Parents of 6-year-old boy initially believed Rebecca Zahau saved their injured son

For two days, the parents of 6-year-old Max Shacknai believed that Rebecca Zahau had saved his life after he was severely injured in a fall.

Jonah Shacknai and his ex-wife Dina Shacknai spent hours at Rady Children’s Hospital at Max’s bedside, where he lay in a medically induced coma.

In a videotaped deposition, Dina Shacknai recalled that after their son’s July 11, 2011 injury, her ex-husband told her, “you should get down on your knees and thank (Zahau) for saving Max’s life. I said, of course I’m grateful to her, because she gave him CPR.”

The boy’s condition worsened, however, and he died later that week.

The tape was played in San Diego Superior Court Thursday as part of a wrongful death lawsuit filed against Jonah Shacknai’s brother, Adam Shacknai, who is accused of killing Zahau two days after the little boy’s accident.

Zahau’s mother and sister allege in the lawsuit that Adam Shacknai may have sexually assaulted Zahau, strangled her, then tried to make her death look like a suicide by hanging her off the balcony of a Coronado mansion.

She was nude, gagged and bound with ropes on her wrists and ankles.

The former Spreckels mansion was then owned by Jonah Shacknai. He, his children and Zahau were staying there for part of the summer in 2011.

County authorities ruled Zahau's death a suicide, but her family contends it was murder. Adam Shacknai’s lawyers say his fingerprints and DNA were not found on Zahau or in the room from which she was hanging.

He is expected to testify next week, plaintiffs’ attorney C. Keith Greer said.

Greer questioned Dina Shacknai for the sworn deposition last month. She said she married Jonah Shacknai in 2002 and had Max in 2005. The couple divorced in 2008. Her husband had a son and daughter from a previous marriage.

She said in 2010 she met Zahau, who then was dating Jonah Shacknai, a millionaire pharmaceuticals company executive. She described Zahau as gracious, polite and in good physical shape. Zahau showed her family photos and talked about having gone to a Bible college.

A second taped deposition was shown to jurors, of Zahau’s sister, Xena, who was 13 when Max suffered his fall. She said she stepped out of a shower at the Coronado mansion and heard Zahau screaming for her.

She dressed, ran downstairs and saw Zahau kneeling on the floor, with Max lying with his head in her lap, unconscious. A crystal chandelier that had been hanging above, in the foyer, was broken on the floor. The boy’s scooter lay nearby and their pet dog, Ocean, was running around.

Zahau yelled for Xena to call 911. Xena spent a few moments looking for Zahau’s cellphone and got a 911 operator in Coronado. Jurors listened to a tape of the 911 call, in which Xena inadvertently confuses the dispatcher into thinking her sister had fallen and their mother was doing CPR.

Medics and police soon arrived and Max was taken to the hospital, unconscious. He died six days later. The death was ruled an accident.

Dina Shacknai, in her deposition, said her ex-husband told her the boy had suffered a heart attack and fell over the second-floor banister.

She said doctors were initially hopeful about Max’s prognosis.

“I didn’t realize how serious the injury was,” she said. “I’m thinking he’d be out (of the hospital) next week.”

Sheriff’s homicide investigators and the county Medical Examiner’s Office suggested that, after Zahau got a voice message from Jonah Shacknai that the child was in bad condition, she became distraught over the possibility she had not saved him.

As the only adult home at the time, she may have felt guilt and fear that she would not be forgiven for not taking better care of Max.

The trial will not be in session Friday but is expected to continue on Monday.


Twitter: @pdrepard

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