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Exclusive: Max Shacknai’s aunt talks about Coronado mansion deaths

Nina Romano was confused about what happened to her nephew at the Spreckels mansion from the moment Rebecca Zahau picked her up at Lindbergh Field.

Nina Romano talks to News 8:

CORONADO, Calif. (CBS 8) - Nina Romano was confused about what happened to her nephew at the Spreckels mansion from the moment Rebecca Zahau picked her up at Lindbergh Field.

Max Shacknai, 6, suffered grave injuries in a fall down the mansion's main staircase on the morning of July 11, according to the boy's autopsy report.

Zahau, 32, was babysitting Max at the time of his fall and Romano flew down from her home near Sacramento that same night.

"We got in the car and the first thing I said was, ‘Rebecca what happened?'" recalled Romano.

"I heard Maxie was walking up the stairs and he had a cardiac arrest. That makes no sense to me. I said, ‘He's a six year old boy. He's a healthy boy. He plays soccer. He plays sports. I don't understand.' And (Rebecca) just looked at me and she said, ‘I know.' And that was it," said Romano, 41, during a two-hour interview detailing the events.

"And I said, ‘Okay, well, where did he fall from? Did he fall from the first set of stairs, the little landing, the stairs going up, the top landing by the bedrooms, where did he fall from?'" Romano continued. "She said twice, ‘He fell from the bedroom. He fell from the bedroom.' And I looked at her and said, ‘How do you know that? I thought you didn't see him.' No answer."

Romano's non-identical, twin sister is Dina Shacknai, the boy's mother and ex-wife of the mansion's then owner, Arizona pharmaceutical tycoon Jonah Shacknai, 54.

"She would not talk about the accident again, not one word," Romano said. "And I thought this is really weird because if I was her and I was picking up a family member of a boy that I was watching, I would give full disclosure of everything I knew, everything I saw, everything I did."

Romano said she visited her nephew at the hospital the following evening, from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Tuesday, July 12.

"He had tubes coming out of everywhere. He had a neck brace on. He was on a ventilator. It was just shocking for me to see him like that," Romano recalled.

Romano said she returned to her sister Dina's house on G Avenue in Coronado – less than a half mile from the Spreckels mansion – around 9:30 p.m. and she still didn't have the answers she was looking for. She decided to send Rebecca a text message.

"I was at my sister's house and I texted from my sister's kitchen. It was 9:41 p.m. and I have my phone records. I waited until 9:55 p.m. and I got no answer," Romano said.

Romano gave News 8 a copy of her Verizon cell phone bill showing an outgoing message to Zahau's cell phone at 9:41 p.m. For some unexplained reason, Zahau's phone records showed a time stamp indicating the text was received by Zahau at 10:41 p.m., exactly one hour later.

Both cell phones were in California at the time and in July, Arizona time is the same as California time. Zahau and her boyfriend Jonah Shacknai lived in Arizona and vacationed during the summer at the oceanfront home in Coronado.

Romano said she never received a response to that 9:41 p.m. text message, so she decided to walk to the mansion to see if she could talk to Zahau about Max's fall.

"I kept saying to myself, ‘I don't get it.' I thought I'm just going to go ask Rebecca, can you please show me where you found him? Show me how you found him. I just wanted to see. Show me where he was positioned. I just wanted to see for myself," Romano said. "That's why I went there. I just wanted her to show me how she found him because I didn't understand."

She said it was about a five minute walk.

"I went up to the front door and rang the bell, nothing; rang the bell a second time, nothing. I knocked on the door. I looked through the glass, nothing," Romano remembered. "It didn't look like anybody was home. The whole bottom part of the house was dark."

Romano then walked around the driveway side of the house and noticed Zahau's vehicle in the driveway.

"There's a gate that goes to the backyard. I didn't touch the gate. I didn't try to open the gate in any way. I just kind of tried to look through," Romano said.

Romano noticed a light on in an upstairs bedroom; the same room where detectives believe Zahau bound and gagged herself while naked, tied a rope around her own neck and jumped to her death off the balcony.

"That overhead light was on. So that was the only light that I saw in the house. The kitchen was dark, everything was dark. So I thought, that's kind of strange because her car's here; that light's on, that's weird. So then I just thought, ‘Maybe she just doesn't want to talk to me,'" according to Romano. "So, I turned around and I left right away and I walked back to my sister's house, got ready for bed and went to sleep."

Romano said she was wearing black yoga pants, a gray tank top and a gray yoga jacket.

"I was carrying a pink, Coach wristlet. It's very small. It's enough to put a cell phone, a pack of gum, a lip gloss, your ID; that's what it's for, which the police took photos of, so they have photos of it," said Romano.

A passerby did notice a woman at the house that night and reported it to police following Zahau's death July 13. But that witness's description of the woman does not match that of Nina Romano, according to Zahau family attorney Anne Bremner.

In a series of emails and interviews with News 8, Bremner said the witness now believes the woman he saw was Nina's sister, Dina Shacknai.

"The witness sent me a picture of Dina and said it was Dina," according to Bremner, who said the witness was riding a bicycle by the home at approximately 10:20 p.m. on July 12.

"He was going by and saw somebody with a large, black bag trying to get in the front door and looking around and going to the back of the house," Bremner said. "She was 40 to 50 years, 5'5", 170 to 190 lbs., long dark hair; wearing a black and white striped short sleeve shirt," said Bremner.

"He is positive it (was) Dina and she was acting very suspiciously," Bremner wrote. "He has seen subsequent news reports that said Nina was out front and he said that's not the person he saw."

The witness may have mistaken Romano for her twin sister, who was at Children's Hospital by her son's bedside throughout the evening of July 12 and into the morning of July 13, Romano said.

"Seeing as we're twins, I could totally understand how somebody could mistake me at 10 o'clock at night in the dark for my sister," said Romano. "And that makes sense. We have the same body type. She's thinner than I am but we have the same broad shoulders. We're fraternal twins so I get how he could make that mistake. But it was 100% a mistake."

Bremner said detectives investigated the witness report and concluded the woman was Romano but she still has questions.

"This is a witness who gave a description to the police that doesn't match, as I understand it, the way Nina (Romano) appeared at that time," the Seattle-based attorney said in a phone interview. "We're looking for accuracy in this investigation and making sure we get to the answers."

Romano responded that she voluntarily told detectives, who were at the hospital, about the incident.

"I told the police the very next day, I was there for three minutes; here's what I did," recalled Romano.

"I had nothing to hide. I wanted them to know because I believe if you're not forthcoming and it comes out afterwards, that looks suspicious. That's why I immediately said, ‘Hey, I was there.'"

Romano told News 8, "They took photographs, the typical front, side, back type of photographs; hands, front, back, everything. They did a DNA swab in my mouth. They ripped hair out of my head in about five or six different areas. They literally twisted and ripped it out of my head. They took fingernails, like where they scrape under your fingernails. And, then I also gave them the clothes that I was wearing that night."

The mansion owner's brother, Adam Shacknai, 48, called 911 at 6:45 a.m. on July 13 to report he had found Zahau hanging and cut her down.

That's when, Romano said, her confusion over her nephew's tragic death turned to suspicion.

"I think she committed suicide for sure," said Romano. "I think she was guilty. I think she felt guilty. In my opinion, I feel like she knew more than she disclosed."

"My thought was, ‘Oh my God she did know more than she admitted to.' That was my initial reaction. ‘Oh my gosh, what on earth did she do that she couldn't live with?'"

The autopsy report concluded Max died as a result of an accidental fall. It said the boy's last word was "Ocean," the name of Rebecca's dog. Investigators speculated that Max may have been riding his scooter in the hallway and tripped over the dog, resulting in the boy's plunge down the staircase.

It's a conclusion Romano does not believe and she wants the investigation reopened.

"I don't believe that he flew over the banister in the way that the medical examiner says he did," said Romano.

"Maybe (Rebecca) wasn't watching him the way she was supposed to. Maybe she wasn't taking care of him. Maybe she wasn't paying attention."

Romano also said she believes Zahau lied about Max uttering the name of the dog before he lost consciousness.

"I believe that's what Rebecca said because that sounds pretty good doesn't it? ‘It's not my fault; it's the dog's (fault). I didn't do anything. It must have been the dog.' I don't believe that statement to be true. That's my quote. I don't believe that statement that Rebecca said is true. I believe that's a complete lie," said Romano.

As for conspiracy theories that Zahau may have been murdered – a revenge attack for the boy's death – Romano called that thinking, "bizarre."

"When people say, ‘Oh Dina must have been so mad. Grieving mother; she went over there and she just took Rebecca out.' That's crazy," said Romano. "My sister wishes Rebecca was here so she could say, ‘What happened in that house? Tell me.'"

The Zahau family does not believe Rebecca committed suicide and also wants the law enforcement investigation reopened into her death. The results of a second autopsy on Zahau's body are set to be announced Thursday on the Dr. Phil Show, which airs on CBS 8.

Both families now find themselves in a parallel kind of uneasiness; not believing the official autopsy results in the deaths of their loved ones, as they search for answers that may not come.

"My thoughts, my positive energy goes out to the Zahau family," Romano said. "I feel awful for them. My sister feels awful for them. She (Dina) knows what she is going through. She would never ever want another mother to feel what she's feeling because my sister, she will never be the same."

"Maxie was a beautiful, beautiful, loving little boy." Romano recalled as the interview finished up. "And all of a sudden you see these people blogging and we're all conspiring, I mean it's just bizarre. I just don't understand how people think. So I think that's why I finally just wanted to talk to you because I feel like nobody's talking about my nephew and I don't want people to forget about him."

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