DNA led to suicide ruling in Calif. mansion death

By Elliot Spagat

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Sept. 2 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

San Diego Sheriff Bill Gore, right, looks on at a news conference held at the San Diego County Sheriff's department Friday, Sept. 2, 2011 in San Diego. Behind him is a photo of Max Shacknai. At the news conference, the sheriff's department released their findings in the deaths of Rebecca Zahau and Max Shacknai.

Denis Poroy, Associated Press

SAN DIEGO — Footprints spotted on a dusty balcony and traces of DNA found on knives and pieces of rope helped investigators conclude that the mysterious death of a woman found hanging naked at a historic California mansion was a suicide, authorities said Friday.

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

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

The boy, Max Shacknai, had suffered injuries days earlier in a fall down the 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 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.

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 broken chandelier glass, 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 1½-hour news conference included a video reenactment of how investigators think Zahau bound her wrists.

They believe she used two knives to cut rope that she tied to bedposts and around her wrists and ankles, Gore said. She loosely bound her wrists, took one arm out and put both arms her back before tightening the noose, he said.

Zahau's DNA was found on the rope and the bedposts, her fingerprints were on the bedposts and her footprints were on the balcony. The knives were recovered in the bedroom, one with her DNA and another with her fingerprints, Gore said.

"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."

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