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19 Sep 2012



Update: Council in Awkward Spot After Shacknai Mom Makes Her Plea

DIna Shacknai makes brief statement before council members as she continues to seek a new investigation in the death of Max, 6.


Update, 11:25 p.m. Sept. 18.

The Shacknai/Zahau worlds continue to turn, somehow in concert, as they remain linked by the Spreckels mansion and whatever happened there in 2011.

Oddly, after all the grief and strife, at the core the families have something in common: They want the investigations into the deaths of Rebecca Zahau and Max Shacknai re-opened

Law enforcement authorities have thus far disagreed, sticking to their original findings:Suicide in Zahau's case and an accidental death in Max's

What has become clear, despite the long and exhaustively detailed news conference the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, Medical Examiner's Office and Coronado police shared in one year ago, is that for some little has been laid to rest in the Shacknai and Zahau cases.

Two families remain angry, speculation persists and media mavens from talk show host Dr. Phil toauthor Ann Rule continue to show interest in the deaths.

Now it's the Coronado City Council's turn to weigh in, after hearing an appeal from Dina Shacknai, Max's mother, Tuesday.

Members face a difficult choice. If they acknowledge a grieving mother's request, they risk undermining their own police department. If they set her concerns aside, they could appear callous or dismissive.

Mayor Casey Tanaka signaled Monday that he is inclined to support the department, while Councilwoman Carrie Downey questioned the propriety of politicians inserting themselves into an investigation run by experts in police work.

Shacknai, however, addressed that situation head-on in remarks to the media after her four-minute appearance before the council. If the police won't give her relief based on the science, she argued, shouldn't citizens be outraged?

“The United States is really based on this idea of free speech, checks and balances, and I think it becomes a little unusual when you clearly present information that scientifically disproves what a police department has come up with, and people can say, ‘Too bad we're sticking with our brand of physics,’” she said. “Do we accept that as citizens? Should we?”

Trouble is, Coronado police consulted with experts, including those from the Medical Examiner's Office, and their own movement specialist, who offered his theory of how Max's fall from a Spreckels mansion staircase might have taken place.

The Zahau family has sought counsel from forensics experts as well, going so far as to have her body exhumed for a new autopsy, portions of which were aired on television last fall.

The council appeared somber during Shacknai's remarks, only responding when Tanaka asked her to wrap up her statement, as she began to exceed the three minutes allotted to each member of the public. 

As a rule, the council does not engage in exchanges with citizens during the public comment period. Shacknai left the 3 p.m. meeting immediately after speaking to the panel.

She addressed the media at length both before and after her statement, remaining composed during most of the discussions, though she teared up at times, including when she touched on her return to Coronado, where she said Max had celebrated all of his six birthdays. 

The Arizona resident, a psychologist, wants the police to take a renewed look at her son's case and reclassify his death as a homicide.

She raised a number of questions about the police department's actions, from detectives' consultations with Sheriff Bill Gore during the initial investigation, to why they did not seek their own movement expert's opinion on the contradictory results produced by her team.

She was unsure of her effect on council members.

“I saw some faces on the council that seemed receptive, she said. “And some that were less moved.”

She also called on police to again interview Zahau's teen-age sister, who was at the mansion when Max fell, and determine if she and Zahau were the only ones home at the time. Police have said that is the case.

Max's father, Jonah, was dating Zahau at the time of her death. Dina Shacknai said she has not been in contact with her ex-husband and that he has not helped with the expense of her independent investigation into how the boy died.

She is looking, she said, to exhaust all her options with law enforcement agencies, rather than filing a lawsuit to seek a remedy. Civil court, she said, “would be the court of last resort.”

“Certainly that would be such a waste of resources,” she said. “My intention is to do this in the way that we've started.” 

That's why when the Coronado police notified her Aug. 31 that they would not re-open Max's case she was undaunted.

“I was devastated,” she said, “but not finished by a long shot.”

Max and Zahau, 32, died in July 2011. Zahau's body was found nude and bound on the Spreckels property, two days after Max's fall from a staircase at the mansion.

Coronado police determined the boy suffered his injuries in an accident, while San Diego County Sheriffs detectives said that Zahau hung herself from an outdoor balcony at the residence, driven to despair by the news that Max's condition was worsening. He died three days later.

Shacknai made her concerns about her son's death public in July when she announced the creation of a nonprofit foundation in his name.

She maintains that her experts' evaluation of Max's fall only can be explained by his being attacked, in direct contradiction of the police conclusion that he fell with no one else present on the staircase.

Zahau's family began protesting the suicide finding before the authorities' news conference one year ago announcing their conclusions in both cases.

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