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Autopsy Sealed In Bizarre Coronado Mansion Death

CORONADO - Detectives trying to make sense of the death of a woman found nude, bound and hanging by the neck from a balcony at her multimillionaire lover's historic Coronado mansion announced today that autopsy results and other findings in the case will be off-limits to the public "during the course of the investigation."

Though a postmortem exam on 32-year-old Rebecca Nalepa was conducted Thursday, officials said final cause-of-death results could remain on hold for weeks or months, pending completion of follow-up lab work, such as toxicology screenings.

So far, authorities have publicly labeled the fatality at the 103-year-old Ocean Boulevard manor built by San Diego luminary John D. Spreckels only as a suspicious death, despite the seemingly sinister circumstances.

Answers may remain elusive, at least in the short term.

"Autopsy records as well as the search-warrant affidavit will be sealed during the course of the investigation," sheriff's spokeswoman Melissa Aquino said this morning.

Aquino would only say detectives were "in the process of contacting the victim's family and coordinating interviews."

The woman's strange death came to light about 6:45 a.m. Wednesday, when the brother of the pharmaceuticals magnate, who uses the landmark seafront estate as a summer home, made a 911 call. Police officers arrived to find Nalepa lifeless on a lawn behind the 27-room main residence on the property.

Medics tried in vain to revive the naked woman, whose ankles and wrists were bound, before pronouncing her dead at the scene, sheriff's homicide Capt. Tim Curran told reporters. Coronado police then requested assistance from sheriff's homicide investigators, since the small seaside city does not employ its own.

The man who made the emergency call, Adam Shacknai, told investigators he found Nalepa hanging from a second-floor bedroom balcony over a central courtyard and cut the rope or cord attached to her neck to get her down, Curran said.

Nalepa's live-in lover, 54-year-old entrepreneur Jonah Shacknai, was not at the estate when the death was reported, Curran said. The captain declined to discuss the wealthy executive's whereabouts at that time or in the hours that followed, though he said investigators had been "in constant contact" with him since the start of the investigation.

Jonah Shacknai earns millions annually and is one of Arizona's wealthiest residents, according to a report in today's Union-Tribune. Former San Diego District Attorney Paul Pfingst was at mansion yesterday and told reporters he was hired to represent someone connected to the matter.

Curran said it was not immediately clear if Nalepa was slain or if she might have committed suicide in a novel way. In light of that uncertainty, the Shacknai brothers were considered witnesses, not suspects or even "persons of interest," the captain said.

"Because of the unique and bizarre circumstances of this incident, it has yet to be determined if this will become a criminal matter or will remain as a death investigation," Curran told news crews Thursday during a briefing at sheriff's headquarters in Kearny Mesa.

Despite the many unknowns in the lurid case, authorities said they were confident the woman's death was "an isolated incident" -- not the act of an unidentified killer who remained at large.

Nalepa, who sometimes went by her maiden name, Zahau, had been staying in the mansion with Jonah Shacknai, whose brother was a guest in one of the smaller residences on the grounds. The latter apparently was the only other person at the estate with the woman at the time of her death, Curran said.

Two days earlier, Jonah Shacknai's 6-year-old son was seriously injured in a fall down a stairway in the main home, known locally as the Spreckels Mansion. Curran said there was no evidence the incident was related to Nalepa's subsequent death.

Shortly after 10 a.m. Monday, officers and medics responding to an emergency call made by a woman at the estate found the child unconscious, without a pulse and not breathing, Coronado Police Chief Lou Scanlon told reporters.

The boy was taken to Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego. His condition has not been made public.

The injured youngster's grandmother told the Arizona Republic he was with Nalepa at the time of the accident.

The boy's mother lives a short distance from the historic estate owned since 2007 by her ex-husband, who is chief executive officer of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Medicis Pharmaceuticals.

Even though Nalepa's wrists were bound behind her back when her body was found, detectives have not ruled out the possibility that she took her own life, Curran said.

"This is a very bizarre death; there's no doubt about it, no question about that," the captain noted. "There are some very unique ways, if it was determined to be a suicide -- people will do some very bizarre things."

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