Breaking News
More () »

Questions remain after deaths of Coronado mansion owner's son, girlfriend

News 8 has confirmed that one person has been found dead at a home on Ocean Boulevard in Coronado Wednesday morning.
Questions remain after deaths of Coronado mansion owner's son, girlfriend

CORONADO, Calif. (AP) — The wealthy San Diego suburb of Coronado is known for its safe streets, world-class beaches and small-town feel. The most common crimes are small-time theft.

These days, it's known for two deaths at an historic mansion on the Pacific Ocean.

The first came last week, when Rebecca Zahau, the 32-year-old girlfriend of 54-year-old Arizona pharmaceuticals tycoon Jonah Shacknai was found dead, her nude body hanging from a balcony of his historic mansion, her wrists and ankles bound.

Days earlier, Shacknai's son, Max, 6, who was being cared for by Zahau, fell down the stairs and was hospitalized. His parents said late Sunday that he died from his injuries.

Investigators say the son's death was an accident. They say Zahau's death is suspicious, but haven't ruled out suicide. Authorities repeated Monday they haven't established any link between the boy's fall and the woman's death.

They declined to further discuss evidence in the case.

"Suicides can appear odd," San Diego County Sgt. Roy Frank said. "It's not unusual to have a suicide that appears to be something else."

The deaths have shocked many residents in this suburb of about 26,000 people. But as shocking as the discovery of Nalepa's body was, Marilynne Hartstein, a summertime resident from Scottsdale, Ariz., said it appeared to be a family matter.

"People aren't afraid for themselves," Hartstein said on a morning walk.

Coronado draws many part-time residents from Arizona. They are known as "Zonies" — people who escape the Grand Canyon State's oppressive heat for California's ocean breezes.

Shacknai's 27-room home, known as the Spreckels mansion, is one of the more storied properties in a city of multimillion-dollar homes. It has unobstructed beach views and sits near Coronado's main street, which is lined with palm trees and upscale boutiques.

San Diego's gleaming skyline is across the San Diego Bay.

Zahau was at home with another woman, whom authorities won't identify, when Max fell down the stairs last Monday, Coronado Police Chief Louis Scanlon said. Paramedics found he wasn't breathing and did not have a pulse. He was treated at Rady Children's Hospital San Diego.

Scanlon called the boy's fall a "tragic accident."

Ted Greenberg, owner of Camp Diggity Dog, said Nalepa called the Coronado kennel last Monday, shortly after the boy's fall, to ask that someone pick up her 14-month-old Weimaraner, Ocean. She said her child was hospitalized after an injury.

"She described it as her child," he said.

Greenberg went to the home Tuesday.

"She was crying on the phone on Monday and Tuesday she was quiet," he said.

Shacknai's brother, Adam, called 911 Wednesday to report the 32-year-old woman appeared to be dead, investigators said. The brother was staying in a mansion guesthouse. Jonah Shacknai was not at home.

On Sunday, Jonah Shacknai and his ex-wife announced that their son had died from his injuries.

"With great sadness, (we) convey the tragic passing of our beloved son, Max (affectionately known as Maxie)," they said in a prepared statement. They added, "His loving, kind and vibrant spirit will be forever in our hearts and those whom he touched every day."

Jonah Shacknai founded Medicis Pharmaceuticals Corp. and has been chairman and chief executive of the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company since 1988. In his divorce filing with Kimberly Shacknai, he filed a tax return that showed his income in 1998 at $16,991,304.

Medicis makes acne treatments Solodyn and Ziana and facial wrinkle treatment Restylane and Dysport, a competitor of Botox. Last year, the company earned $123 million on $700 million in revenue.

Shacknai clashed with historic preservationists after promising not to make major changes to the home.

The city granted Shacknai some exceptions — once to replace windows and another time to install French doors near the front entrance, said Mayor Casey Tanaka. The city rejected Shacknai's appeals to punch a window through the roof and attach a master bedroom.

"He was here enough where he felt like he was a fairly full-time resident," said Tanaka, 35, who serves part-time as mayor while teaching history at Coronado High School.

Zahau was an ophthalmic technician at Horizon Eye Specialists & Lasik Center in the Phoenix area from April 2008 to December 2010, said chief executive Michael Trier.

"Rebecca was a very experienced and skilled technician, who was well respected by her doctors, her co-workers and our patients," Trier said Monday. "We are saddened and troubled by the circumstances of her death.

A pot of flowers stood outside the Coronado mansion Monday with cards in Nalepa's memory.

"It is the way you listened, the way you comforted, the way you related to my every heartache, my every victory, even my losses," read one note. "You were a true friend."


Associated Press writers Robert Jablon in Los Angeles and Amanda Lee Myers in Phoenix contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

THIS IS A STORY UPDATE. For an earlier story, read below.

CORONADO, Calif.  (CBS8) -- The Shacknai family confirmed Sunday the death of their 6-year-old son Max Shacknai.  The boy had been hospitalized since Monday after falling near the stairway in his father's home in Coronado.  Jonah Shacknai announced the death Sunday evening in the following email:

Message from the families:

With great sadness, (we) convey the tragic passing of our beloved son, Max (affectionately known as Maxie). Despite heroic efforts on the part of paramedics and hospital staff, he was unable to recover from the injuries suffered early last week. His loving, kind and vibrant spirit will forever be in our hearts and those whom he touched every day. The loss to our families, Max's many friends of all ages and teammates, and the community is immeasurable.

We appreciate your respecting the privacy of our families during this time of grieving for Max. A private memorial service is being planned.

Memorial contributions honoring Max may be made to Whispering Hope Ranch Foundation either by mail to 9045 E. Pima Center Parkway, Scottsdale, AZ 85258, or via their website, www.whisperinghoperanch.org

On behalf of... our families, please know of our appreciation for the tremendous outpouring of support provided during this very difficult time.



CORONADO (CBS 8) - A Facebook posting Friday by the daughter of millionaire Jonah Shacknai indicated her brother Max was dead, but officials with the San Diego County Medical Examiner's office said they have not been notified of the 6-year-old's passing.

"RIP Maxie. We'll miss your sweet smile and kind heart more than you'll ever know. I'll love you forever," was the posting on the Facebook page of Gabby Shacknai, the teenage daughter of Jonah Shacknai.

Max spent the week at Rady Children's Hospital – reportedly in a coma – after a serious fall at the historic Spreckels Mansion in Coronado, which is owned by his 54-year-old father.

Coronado police responded to a 911 call shortly after 10 a.m. Monday and found the boy with no pulse and not breathing, Coronado Police Chief Lou Scanlon told reporters.

According to family members, Shacknai's girlfriend, 32-yaer-old Rebecca Zahau, was watching Max at the time of his fall.

On Wednesday, another 911 call from the mansion at 1043 Ocean Ave. reported the discovery of Zahau's body under suspicious circumstances.

Shacknai's brother Adam called police around 6:45 a.m. and reported that he had found Zahau's body hanging from a second-story balcony, and that he had cut the rope around her neck to get her down.

The body was naked with the ankles and wrists bound. Investigators have made no arrests and they have not determined whether Zahau's death was a homicide or possibly a suicide.

Detectives served a second search warrant on the house Friday night, and spent some time photographing the staircase balcony where the boy fell on Monday.

In response to the teenager's posting on Facebook, friends left condolence messages online, one saying "Gabby I am so sorry. You are in my family's prayers. I love you. I am here for you if you need anything."

Max's mother owns a summer house down the road from the Spreckels Mansion. On Friday night, sympathy flowers were left at both homes.

Jonah Shacknai and his second ex-wife were divorced in 2008. Friends say they were both at Max's bedside at the time of Zahau's mysterious death.


CORONADO (CBS 8) - Family members of a woman found dead in a Coronado mansion are on their way to San Diego Friday and, for now, are holding off on any plans to address the media. The body of 32-year-old Rebecca Zahau was found Wednesday hanging from a balcony off the main house with her hands and feet bound.

An autopsy on Zahau has been completed by the San Diego Medical Examiner's office, but the results could remain on hold until follow-up lab work is completed. It's still not known if this is a case of murder or suicide.

According to News 8, people have been leaving flowers at the Spreckels Mansion throughout the day.

Zahau previously worked as an ophthalmic technician for Horizon Eye Specialists and Lasik Center in Arizona. The company released a statement to News 8.

"We are saddened and troubled by the circumstances of her death. It is our hope that justice can be served for Rebecca. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family, and the Shacknai family as they deal with these terrible tragedies," the statement said.

Adam Shacknai, the brother of homeowner Jonah Shacknai, discovered the victim's body and called 911 around 6:48 a.m. Wednesday and reported that a woman, who was staying at the mansion, was in distress, according to deputies. After Adam Shacknai found Zahau's body hanging by a rope from a balcony, he cut her down. Zahau's hands were tied behind her back and her feet were also bound together

[Video: San Diego Sheriff's Department's press conference on death at Spreckles Mansion]

Once police officers and paramedics arrived at 1043 Ocean Boulevard Wednesday morning, paramedics performed life-saving measures on the woman. But despite those efforts, the woman was pronounced dead at the scene.

Investigators are calling the death suspicious but have not ruled out the possibility of suicide. A view from Chopper 8 showed a woman's naked body lying with her feet bound, in the mansion's courtyard.

The victim was the girlfriend of the home's owner, multi-millionaire Jonah Shacknai, police said.  They had been dating about two years, according to published reports quoting family members.

"It appears to be some type of a violent death, and I'm not going to compromise the integrity of the investigation by giving anything more than that at this time," San Diego County Sheriff's Dept. Capt. Tim Curran said.

Zahau's brother-in-law Doug Loehner issued a statement Thursday.

"Jonah is a stand-up guy. He was very devoted to Rebecca. She treated his kids as her own," Loehner said.

[Video: News 8 talks to Rebecca Nalepa's family about her death]

Wednesday evening, former District Attorney and current defense attorney Paul Pfingst showed up at the crime scene. Pfingst confirmed to News 8 that he had been hired to represent someone connected with this case, although he would not specify who his client is.

"I'm not Jonah's lawyer. I've never spoke with him. As far as I know he's not a suspect of any type," Pfingst said in a statement.

On Monday morning, emergency crews were called to the home after six-year-old Max Shacknai was injured there, police said. The boy is the son of Jonah Shacknai and his ex-wife Dina and he may have fallen down a flight of stairs.

The boy was found unconscious, without a pulse and not breathing, Coronado Police Chief Lou Scanlon told reporters.  Children's Hospital would not confirm the boy's identity, but neighbors said Wednesday that the boy was in a medically-induced coma.

According to the six-year-old boy's grandmother, quoted in The Arizona Republic, Shacknai's girlfriend was at home with the boy when he was injured.

"There is nothing to indicate that those two incidents are connected," Curran said.

Shacknai's ex-wife, a clinical psychologist based in Arizona, also lives part-time at a nearby home in Coronado. News 8 spoke to an unidentified man at her home, who said she was not prepared to make a public statement at this time. He added that she was at the hospital with her son at the time of the incident at the mansion.

The Spreckels Mansion, once owned by San Diego magnate John D. Spreckels, was built in 1908. It sits on 12,751 square feet of property with a 115-foot unobstructed view of the beach. Spreckels also owned the nearby Hotel del Coronado, in addition to many other properties and businesses.

The mansion is now owned by Shacknai, who Forbes Magazine identifies as the CEO of a Healthcare/Biotech firm in Scottsdale, Arizona called Medicis Pharmaceuticals Corporation. Shacknai and his family live in Arizona and stay at their Coronado mansion during the summer months. According to records, Shacknai purchased the home in 2007 for $12.7 million.

Neighbors say Shacknai, who is twice divorced, was staying at the mansion with his girlfriend and his children.

Before You Leave, Check This Out