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In 2011 in bucolic Coronado, California, a wealthy pharmaceutical company CEO’s girlfriend was found dead at a beautiful beachfront mansion. Rebecca Zahau’s death was ruled a suicide, but her family maintains she’d never harm herself.
Her death followed another tragedy that happened in the mansion just two days earlier, a misfortune that prompted law enforcement to posit she was distraught enough to kill herself.
So what exactly kicked off the series of tragic events that ended with 32-year-old Zahau’s controversial death?
It all began with an incident involving 6-year-old Maxfield Shacknai, nicknamed Max, the son of Zahau’s millionaire boyfriend, Jonah Shacknai, the founder of Medicis Pharmaceutical Corp. Zahau had been dating Jonah for two years, and they lived together in a massive beachfront property in Coronado, a California resort city located on San Diego Bay.
On July 11, Max was being cared for by Zahau, who was alone with him and her 13-year-old sister, Xena, in the 27-room home. Zahau said she was in the downstairs bathroom while her sister Xena was in another bathroom taking a shower when Zahau heard a loud noise. She thought the sound was either a crash or a dog barking, according to her immediate recollection, Town & Country reported.
Zahau said she found Max laying in the foyer by the stairs on the floor, seriously injured. Nearby there were a few scattered soccer balls and a scooter on top of his leg. She said it appeared he had fallen off the mansion’s second-floor railing. A chandelier was also on the ground next to him, according to police documents.
Eerily, Max’s biological mother, Dina Shacknai told Sean Elder, the journalist who wrote the Town & Country story about this case, she chose to move to Coronado specifically because "nothing bad ever happens in Coronado,” as Elder told the producers of Oxygen Network’s “Death At The Mansion: Rebecca Zahau.” In fact, he described Coronado Island as "a little island paradise.”
But on July 16, five days after the incident, Max died from brain damage, a reported result of his injuries.
Jonathan Lucas, a deputy medical examiner, said Max fractured several facial bones and suffered a severe injury to his spinal cord, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. The injury to his spine then interfered with his heart rate and breathing.
But before Max was even declared dead, Rebecca passed away, too. Three days before Max’s death, she herself was found dead at the mansion. When the authorities arrived she was lying on the grass in the rear courtyard of the mansion, according to a San Diego Sheriff's Department investigative report.
"Rebecca was nude, her hands and feet were bound with red rope," the report states. "There was also red rope tied around her neck and a blue cloth tied around her neck."
Shacknai’s brother, Adam Shacknai, claimed he found her hanging.
"Adam told officers he moved a wooden table so he could reach her and cut her down," the report states.
An ominous, confusing message was written in black paint on one of the mansion’s interior doors which read, “She saved him. Can he save her?” according to a San Diego Sheriff’s Department report.
This obviously raised many questions: Was it a suicide or murder? And of course, why did Max fall in the first place?
When Max was being treated, police spoke with a clinical social worker, Renee Tietsworth, at Rady Children’s Hospital, who did tell them Max’s case seemed “peculiar” because he had gone into cardiac arrest after the fall, according to police reports obtained by Oxygen.com.
However, Max’s death was officially ruled accidental. Investigators have since speculated that he may have tripped over a ball or the dog, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
Meanwhile, Zahau’s death was officially ruled a suicide.
"Were these deaths the result of criminal conduct? Was Max's death a homicide? The answer is no," San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said in 2011, according to a Phoenix New Times report. "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.”
Gore said he believes Max was racing down the second-floor hallway on his Razor scooter when he either tripped or fell, which caused him to fall over the railing. He said the child brought down the chandelier with him.
However, that answer wasn’t enough for Max’s mother, Dina, who in 2012 asked for her son’s death to be reinvestigated, according to a 2012 NBC San Diego report.
The forensic pathologist she hired, Dr. Judy Melinek, stated at the time, “It would be more accurate to certify that manner as a homicide, where homicide is defined as death at the hands of another.”
She wrote that “a more reasonable scenario” would be that “Maxfield was assaulted by another person at the hallway, near the bannister of the second floor,” according to Town & Country. Additionally, Melinek alleged that Zahau’s initial claim, that the boy said the word “Ocean” (the name of the dog) before his death, would have been impossible based on his injuries.
However, that doesn’t mean Dina believes Zahau hurt her son.
“I don’t have reason to believe that Rebecca killed Max,” Dina told Town & Country in 2018. Rather, she said she thought someone else may have entered the house.
Although Zahau’s death has since been examined in civil court (Jonah’s brother Adam was found responsible for her death in civil court, although the case was dismissed when Zahau’s family reached a settlement with Adam’s insurance company, according to the Los Angeles Times), Max’s has not. An investigation into his death has never been opened. In 2012, after Dina asked for her son’s death to be looked at again, police confirmed they would not be investigating it, the Phoenix New Times reported.
Max’s death is still officially ruled an accident.
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