San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore, along with members of his team investigating the fall of 6-year-old Maxfield Shacknai, which eventually caused his death, and the demise of 32-year-old Rebecca Zahau, after her nude body was found hanging from a second floor balcony railing with her hands and angles bound, delivered a detailed summary of their findings to members of the media on Friday, September 2, 2011 from 11:00 a.m. to Noon PDT, as reported on that same date by KGTV 10News San Diego, KSRO News, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many other media sources.
The conclusions of their 7-week investigation, which began after the child’s accident on Monday, July 11, 2011 and ramped up in intensity two days later, on Wednesday, July 13, after police were called shortly after 6:48 a.m. PDT following the discovery of Ms. Zahau’s body, were delivered with apparent sensitivity, and concerns for the privacy of both families to this tragedy.
Maxie’s fall resulted from the 3′-11″, 57 pound child running along a second floor hallway adjacent to the L-shaped stairway, located in the 27-room Spreckels Mansion at 1043 Ocean Boulevard in Coronado, CA.
It was assumed that the boy was chasing a soccer ball, and possibly tripped on it or the family’s Weimaraner dog, colliding with the banister, and carried by his momentum, falling over the railing at approximately 10:10 a.m. PDT, as seen in the attached slide show of evidence photos and video clip which accompany this report.
According to Sheriff’s investigators, as the boy fell, he grabbed on to a hanging hallway chandelier, causing bulbs and the fixture’s chain to break, and both he and the chandelier fell to the carpeted surface below, which covered a concrete slab.
The 6-year-old bruised the right side of his face as he hit the ground. His small head also snapped backward, hyper extending and damaging a cervical vertebrae, and causing trauma to the boy’s upper spinal cord, which caused both his respiratory system and heartbeat to stop, cutting off the oxygen flow to his brain. Medically, the injury was called an upper cervical spinal cord contusion.
That trauma caused a medical condition known as anoxic/ischemic encephalopathy.
Ms. Zahau, who was in a nearby hall bathroom, rushed to the child’s aid, called 9-1-1, and administered CPR. Paramedics from Heartland Ambulance Service arrived within two minutes, continuing resuscitation efforts, and establishing breathing and heart rate.
The time during which the boy was not breathing, and without blood circulating to his brain was later estimated to be about 20 minutes, and eventually led to Maxie’s death at Rady Children’s Hospital on Saturday, July 16, 2011.
Dr. Jonathan Lucas, M.D., San Diego County Deputy Medical Examiner, who performed autopsies on both Ms. Zahau and Maxfield Shacknai, declared his death to be accidental, with no indication of child abuse, any other form of violence, or criminal intent.
The determination of Ms. Zahau’s death, which was held to be caused by asphyxiation, the result of hanging by suicide, was much more complex, and a decision that the Zahau family, and their attorney, Anne Bremner, a renowned trial lawyer and legal analyst from Seattle, WA, currently a shareholder with the firm of Stafford Frey Cooper, completely dismiss.
We conducted a telephone interview with attorney Bremner, and have separately reported her critique of the official police findings, and shortcomings which she found in their conclusions, in a separate article following this report.
The case for suicide was presented by Sergeant Dave Nemeth, of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department Homicide Detail, and is based on DNA trace evidence, forensic toxicology analysis, examination of the physical evidence, a video re-enactment by a woman of similar body structure to Ms. Zahau, 5 feet, 3-1/2 inches, weighing 100 pounds, placing a rope with a slip knot around her neck, binding her ankles, and tying one hand, with a similar slip knot, placing that behind her back, inserting her right wrist, and tightening the knot.
Perhaps most troubling, and also most contentious to the Zahau family, who allege that the block letters were not in their loved one’s handwriting, was a message written in black paint on the back of Rebecca’s bedroom door. It was described as a “message”, and never referred to as a suicide note, and it’s contents were not disclosed for privacy reasons.
The actual message is discussed is an article which follows this dispatch.
The homicide detective did confirm the presence of a tube of black paint, two brushes whose bristles contained some of the same paint particles, two small kitchen knives on the floor of the bedroom also containing paint traces, and similar paint traces also found on Ms. Zahau’s hands and neck, and on the rope she had allegedly used to hang herself.
The red rope itself, not an orange electric cord as had been previously reported by various media sources, was believed to have come from a storage shelf in a garage on the property, and was described as a marine rope commonly used in boating.
Ms. Zahau’s feet were dirty, and there was no evidence of a struggle, a sexual assault, or other violence against the woman. The autopsy finding showed that she was conscious prior to the hanging. There were no findings of alcohol, or other drugs detected in her body by toxicology examination.
In addition to the message scrawled in paint on the bedroom door, key to the Sheriff’s determination of suicide were two other factors which were cited.
At exactly 12:50 a.m. PDT on the morning of Wednesday, July 13, 2011, Ms. Zahau received a voice mail message on her cell phone. Although the message itself was allegedly subsequently erased, homicide detectives have stated that they traced the message to its sender, and while not identifying the person who made that call, who some speculate to be Jonah Shacknai, the contents were that Max had suffered a turn for the worse, and was not likely to survive.
Police also disclosed that a close friend of Rebecca, whose identity was also not given, had told them that the woman had lost weight, had difficulty sleeping, and was unhappy, exhibiting signs of depression for several months, although there has apparently been no independent confirmation of those observations.
Although Ms. Zahau was described as a “health nut” who worked out aggressively, there was signs that she had also reduced her fitness time, and had withdrawn from other activities.
All these factors, and examination of physical evidence, such as footprints on the balcony tile floor near the railing from which Ms. Zahau fell, and disturbances of dust on that railing, led to the conclusion that the woman had killed herself.
When questioned on certainty, Sheriff Bill Gore stated that he was extremely confident of their finding, adding that, while the death was unusual, it was not unprecedented according to the limited research they had done into hanging suicides by other women.
A former San Diego homicide detective, not involved in the investigation, Rick Carlson, in speaking to a KGTV reporter, said that he felt the conclusions were justified, calling the Sheriff’s investigation “exhaustive.”
There are still many unanswered questions, and disturbing issues. We have presented them in a rebuttal to the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department conclusions by an attorney for the Zahau family, Ms. Anne Bremner, an exceptionally qualified legal analyst, who has provided more insights from her perspective as a former criminal prosecutor, critical devil’s advocate, trial attorney, and legal scholar.
Those revelations immediately follow this report.
Tell us your thoughts. Please leave comments below or by email and subscribe to get future updates. There is also expanded coverage of other recent news articles. You may also be interested in following our reports as the Airlines/Airport Examiner.