The body of Rebecca Zahau, one of two people who died in the same week under mysterious circumstances at Jonah Shacknai's Spreckels Mansion in San Diego, Calif., has been exhumed and will be subject to an independent autopsy at the behest of the victim's family.
Zahau family attorney Anne Bremner told CNN that forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht will examine the body.
The body has been exhumed, Bremner said. Dr. Wecht will be conducting the autopsy pro bono.
In early September, the San Diego County Sheriff's Department ruled on both of the bizarre deaths at Spreckels Mansion in July, and Sheriff Bill Gore announced that the investigation had concluded that six-year-old Max Shacknai's cause of death was accidental and Rebecca Zahau's death was a suicide.
Johan Shacknai's girlfriend was found hanging at the mansion in the early hours of July 13 by Jonah's brother Adam Shacknai, who was staying in a guest house at the home. Two days earlier, while under Rebecca's care, Max had been rushed to the hospital after an accident on a staircase in the mansion. San Diego Sheriff's Department Lt. Larry Nesbit told CNN investigators believed Jonah Shacknai, who is a well-known figure in the pharmaceuticals industry, was at the hospital with his son at the time of Zahau's death and when her body was discovered.
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Max Shacknai died a few days later from his injuries.
Some, including Zahau's family, were skeptical of the suicide ruling, in part because the victim's hands and feet were bound.
Dr. Jonathan Lucas of the San Diego County medical examiner's office said in a press conference that while bound suicides were unusual, they were not unheard of.
The thinking is, they bind themselves so that they won't change their mind midway through, Lucas said in September.
In support of the suicide ruling, the San Diego Sheriff's department released a video demonstration of a woman tying her own wrists together behind her back, as Zahau's were:
The Sheriff's department also released photos taken inside the house and a series of diagrams illustrating how Max Shacknai fell over a second-story banister and grabbed hold of a chandelier to break his fall. (The photos and transcripts of press statements can be found on the San Diego County Sheriff Department's Web site.)The investigation determined that Max was alone at the time, and must have been running in order to achieve the velocity that caused his fatal injuries.
One of the photos shows a door where Zahau purportedly painted a final message, although the message was blocked out in the image and the department declined to reveal its contents.
Zahau's ex-husband Neil Nalepa reportedly witnessed the message firsthand and told Coronado Patch it said: She saved him, can he save her.
While investigators pointed to the message -- which was written in English, Zahau's second language -- as a critical piece of evidence in the suicide ruling, Nalepa is not convinced.
It's mysterious, Nalepa said. It's not what Rebecca sounds like or talks like.
Zahau's family will appear on the talk show Dr. Phil in November, and the result of the second autopsy will be revealed in the broadcast.
Rebecca's sister Mary Zahau issued the following statement Tuesday, according to CNN affiliate KFMB:
Due to the generosity of the public, we will be able to proceed with exhumation of (Rebecca) to find the truth of her death. Dr. Wecht has been kind and generous to help us with an independent autopsy.
We would appreciate further donations and support in any way. The venture of Justice for Rebecca is going to be long and challenging. This is only the beginning of that journey and it is possible due to the tremendous support and generosity of the public, experts, news media, and our attorney Anne Bremner.
Incidentally, Bremner was one of the attorneys advising the family of Amanda Knox, whose murder conviction was overturned in Italy earlier this month.
In late September, Jonah Shacknai appealed to Attorney General Kamala Harris to evaluate the cause of death rulings made by San Diego investigators, while insisting that he accepted findings of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department and Coronado police.
In his letter to Harris, Shacknai wrote that the unrelenting and often vicious speculation and innuendo in certain media outlets continue to bring further pain to everyone who has been touched by these events. It is my hope that your review of Rebecca's death will serve the interests of justice by providing confidence, comfort, and resolution not just to the families directly impacted by these tragedies, but also to the public at large, which has taken an interest in these highly unusual circumstances.
Shacknai's request was denied.
Also in late September, Coronado Patch reported that Max Shacknai's cause of death ruling had been challenged by Dr. Brad Peterson, Head of the ICU Trauma San Diego Children's Hospital, where Max Shacknai was taken by paramedics. According to a report prepared by a social worker, Dr. Peterson said that the boy's visible injuries were inconsistent with the severity of his symptoms, and that be believed Max may have been suffocated prior to the staircase fall.