Cases Closed? Zahau Death Ruled a Suicide and Boy’s an Accident

Rebecca Zahau.

Updated 1 p.m. Friday. See bulleted items below:

Rebecca Zahau died by her own hand and Max Shacknai in a terrible 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.

Police looked into the July 11 fall and subsequent death 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.

Zahau, the authorities said:

  • Received a phone message at 12:50 a.m. July 11 informing her the boy’s condition had worsened.
  • Gathered rope, knifes and paint in the house to kill herself. DNA and fingerprint evidence indicate she’s the only one to have handled the materials.
  • Died at approximately 3 a.m. of asphyxia due to hanging.

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 his fall.
  • Attempted to break his fall by grabbing onto a chandelier, which fell and shattered.
  • Suffered a head injury that caused him to stop breathing and led to irreversible brain damage, though doctors initially hoped he would survive. 

The case attracted national attention because of a number of factors:

    Zahau was found 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.
    The timing of the tragedies, which occurred within roughly 48 hours of each other, costing a man his girlfriend, and then his son, who died in a hospital days after Zahau.
    Shacknai’s prominence and wealth, due to his founding of Medicis Pharmaceutical, a Scottsdale, AZ, firm.

Authorities offered a diagram  of how Max’s could have fallen and a detailed video about how Zahau could have bound herself before hanging. See the media box for the materials.