DNA led to suicide ruling in Calif. mansion death

AP News
Posted: Sep 02, 2011 10:46 PM
DNA led to suicide ruling in Calif. mansion death

Footprints on a dusty balcony and DNA on a knife, rope and bedposts helped investigators conclude that the death of a woman found hanging naked with her wrists and ankles bound at a historic California mansion was a suicide, authorities said Friday.

The physical evidence suggests that Rebecca Zahau bound herself, tied a rope around her neck and hung herself from the balcony of her pharmaceutical tycoon boyfriend's home in July, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said.

Zahau, 32, was discovered dead six hours after she retrieved a voice mail that said the condition of her boyfriend's 6-year-old son had suddenly worsened and that he was unlikely to survive, investigators said.

The boy, Max Shacknai, had suffered injuries two days earlier in a fall down the Coronado mansion's stairs. He later died from his brain injuries in a fall that authorities ruled an accident.

"Was Max's death a homicide? The answer is no," Gore said at a news conference. "It was a tragic accident. Was Rebecca's death a homicide? Again the answer is no. It was a suicide ... These deaths were not the result of any criminal acts."

Other evidence included fingerprints on a knife and a message in black paint left by Zahau on the bedroom door, Gore said. He declined to disclose the message's content and stopped short of calling it a suicide note. No drugs were found in Zahau.

"Science doesn't lie," Gore said. "That's why I'm so confident."

Anne Bremner, an attorney for Zahau's family, said the painted message says something like, "She saved him. Can he save her?"

"We don't believe it means anything and the family says it's clearly not her handwriting," Bremner said.

Bremner said investigators jumped to conclusions and that someone could have easily thrown her 100-pound frame over the balcony.

"It would take a contortionist, like a Cirque de Soleil artist, to do what they claim she did," she said.

The woman and the boy are linked to Jonah Shacknai, founder and chief executive of Medicis Pharmaceuticals Corp. and owner of the 27-room waterfront mansion. Zahau was his girlfriend of two years. Max was his son from a marriage that ended in divorce in 2008.

"Nothing will ever be the same for our families after these losses, but with today's information providing some much needed answers, we will try to rebuild our lives and honor the memories we carry with us," Shacknai said in a statement.

No one saw Max Shacknai fall, but Zahau was home with her 13-year-old sister and heard a loud noise, investigators said.

Investigators believe the boy fell over a railing of a U-shaped staircase, struck a chandelier and hit another railing before falling on his face. He was found near the fallen chandelier, two soccer balls and a scooter.

The boy injured his neck, which stopped his heart and breathing for about 30 minutes, said Dr. Jonathan Lucas of the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office. The lack of oxygen to his brain caused irreversible damage and his death five days later.

Two days after the boy's fall, Shacknai's brother, Adam, called 911 to report that Zahau appeared to be dead, investigators said. The brother was staying in a mansion guesthouse. Jonah Shacknai was not at home.

Friday's 1 1/2-hour news conference included a video reenactment of how investigators think Zahau bound her wrists.

Investigators believe Zahau tied rope to bedposts and around her wrists and ankles. They think she loosely bound her wrists, took one arm out and put both arms behind her back before tightening the noose.

"We don't know exactly how this event occurred," sheriff's Sgt. Dave Nemeth said. "We don't know in what order things were done. The only person who can answer that question, unfortunately, is deceased."

Lucas, who conducted the autopsy, estimated she hung herself around 3 a.m., several hours before Adam Shacknai reported seeing her body.

"I'll be the first to admit that this was a unique and unusual case," he said.

Zahau, a native of Myanmar, was an ophthalmic technician in the Phoenix area from April 2008 to December 2010. The family attorney said she was a devout Christian.

"Her religion was such that she thought anyone who committed suicide would go to hell," Bremner said.

Shacknai has been chairman and chief executive of the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Medicis since 1988. The company makes acne treatments Solodyn and Ziana and facial wrinkle treatment Restylane and Dysport, a competitor of Botox.

Shacknai bought the mansion, known as the Spreckels mansion, in March 2007, when it was assessed at $12.75 million. The home was built in 1908 and named for its original owner, John D. Spreckels, who also owned the San Diego Union and San Diego Tribune newspapers.