A distraught Rebecca Zahau left a message in black paint before she hanged herself, investigators say

By Ken Lee
September 02, 2011 12:15 PM
Courtesy Virgin Gotels Group Ltd; Inset: Dan Steinberg/AP

Police believe the mystery of two deaths tied to a millionaire’s San Diego area mansion has been solved.

A woman who was found hanging was determined to be a suicide and a young boy discovered badly injured at the bottom of a staircase died from an accidental fall, authorities said Friday.

“These deaths were not the result of any criminal acts,” San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said at a press conference.

The findings effectively close the investigation into the highly publicized deaths of pharmaceutical tycoon Jonah Shacknai’s girlfriend Rebecca Zahau and his son Max.

But it has not satisfied the family of Zahau.

“We her family and friends do not believe it’s a suicide. There are still unanswered questions,” says Mary Zahau-Loehner. “It is very suspicious and we would like the police to look further into her case. We want justice and are here to represent our sister and daughter.”

Zahau, 32, was found naked, hanging by a makeshift noose in the courtyard of Shacknai’s mansion in upscale Coronado, Calif., on July 13, with her hands and feet bound.

Her body was found just hours after she accessed her voice mail on which was a message about the grave condition of Shacknai’s 6-year-old son, who was in the hospital.

She had also painted a message in black shortly before she died. The paint was still found on her hands and the rope. Authorities refused to reveal what was written.

Police Investigation

“She made the decision to take her own life,” said San Diego County homicide Sgt. Dave Nemeth. He said police concluded Zahau bound her own feet and hands behind her with a red rope, put the rope around her neck, then leaned over the balcony.

This was supported, he said, by DNA evidence on the rope as well as an experiment in which an investigator found that it was possible for a person to bind their own hands behind them with slip knots.

“We received information from witnesses that Rebecca was distraught over Max’s injury,” said Nemeth.

Max was found not breathing and without a pulse at the bottom of the grand staircase in the mansion. Max later died in a nearby hospital on July 16. Rebecca and her 13-year-old sister were the only people at home with Max at the time he fell, authorities say.

The investigation concluded that Max had tripped and tumbled over a balcony and grabbed a chandelier as he fell, the authorities said.

Family Tragedy

But it was the fashion in which Zahau died that launched the weeks-long investigation into both deaths.

Shacknai, 54, the CEO of Medicis Pharmaceutical Corp., was never named as a suspect and called the deaths “tragedies that one couldn’t imagine experiencing in a lifetime.”

“This is a very sad day for our family, as we are again reminded of the enormity of these tragedies,” Shacknai said in a statement, which also thanked the police, doctors and family and friends for their support. “While the investigation is over, the emptiness and sadness in our hearts will remain forever. Max was an extraordinarily loving, happy, talented and special little boy. He brought joy to everyone who knew him, and we will miss him desperately.”

“Rebecca too was a wonderful and unique person who will always have a special place in my heart,” his statement continues. “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. Thank you for respecting our privacy as we struggle forward.”