LOS ANGELES – A woman found dead, hanging naked with her hands bound behind her back at a historic Coronado, Calif., mansion in July, killed herself hours after learning that her boyfriend's 6-year-old son was near death from injuries sustained in a fall two days earlier, authorities said Friday.
She attached the rope to the footboard of a bed in the guest room, slipped a noose around her neck, went through the room's double doors onto the balcony and hurled herself over the scrollwork, wrought-iron railing, he said.
Shacknai's brother, Adam, who was visiting from Memphis and was staying in the mansion's guest house, found Zahau's body at 6:48 a.m. on July 13, Nemeth said.
"When she was found in the courtyard, part of the rope was still grasped in her fingers," Nemeth said.
San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said Zahau left a "message" scrawled in black paint on the door of the guest room. He would not disclose what the message said, but did not characterize it as a suicide note.
Investigators found black paint on Zahau's hand, torso and the rope around her neck. They found only Zahau's fingerprints in the guest room and on the knives and two paintbrushes left on the bedroom floor. Footprints left on the balcony match Zahau's and the boot of police officers who investigated the scene, Nemeth said. Police also re-enacted their scenario to determine whether it's possible to bind one's own hands and feet, he said.
"No one witnessed this event. We don't know in what order things were done," he said. "This was the best conclusion we could come to: She made the decision to take her own life."
Medical examiner Jonathan Lucas found no evidence of a struggle or sexual assault and said he easily removed the bindings from her hands and wrists.
"I'll be the first to unprecedented," Gore said. "There were indications she'd been unhappy for a while."
A friend told investigators Zahau had been depressed for several months, Nemeth said. Investigators also found a journal on her phone that confirmed the friend's conclusion, he said.
Nemeth also said Zahau was "distraught over Max's injury," although she never visited him in the hospital.
Police believe Zahau checked her voicemail for the last time at 12:50 a.m., when she listened to a message indicating Shacknai's son Max's condition was increasingly grave and his death was imminent. Zahau was at the mansion in the bathroom when the boy apparently ran down a third-floor hallway, tripped and soared over the balcony onto the carpet three floors below.
The fall bent Max's head backwards, injuring his upper cervical spinal, which interfered with his breath and heartbeat, Lucas said. A lack of oxygen damaged the boy's brain, which led to his death six days later.
Coronado Police Cmdr. Mike Lawton said investigators found no sign of foul play and believe Max's death was "a tragic accident." He added that Shacknai was at the hospital with his son when Zahau died.
Shacknai in a statement said the investigation provided "some much-needed answers."
"While the investigation is over, the emptiness and sadness in our hearts will remain forever," Shacknai said in a statement. "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."
Anne Bremner, a Seattle lawyer hired by the Zahau family this week, said the San Diego Sheriff's Department's finding "doesn't pass the smell test."
Bremner said she and the family met with investigators for more than three hours this week and that the family was distraught over the conclusion.
Zahau's sister Mary Zahau-Loehner said she disagreed with investigators and was disappointed with the conclusion.
Bremner said there is no precedent for a woman committing suicide in the manner in which San Diego authorities contend.
"This would be the first case in the history of the world that a woman killed herself like this," she said. "It's ridiculous on the face of it."
She complained that the meeting was the first time investigators had met in person to discuss the case with Zahau's relatives, who live in Missouri, and that the San Diego authorities had already reached their conclusions.
Bremner said the family does not believe the note found on the door was in Rebecca Zahau's handwriting. She said the note was ambiguous in meaning.
"They strongly believe the note found at the scene was not her handwriting," Bremner said.
She said authorities need to have an outside review of some of the evidence, including an analysis of the handwriting in the note, and that polygraph tests should be conducted of "those closest to the victim."
She said Zahau had never displayed depression or signs of suicide, and had not indicated to others that she blamed herself for the accident that led to the boy's death. She had been upbeat in an evening phone call with family before her death, Bremner said.
She said officials explained Zahau's nudity in death by saying she routinely slept without clothing.
Bremner said Zahau was not alone in the mansion when Max had his accident. She said that two of the child's teenage siblings were present and that Zahau was in the shower at the time of the accident. Max's mother and Jonah Shacknai were divorced, and Zahau had recently divorced as well.
"I really hope they will reconsider and really fully investigate this case," Bremner said. "This department needs to be more measured and careful. … My belief is she did not kill herself."
admit this is a unique and unusual case," Lucas said.
Such suicides are "unusual, but I don't think it's