The owner of a Coronado mansion where his son was fatally injured in a fall and his girlfriend hung herself two days later was notified of her death via a text message from his brother, who found her hanging from a balcony as he left a guest house to get coffee, newly unsealed search warrants revealed on Tuesday.
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According to the warrants, mansion owner Jonah Shacknai was working out at a gym on July 11 when he got a call from girlfriend Rebecca Zahau that his 6-year-old son Max had fallen over a second-story railing while she was responsible for watching him.
He was at his son's bedside at the hospital at 6:48 a.m. on July 13 when he got a text message from his brother saying Zahau had killed herself.
Adam Shacknai was the only person home at the time and cut Zahau down after making the gruesome discovery. Investigators gave him a polygraph and felt he was being truthful during the examination, according to the search warrants.
San Diego County sheriff's Deputy Brian Patterson first thought Zahau was the victim of a homicide, but investigators later concluded that she committed suicide -- a finding her family refuses to accept.
Jonah Shacknai sent to a letter to the California Attorney General's office on Monday, asking officials to look further into the investigation of the deaths.
Zahau's family repeatedly has said that they do not believe the 32-year-old woman took her own life, based on a telephone conversation with her sister the night before, in which she seemed to be in good spirits.
However, sheriff's Sgt. Dave Nemeth said at a briefing earlier this month that a message was left on Zahau's voicemail at 12:50 a.m. on the morning she died. The message was erased, but Nemeth said the person who left it told him it informed Zahau that the boy's medical condition had taken a turn for the worse.
"She made the decision to take her own life," Nemeth said.
He said physical evidence, medical information and witness statements combined to make the conclusions persuasive.
The seven-week investigation into Zahau's death was conducted by the San Diego Sheriff's Department, the Coronado Police Department and the California Department of Justice.
Nemeth said Zahau left a short message in black paint on the door leading to a bedroom, tied a red rope to a bed in that room, placed the rope around her neck and used sections of the same rope to bind her feet and ankles -- the rope going around her extremities four or five times.
She then went out to a balcony and leaned forward over a railing, falling 9 feet to her death, the sergeant said.
Impressions of her feet and toes right next to each other on the dust covering the balcony, dust being wiped away from an 11-inch section of the railing and the bed being pulled away from the wall all helped lead to their conclusion, he said. Two knives used to cut the rope were found in the room.
Fingerprints were all Rebecca's, according to Nemeth.
"The DNA profiles on the bindings, the rope around her neck, the rope attached to the footboard of the bed and the small knife, were only from Rebecca," Nemeth said.
He said no evidence was found to suggest foul play.
A close friend of Zahau's told investigators that the woman seemed stressed in January, did not sleep well, lost weight and stopped exercising, which was out of character for her, he said. A journal Zahau kept on her phone corroborated the witness, he said.
Dr. Jonathan Lucas, of the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office, said she died of asphyxiation by suicide, and that there was no evidence of a struggle or sexual assault. She probably died sometime before 3 a.m., nearly four hours before her body was discovered and cut from the rope, he said.
Lucas said instances in which someone binds their hands and feet before killing themselves are rare, but not unheard of.
Max Shacknai died of an injury to the upper part of his spinal cord, which was a kind of hyperextension suffered when he fell over the second-floor railing and struck a carpeted concrete floor with the right side of his forehead.
The injury caused his heart and lungs to stop functioning, and he suffered irreparable brain damage, Lucas said. The boy died at Rady Children's Hospital five days after his fall.
The investigation concluded that Max was playing by himself when he ran and possibly tripped, causing him to plunge over a 20-inch high railing next to a grand staircase near the mansion's foyer. The boy grabbed onto a chandelier, which was pulled out of the ceiling and smashed on the floor with him.
Zahau was in a nearby bathroom when she heard the crash, while her 13-year-old sister was showering in another part of the house, said Sheriff Bill Gore.
Gore said the message painted on the bedroom door by Zahau was "not a clear suicide note," but a message.
Jonah Shacknai, 54, is the founder of Medicis Pharmaceutical Corp., which is based in Scottsdale, Ariz., and makes anti-aging products. He has owned the 103-year-old Spreckels Mansion since 2007.
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