In an exclusive Californian suburb that has had only two murders in the past decade, the deaths of a billionaire’s child and girlfriend at his mansion have caused a sensation.
Rebecca Zahau’s naked body was found on Wednesday hanging from a rope tied to the second-floor balcony of the historic building in Coronado, a wealthy seaside suburb of about 24,000 people on San Diego Bay.
Her hands were tied behind her and her feet were bound, police said.
Just two days before, last Monday, she was babysitting Max, the six-year-old son of her billionaire boyfriend Jonah Shacknai, when the child reportedly fell down a flight of stairs at the 27-room home.
This morning, the Shacknai family confirmed in a statement that Max died “despite heroic efforts on the part of paramedics and hospital staff”, US television network ABC reported.
Ms Zahau, 32, also known as Rebecca Nalepa from a previous marriage, reportedly dated Mr Shacknai, 54, the chief executive of an Arizona-based US pharmaceutical company selling acne and facial wrinkle treatments, for two years.
The body of the ophthalmic technician was found by Mr Shacknai’s brother Adam, 47, who cut the rope from which she was hanging and called police, officials said.
US media said police investigators have remained tight-lipped about the circumstances surrounding Ms Zahau’s death, despite searching the Shacknai mansion twice.
“The circumstances are bizarre; you could tell this was unusual, but [suicide] is a possibility,” San Diego County Sheriff’s Captain Tim Curran told the Associated Press last week.
An autopsy on Ms Zahau’s body has been sealed as authorities waited for further tests to be conducted.
Ms Zahau’s sister, Mary Zahau-Loehner, told the ABC that they spoke last Tuesday and Ms Zahau was “normal, fine, just getting ready to go to bed”.
Ms Zahau’s brother-in-law, Doug Loehner, added in a statement: “Jonah is a stand-up guy. He was very devoted to Rebecca. She treated his kids as her own.”
Mr Shacknai’s Phoenix-based company boss, Michael Trier, also spoke glowingly of Ms Zahau, saying that she was committed to her career and had a “personality very much full of life”.
What happened to Max?
Captain Curran said investigators had so far not found any links between Max’s and Ms Zahau’s deaths.
On Monday, paramedics found the boy not breathing and without a pulse after falling down some stairs, Coronado police Chief Louis Scanlon said, calling it a “tragic accident“.
He was taken to Rady Children’s Hospital and reportedly remained there in a coma until his family’s statement this morning.
Coronado had one murder last year and a total of two in the past decade, media reports said.
The local police department does not have a homicide unit and had to ask the Sheriff’s Department to help with the investigation.
“A case like this would be unusual anywhere,” Coronado mayor Casey Tanaka told The San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper.
“It’s one of those things that no community wishes for and no community is really ready for when it happens.”
Another resident told the Union-Tribune that, when she heard sirens in Coronado, it would usually be because someone had jaywalked.
“It’s completely shocking,” she told the paper. “I walk by [the mansion] every day. This is the town where you don’t expect anything like this to happen.”
The mansion was built in 1908. Its previous owner was John D. Spreckels, owner of the majestic Hotel del Coronado and the San Diego Union and San Diego Tribune newspapers, AP reported.
It was sold to Mr Shacknai in 2007 for $US12.7 million, US television network CBS reported, citing property records.