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Saturday, September 3, 2011 - Page updated at 09:01 p.m.

Woman's death at mansion was suicide

By ELLIOT SPAGAT
The Associated Press

SAN DIEGO — 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 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 brain injuries caused by the fall, which 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."

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," said Bremner, of Seattle.

Bremner said investigators jumped to conclusions and that someone could have easily thrown the 100-pound Zahau over the balcony. "It would take a contortionist, like a Cirque du 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 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.

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-shape staircase, struck a chandelier and hit another railing before falling on his face.

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 ½-hour news conference included a video re-enactment 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."

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.

Mary Zahau-Loehner, Rebecca Zahau's sister, said Thursday that the family does not believe Zahau took her own life.

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.

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