YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Two deaths at Coronado mansion turn spotlight on owner

Jonah Shacknai has a history of tumultuous relationships. As authorities investigate his girlfriend's bizarre hanging the same week as his young son's death, friends are defending him and authorities say he's being cooperative.

July 25, 2011|By Paloma Esquivel, Los Angeles Times
  • The Coronado home of Medicis Pharmaceutical Corp. Chief Executive Jonah Shacknai is where his 6-year-old son took a tumble down a grand staircase and his 32-year-old girlfriend was found dead in a bizarre hanging within two days of each other. The boy later died of his injuries.
The Coronado home of Medicis Pharmaceutical Corp. Chief Executive Jonah… (Reuters / Associated Press )

For Jonah Shacknai, a highly successful pharmaceutical executive who split his time between the historic Spreckels mansion in Coronado and his sprawling home in affluent Paradise Valley, Ariz., the world changed quickly and completely earlier this month.

On July 11, his 6-year-old son, Max, was rushed to a hospital in San Diego after he fell down a grand staircase inside the Ocean Boulevard mansion built in 1908.

Two days later, the body of Shacknai's 32-year-old girlfriend, Rebecca Zahau, was found naked, her hands and feet bound, hanging by the neck from a balcony in the courtyard of the 27-room estate. First responders tried to revive her, but she was pronounced dead before being taken to a hospital.

Max Shacknai died four days later in the hospital; his parents had kept a vigil by his side.

The deaths have left police puzzled and cautioning that answers could take weeks to piece together. But the national media attention that followed has put the 54-year-old multimillionaire in the spotlight. Shacknai has been reluctant to talk publicly since the deaths, only issuing a brief though impassioned email statement after his son died.

Interviews and records paint a picture of a hard-driving, affluent businessman who had sometimes tumultuous relationships. They also reflect a man who cared for his children, was engaged in his community and had gained the admiration of friends and associates, many of whom were eager to come to his defense.

"He's a good friend. He's dedicated to his family," said Denise D. Resnik, who has known Shacknai for more than a decade from their work on the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center, an organization to benefit families affected by autism. He cared deeply for Zahau, she said.

"It's tragic from every dimension," Resnik said.

Nearly 10 years ago, as Jonah Shacknai and his first wife were in the middle of a hard-fought divorce, his estranged wife was clear about one thing: The driven business executive may have been a poor husband, but he was a devoted father. The couple have a daughter, 14, and son, 13.

The chairman and chief executive of Medicis Pharmaceutical Corp. spent long hours at work, she said. During their honeymoon he'd asked his wife whether he had made a mistake, according to court records. A psychologist who evaluated the couple during the divorce to help determine custody said he thought Shacknai had been defensive and might have had some unresolved anger issues.

But, wrote the psychologist, "It was quite apparent to me that his children are most important to him and he loves them dearly."

Shacknai spent his early years in New York and graduated from high school in Suffern, a small but densely populated village outside of New York City, according to records.

He went to Colgate University in central New York and then worked as a chief aide in the House of Representatives. According to his biography on the company's website, he helped draft health legislation. He went to law school at Georgetown and graduated in 1981.

In the late 1980s, he helped found Medicis — which markets acne and anti-wrinkle treatments around the world — and in 1993 married his first wife, Kimberly James. Leading up to their divorce a few years later, the two had a rocky relationship, according to court records.

After the divorce, Shacknai married his second wife, Dina.

The two were well-respected and admired in the affluent Arizona community where his business is based. They worked together to help local organizations, including funding and doing hands-on work at Whispering Hope Ranch Foundation, which pairs special needs children with abused, abandoned and injured animals. In announcing his son's death to reporters earlier this month, Shacknai suggested that memorial contributions be made to the foundation.

"They're both so passionate about children and just very loving people," said Mary Clark, executive director of the ranch.

Police reports from Paradise Valley also show that the two had fights that sometimes turned violent.

In one case in 2008, Shacknai went to the police station to report that she had attempted to choke him during a fight. His wife told police that their German shepherd bit her during the argument and that Shacknai had, in the past, refused to call off the dog when it became aggressive with her.

A year later, as their marriage was falling apart, Dina Shacknai told police that her husband had elbowed her in the chest while trying to drive away from their home. Max, their young son, was inside the home at the time, and Shacknai had just finished reading him a bedtime story.

It's unclear when or how Shacknai next became involved in a relationship with Zahau, who had worked as an ophthalmic technician in the Phoenix area. Her former boss described her as terrific with patients and a quick learner who grew close to Shacknai and his children.

"Rebecca was a person who was full of life," said Michael Trier, chief executive of Horizon Eye Specialists & Lasik Center.

Los Angeles Times Articles