September 9, 2011 / 1:45 PM / in 6 years

Family dispute cause of drug company CEO girlfriend's death

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - The ex-husband and relatives of the woman found hanged, bound and nude at the mansion of a wealthy pharmaceutical executive are seeking donations for a private investigation to challenge the official ruling of her death as a suicide.

A lawyer representing family members of Rebecca Zahau said on Thursday that a confidential coroner’s report she obtained reveals several pieces of previously undisclosed evidence that cast doubt on conclusions reached by sheriff’s investigators.

Relatives of Zahau have said since the official probe of her death concluded late last week that they did not believe the official finding that she had taken her own life at the estate of her boyfriend, Jonah Shacknai, founder and CEO of Medicis Pharmaceutical Corp.

The Arizona-based company is the maker of the popular wrinkle filler Restylane and the acne treatment Solodyn.

The bizarre death on July 13 came two days after Shacknai’s 6-year-old son Max was critically injured in a fall from a staircase while being looked after by Zahau at the mansion near San Diego. The boy died six days later.

Last Friday, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore held a news conference to announce that foul play had been ruled out in both deaths. Investigators concluded that Zahau had committed suicide hours after learning in a late-night phone call that Max, then still hospitalized, had taken a turn for the worse.

They even released an unusual video demonstration of how investigators believed Zahau, 32, had managed to tie her own hands behind her back before binding her own legs, slipping a noose around her neck, and hurling herself off a second-story balcony.

Her lifeless, nude body was found suspended by the neck from a rope later that morning by Shacknai’s brother, a guest at the estate at the time.

This week, relatives of Zahau and her former husband, Neil Nalepa, set up a website seeking donations “to help us fight to get justice for ... Rebecca.”

“It was obvious that the sheriff’s department had worked too hard to paint this picture of suicide, and they were not about to let the Zahaus ruin it,” the website said. “Now the family is left to fight for justice themselves, and this fight is an expensive one.”

Seattle-based lawyer Anne Bremner, who is representing Zahau’s family, told Reuters on Thursday that she has retained “forensic and psychiatric experts to take another look at the findings and the underlying evidence.”

She cited several bits of undisclosed evidence contained in the medical examiner’s report, including that Zahau’s body was found with a T-shirt stuffed into her mouth, residue of tape on her legs, signs of trauma to the top of her head and blood on her legs.

“Just on the facts, this doesn’t pass the smell test,” Bremner said of the suicide ruling.

Sheriff’s investigators have said there were no signs of a struggle, sexual assault or drugs in her system and no indication that Zahau was incapacitated before she was hanged.

“Becky did not commit suicide. My sister was murdered,” Zahau’s sister, Snowem Horwath, said in an email from her home in Germany after the suicide ruling was announced. “We had a very normal conversation that evening ... I know my sister very well, and there is no way anyone can convince me that she did this to herself!”

Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Greg McCune

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