Sheriff to release cell phone and case files to Zahau attorney - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Sheriff to release cell phone and case files to Zahau family attorney

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CORONADO, Calif.  (CBS8) - San Diego Sheriff's investigators have completed a forensic reexamination of a cell phone owned by Rebecca Zahau, the woman found dead at Coronado's Spreckels mansion.

On Sept. 21, detectives announced they would take another look at Zahau's Samsung Focus Windows Phone using newly-identified, forensic software.

Sheriff's investigators had already manually examined the phone; but a forensic download of data can recover deleted text messages, images and other data that remain hidden in the device's memory.

However, homicide Lt. Larry Nesbit said it was not possible to recover deleted data from Zahau's phone without dismantling the device, something investigators did not want to do. As a result, no new information was obtained from the reexamination.

Lt. Nesbit said the intact cell phone and other items belonging to the victim will be returned "in about one week" to the Zahau family attorney, Anne Bremner. The Seattle-based lawyer wants the cell phone and evidence in the case turned over as soon as possible.

"We going to do everything we can to investigate and have the phone forensically examined," Bremner said.

On Sept. 2, the San Diego County Medical Examiner and the Sheriff's department ruled Zahau's death a suicide, meaning the criminal investigation was officially closed.

As a result, the case file – including police reports and witness statements collected by investigators – will be turned over to the Zahau family in accordance with California Government Code and victims' rights laws, Lt. Nesbit said.

Bremner said she is conducting her own review of California law to determine whether the case records can be released to the media after they are obtained by the family.

Zahau's naked and bound body was found at the Coronado mansion on the morning of July 13 after the brother of Zahau's boyfriend, pharmaceutical tycoon Jonah Shacknai, called 911 to report Zahau hanging by a rope from a second-story balcony.

The brother, Adam Shacknai, 48, told paramedics he cut down Zahau's body and started CPR. Zahau, 32, was pronounced dead at the scene.

Sheriff's investigators believe a voicemail Zahau received from Jonah Shacknai the night before her death may have caused her to commit suicide. Detectives also believe Zahau deleted the message after she listened to it.

The message was not recovered from AT&T servers and it remains unclear whether it can still be retrieved nearly three months after Zahau's death.

Shacknai, 54, told investigators that the voicemail he left informed Zahau that his 6-year-old son Max would not survive injuries the child suffered two days earlier in a fall off the mansion's staircase. The boy reportedly was under Zahau's care at the time of the fall.

As the attorney for the Zahau family, Bremner said she is entitled to all police reports and witness statements taken in the case by both Sheriff and Coronado police detectives.

"Coronado police asked for help from San Diego Sheriff. So their investigation is incorporated into the Sheriff's investigation," Bremner said. "So any statements that (Coronado Police) took should be part of what I get."

A search warrant unsealed on Sept. 22 revealed that the head of the Intensive Care Unit at Rady Children's Hospital, Dr. Bradley Peterson, initially believed his patient, Max Shacknai, may have been suffocated before he fell down the stairs.

The warrant paraphrases a July 14 statement Dr. Peterson gave to Coronado Police Detective Thomas Adkins, while Max was still on life support:

"Based on the description of the incident, surrounding Shacknai's fall, Dr. Peterson did not feel the visible injuries were consistent with the cardiac arrest and brain swelling experienced by Shacknai. Dr. Peterson expressed concerns made based on the – the above factors, suffocation may have occurred prior to Shacknai's fall."

In Max's autopsy report, the medical examiner disagreed and determined the boy's injuries were consistent with an accidental neck injury sustained in the fall.

In repeated emails and phone messages, News 8 attempted unsuccessfully to obtain clarification of Dr. Peterson's opinions and statements while Max Shacknai was under his care at Rady Children's Hospital.

Specifically, News 8 emailed two questions to Dr. Peterson:

1) Do you agree with the medical examiner's cause of death for Max Shacknai?

2) During the first two days of Max Shacknai's stay in the hospital (Monday and Tuesday) did you express an opinion to any Shacknai family member that Max's critical injuries may have occurred before he fell down the stairs?

Dr. Peterson forwarded News 8's questions to Rady Children's Hospital attorney Angela Vieira and the hospital's public information officer, Benjamin Metcalf.

Metcalf issued the following written response to News 8 on Oct. 5:

We appreciate your interest, however, I have spoken with both Dr. Peterson and the attorney for Rady Children's and neither wish to make any comment regarding this case.

Ben Metcalf
Public Information Officer | Media Relations

In another development, Sheriff's homicide Lt. Nesbit responded Tuesday to new witness reports of a scream coming from the mansion on the evening of Zahau's death.

News 8 has confirmed a nearby neighbor, who does not want to be identified, heard a "scream for help" while sitting next to an open window around 11:30 p.m. on July 12. The witness initially reported that the scream came from the direction of the mansion.

The witness's spouse told News 8 that the scream was reported in the early days of the investigation to a detective who had handed out business cards to neighbors; but no follow-up interview was taken.

Sheriff's Lt. Nesbit said the witness's statement has now been obtained.

Nesbit said the scream may have come from a group of teenagers at the beach near the mansion.  The witness could not be sure whether the scream came from the mansion or the beach, according to Lt. Nesbit.

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