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State attorney general denies request to review Coronado mansion deaths

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SAN DIEGO (AP) — The California attorney general denied a pharmaceutical tycoon's request to review a finding that his girlfriend killed herself by binding her wrists and ankles and hanging herself naked from a balcony at his historic mansion, according to a letter released Thursday.

The office of Attorney General Kamala Harris said it reviews cases for limited reasons, including allegations of gross misconduct by investigators, a clear conflict of interest or if a local law enforcement agency lacks resources or requests help.

Jonah Shacknai asked for a review of a San Diego County Sheriff's Department finding that his 32-year-old girlfriend Rebecca Zahau killed herself two days after his 6-year-old son suffered a fatal fall at his waterfront mansion in Coronado, a wealthy San Diego suburb.

Shacknai, 54, wrote the attorney general Monday that he had no reason to doubt the finding but that a review might put to rest questions raised by Zahau's family and others. He said Thursday that he accepted Harris' decision.

"If at any time there is new substantive evidence bearing on this case, it should be presented, not in tabloid form to fuel rumor and innuendo, but rather to appropriate law enforcement authorities who may determine whether further investigation is warranted," Shacknai said in a statement.

Sheriff Bill Gore said this week that he understood and supported Shacknai's request and would cooperate if the attorney general launched a review. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Zahau's family is seeking an independent investigation. Their attorney, Anne Bremner, said Wednesday that a neighbor heard a woman scream at the home the night before the body was found and that numerous experts have challenged the suicide ruling.

Bremner is also calling attention to an autopsy report revelation that Shacknai's brother, Adam, found Zahau's body with a shirt stuffed in her mouth. The San Diego County coroner's office said it was unclear why the cloth was there but that people can put material in their mouths before hanging themselves.

Dane Gillette, chief assistant attorney general, denied the request in a letter to Shacknai that he signed on behalf of Harris. The letter was dated Wednesday.

Shacknai is founder and chief executive of Medicis Pharmaceuticals Corp., a company based in Scottsdale, Ariz., that makes acne and facial wrinkle treatments.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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SAN DIEGO (CNS) - The state Attorney General's Office denied a request by Jonah Shacknai to review the investigation into the deaths of his 6-year-son and his girlfriend, who authorities concluded hung herself in Shacknai's Coronado mansion two days after the boy was critically injured, the millionaire said Thursday.

After a seven-week investigation, the San Diego County Sheriff's Department and other agencies concluded that 6-year-old Max Shacknai died after falling over a second-story railing while under Rebecca Zahau's care and that the 32-year-old woman had committed suicide.

In a letter dated Wednesday, Chief Assistant Attorney General Dane Gillette said the California Department of Justice would only review a local investigation under very narrow circumstances, including if a clear conflict existed or whether a local agency has requested assistance.

On Thursday, Jonah Shacknai thanked Attorney General Kamala Harris for her consideration of his request.

"I respect and accept the determination of the chief law enforcement authority in the state of California that the circumstances of this investigation do not warrant further review by the attorney general at this time," the statement read. "Given the unusual facts of this tragedy, I understand that Rebecca's family and others continue to have questions.

"If at any time there is new substantive evidence bearing on this case, it should be presented, not in tabloid form to fuel rumor and innuendo, but rather to appropriate law enforcement authorities who may determine whether further investigation is warranted. I continue to pray Max and Rebecca are now at peace, and that all of us devastated by their losses will be permitted to grieve privately as we struggle to achieve some peace and closure."

Jonah Shacknai's brother, Adam, found Zahau hanging from a balcony as he left a guest house to get coffee, according to search warrants in the case. According to the warrants, Jonah Shacknai -- the founder of an Arizona- based company that makes anti-aging products -- was working out at a gym on July 11 when he got a call from Zahau that his 6-year-old son Max had fallen over the railing.

He was at his son's bedside at the hospital at 6:48 a.m. on July 13 when he got a text message from his brother saying Zahau had killed herself.

Adam Shacknai was the only person home at the time and cut Zahau down after making the gruesome discovery. Investigators gave him a polygraph and felt he was being truthful during the examination, according to the search warrants.

San Diego County sheriff's Deputy Brian Patterson first thought Zahau as the victim of a homicide, but investigators later concluded that she committed suicide -- a finding her family refuses to accept.

Zahau's family repeatedly has said that they do not believe the woman took her own life, based on a telephone conversation with her sister the night before, in which she seemed to be in good spirits.

Nationally known attorney Anne Bremner is conducting her own investigation into Zahau's death.

However, sheriff's Sgt. Dave Nemeth said at a briefing earlier this month that a message was left on Zahau's voicemail at 12:50 a.m. the day she died. The message was erased, but Nemeth said the person who left it told him it informed Zahau that the boy's medical condition had taken a turn for the worse.

Nemeth said Wednesday that Zahau's phone will be re-examined with technology that wasn't previously available.

He said Zahau left a short message in black paint on the door leading to a bedroom, tied a red rope to a bed in that room, placed the rope around her neck and used sections of the same rope to bind her feet and ankles -- the rope going around her extremities four or five times.

She then went out to a balcony and leaned forward over a railing, falling 9 feet to her death, the sergeant said.

Dr. Jonathan Lucas, of the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office, said she died of asphyxiation by suicide, and that there was no evidence of a struggle or sexual assault. She probably died sometime before 3 a.m., nearly four hours before her body was discovered and cut from the rope, he said.

Lucas said instances in which someone binds their hands and feet before killing themselves are rare, but not unheard of.

Max Shacknai died of an injury to the upper part of his spinal cord, a kind of hyperextension suffered when he fell over the second-floor railing and struck a carpeted concrete floor with the right side of his forehead.

The injury caused his heart and lungs to stop functioning, and he suffered irreparable brain damage, Lucas said. The boy died at Rady Children's Hospital five days after his fall.

The investigation concluded that Max was playing by himself when he ran and possibly tripped, causing him to plunge over a 20-inch high railing next to a grand staircase near the mansion's foyer. The boy grabbed onto a chandelier, which was pulled out of the ceiling and smashed on the floor with him.

Zahau was in a nearby bathroom when she heard the crash, while her 13-year-old sister was showering in another part of the house, said Sheriff Bill Gore.

According to a search warrant unsealed today, the head of the Intensive Care Unit at Rady Children's Hospital told Coronado police Detective Thomas Adkins that no determination could be made on the cause of Max Shacknai's cardiac arrest.

Dr. Brad Peterson said he did not feel the visible injuries to the child were consistent with the cardiac arrest and brain swelling he experienced, the detective wrote.

Peterson expressed concerns that suffocation may have occurred prior to the fall, according to the search warrant.

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