A Coronado, California, mansion was the scene of two fatal incidents in two days that have since captivated the public’s attention. NBC’s Dateline episode on Sunday night explores what happened at the mansion in July 2011 that led to the deaths of both 6-year-old Max Shacknai and Rebecca Zahau, the 32-year-old girlfriend of Shacknai’s father.
On July 11, 2011, while Zahau and her younger sister were babysitting Shacknai, the boy fell from the staircase or second-floor hallway and was rushed to the hospital in critical condition. The 6-year-old died of his injuries five days later, on July 16. Just two days after Shacknai’s fatal accident, while he was still hospitalized, Zahau was found dead at the mansion from an apparent hanging, ABC News reported.
Due to the mysterious circumstances surrounding Zahau’s death and its timing, numerous investigations and medical reports have looked into both Shacknai and Zahau’s deaths.
How did Maxfield Shacknai die?
Shacknai Was Found at the Bottom of the Mansion’s Staircase by Rebecca Zahau & He Died of His Injuries Days Later
In the summer of 2011, Jonah Shacknai and his girlfriend of two years, Zahau, were living at the Spreckels Mansion on Ocean Boulevard in Coronado, California, with Jonah Shacknai’s son, Max, from a previous marriage. The day of Max Shacknai’s fall, Zahau was the only adult at the house and was looking after him and her 13-year-old sister Xena.
She said she was in a bathroom downstairs and Xena was in the shower in another bathroom when she heard a crash in the house, Town & Country wrote. Zahau said she found the young boy at the bottom of the stairs and called 911. Unfortunately, after he was hospitalized for five days, Shacknai died on July 16, 2011, from brain damage.
Seven weeks after Shacknai’s death, Sheriff Bill Gore of San Diego County said during a press conference that the boy’s death was ruled an accident, ABC News reported. An investigation from the Coronado Police Department determined that Shacknai was running down the second-story hallway at the top of the stairs and went over the railing, falling to the first floor.
AZ Central wrote that investigators said Shacknai either hit the chandelier or tried to grab it before hitting a stairway landing banister and then falling to the floor below. They were unable to determine why he fell, but investigators said the family dog and a soccer ball were near the stairs and he may have tripped over one of them. The glass chandelier fell to the floor beside him.
An autopsy determined that Shacknai’s death was due to an accidental fall from the stairs. The deputy medical examiner said he fell face-first, causing fractures to his facial bones and a major spinal cord injury that affected his heart rate and breathing, the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote. When Zahau found him he was not breathing and was unresponsive.
Shacknai’s Mother Requested That an Investigation Into Her Son’s Death Be Opened Again in 2012
Shacknai’s mother, Jonah Shacknai’s second wife Dina, was unhappy with investigators’ determination that her son’s death was accidental and she requested in 2012 that his case be reopened, NBC San Diego reported. She said, “Things just didn’t add up to me, so I hired independent experts to review the findings.”
She hired forensic pathologist Dr. Judy Melinek to investigate the fatal fall and Melinek concluded that the 6-year-old’s manner of death was “inaccurate.” She said, “It would be more accurate to certify that manner as a homicide, where homicide is defined as death at the hands of another,” NBC reported. She suggested that Shacknai may have been assaulted at the top of the stairs before he fell.
The Coronado Police Department refused to reopen the investigation and said, according to the Phoenix New Times, “Was Max’s death a homicide? The answer is no. It was a tragic accident.”
According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, after the investigation was concluded, Shacknai’s father said, “While the investigation is over, the emptiness and sadness in our hearts will remain forever. 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.”