NBC News and news services
updated 9/2/2011 3:30:56 PM ET 2011-09-02T19:30:56

The fatal fall of 6-year-old boy at a historic mansion was an accident and the hanging death of the homeowner's girlfriend was a suicide, authorities said Friday.

The findings in the deaths of young Max Shacknai and Rebecca Zahau, 32, followed a lengthy investigation.

"Were these deaths the result of criminal conduct? Was Max's death a homicide? The answer is no," San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore told a news conference. "It was a tragic accident. Was Rebecca's death a homicide? Again the answer is no. It was a suicide ... These deaths were not the result of any criminal acts."

Zahau's sister had told The Associated Press on Thursday that she had been informed of the suicide finding.

When Zahau's naked body was found hanging from the mansion's balcony with her ankles and wrists bound, investigators were quick to say they weren't ruling out suicide.

The woman's sister said investigators confirmed that it was suicide during a visit to the family home in St. Joseph, Mo., to discuss their findings. They told her Wednesday that it would have been difficult but "very possible" for Zahau to kill herself.

Max had fallen down stairs at the mansion while under her care and succumbed to his injuries days later. Authorities said the last call to Zahau's voicemail before her death had delivered the message that the boy was in grave condition.

The woman and the boy are linked to Jonah Shacknai, an Arizona pharmaceuticals magnate who owns 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.

Mary Zahau-Loehner said investigators failed to convince her that her sister killed herself. She said she spoke with Zahau the night before her body was found July 13 and she gave no hint that she planned to take her life. Zahau said she would bring Jonah Shacknai breakfast and a change of clothes the next morning to the hospital where his son was being treated.

Zahau also told her sister that she would call her parents in the morning on the way to the hospital. She emailed another sister in Germany to say she would be updating throughout the day.

"Too detailed planning for someone who's planning to end their life that night," Zahau-Loehner told The Associated Press Thursday. "It doesn't add up. Nothing adds up."

She said investigators told her there was no suicide note.

When Max fell down the stairs, Zahau was at home with a 13-year-old girl who was related to her, authorities say. He was hospitalized after paramedics found the boy wasn't breathing and did not have a pulse.

Two days later, 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.

The home, known as the Spreckels mansion, is one of the more storied properties in Coronado, a small suburb of multimillion-dollar homes on the tip of a peninsula across a bay from downtown San Diego. The home has unobstructed beach views and sits near Coronado's main street, which is lined with palm trees and upscale boutiques.

Shacknai bought the mansion in March 2007, when it was assessed at $12.75 million. The home was built in 1908 and named for its original owner, John D. Spreckels, who also owned the newspapers, the San Diego Union and San Diego Tribune.

Shacknai founded Medicis Pharmaceuticals Corp. and has been chairman and chief executive of the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company since 1988. Medicis makes acne treatments Solodyn and Ziana and facial wrinkle treatment Restylane and Dysport, a competitor of Botox.

He told investors on a conference call Aug. 8 that he would resume his normal work routine as soon as his children returned to school in Arizona.

"We've obviously had an extraordinarily difficult time. We have undertaken some tragedies, some losses that one couldn't imagine experiencing in a lifetime," he said.

Zahau, a native of Myanmar, was an ophthalmic technician at Horizon Eye Specialists & Lasik Center in the Phoenix area from April 2008 to December 2010. Her sister described her as a religious person.

Zahau-Loehner said there were many unanswered questions. Her family has hired Seattle attorney Anne Bremner.

NBC affiliate KNSD-TV developed a timeline of events at the historic Coronado mansion:

July 11: Max Shacknai, 6, falls inside the home suffering injuries that would ultimately lead to his death.

July 12: Rebecca Zahau calls a local dog daycare company to arrange for care for her dog so she could join the hospital vigil for her boyfriend’s son Max.

July 13: Adam Shacknai calls 911 at 6:30 a.m. reporting the discovery of a nude woman hanging from the second-story balcony with her hands and feet bound. Once emergency crews pronounced the woman dead, Coronado police requested the help of San Diego County Sheriff’s Department homicide investigators.

Jonah Shacknai’s company Medicis released a statement asking that the family’s privacy be respected.

July 14: Homicide investigators identified the dead woman as Shacknai’s girlfriend Rebecca Nalepa, also known as Rebecca Zahau. Sheriff’s department spokesperson Tim Curran said the death investigation may be homicide or suicide.

July 15: Investigators had results from an autopsy for Rebecca Zahau but were awaiting other forensic information to determine a cause of death.

July 17: The Shacknai family announces the death of Max Shacknai through a written statement saying "With great sadness, Dina and I convey the tragic passing of our beloved son, Max (affectionately known as Maxie)… Despite heroic efforts on the part of paramedics and hospital staff, he was unable to recover from the injuries suffered early last week. His loving, kind and vibrant spirit will be forever in our hearts and those whom he touched every day."

July 18: San Diego County sheriff’s investigators said they are interviewing witnesses and awaiting forensic evidence that they believe will be key in the investigation.

July 19: Domestic disturbance reports filed in Arizona reveal police reports filed during the marriage of Jonah Shacknai and ex-wife Dina Romano, the mother of 6-year old Max Shacknai. Husband and wife filed separate reports claiming physical injury caused by the other. No charges were filed.

July 22: RadarOnline.com reports that the sheriff's department plans to review surveillance video from Children's hospital where Jonah Shacknai, Zahau's boyfriend, was reportedly with his young son.

July 23: Rebecca Zahau was buried in a private ceremony.

Detectives said they plan to re-create the death of Rebecca Zahau in an effort to determine whether her death was a homicide or suicide.

July 26: Coronado police released the history of police calls to both the Spreckels Mansion and Dina Romano's Coronado residence.

Aug 9: Jonah Shacknai took part in a Medicis company conference call and revealed that he will return to work soon.

Aug. 20: Sources, who have knowledge of the investigation, told NBCSanDiego that detectives are reasonably confident that Zahau's death was a suicide.

Sept. 1: The San Diego County Sheriff's Department announced its investigators will brief the media on the Coronado death investigation Friday, Sept. 2. Rebecca Zahau's sister, Mary Zahau-Loehner, tells The Associated Press that investigators ruled her sister's death a suicide.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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