego County medical examiner announced their conclusion that Zahau had hanged herself out of grief after learning that Shacknai's 6-year-old son, Max, was not going to survive the injuries he suffered in a fall two days earlier.

In the time between Zahau's death and the Sept. 2 announcement, public speculation about the case flourished, including allegations left on media websites that Jonah or Adam Shacknai had murdered Zahau.

Despite the announcement, speculation has continued.

Jonah Shacknai has asked the state attorney general's office to review the investigation and its conclusion in hopes of ending what he termed the "unrelenting and often vicious speculation and innuendo in certain media outlets" that is agonizing his family and keeping the Zahau family from accepting that Rebecca Zahau committed suicide.

Adam Shacknai was the only adult present when Zahau killed herself, the warrants said. Jonah Shacknai and his ex-wife, Dina, were keeping a vigil at Rady Children's Hospital for their son, injured two days earlier in a fall at the mansion.

On the day that Max fell, Shacknai was at a fitness center and Rebecca Zahau, his girlfriend of two years, was with Max, according to the documents.

Initially, Zahau thought that Max would survive, but early on July 13 she received a phone call indicating that his injuries were fatal, investigators concluded.

Within minutes she had found a rope, cut it to appropriate lengths and committed suicide, according to the medical examiner.

At the Sept. 2 news conference, the deputy medical examiner said it not unprecedented for a suicide victim to tie their hands and feet to prevent themselves from changing their minds midway through the act.


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-- Tony Perry in San Diego

Photo: The Spreckels mansion. Credit: Los Angeles Times