The Mysterious Deaths That Rocked a Wealthy Southern California Enclave
A trial is made up of competing tales, versions of events that attorneys strive to convince jurors are the truth. Months before a civil wrongful death trial set to start later this winter, Dina Shacknai invites me to her home in Paradise Valley, Arizona, a rich town dotted with golf courses and tennis courts, having agreed, with no small amount of ambivalence, to give me her account of what happened to a woman named Rebecca Zahau and to Dina’s son Max Shacknai, who was six years old at the time.
The yard at Dina’s house is brown and untended; a play set that once belonged to Max sits in the sun unused. A housekeeper answers the door and leads me to a plush living room decorated in gold and black, with gilt-edged mirrors and a large oil painting of a bare-breasted woman. A library table is covered with family photos featuring Max, and Max’s room is kept as it was six years ago. "The Miss Havisham room,” Dina calls it.
Nothing bad could ever happen in Coronado.
“One of the reasons we picked Coronado instead of La Jolla is that you felt like nothing bad could ever happen in Coronado,” Dina tells me before launching into the chain of events that began for her on July 11, 2011, when her ex-husband, 54-year-old pharmaceutical tycoon Jonah Shacknai, called to say that their son was at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego.
Like many wealthy Arizonans, the Shacknais went to the California coast to beat the heat every summer, even after their contentious divorce. “When Jonah went to Coronado, we all went to Coronado,” Dina says. The company Jonah had founded, Medicis Pharmaceutical, had made hundreds of millions with such products as the Botox alternative Restylane. (He sold the company to Valeant in 2012 for $2.6 billion.)
The Hotel Del Coronado, which was built in 1888 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1977.
In the summer of 2011, he was living a few blocks from Dina in the Spreckels Mansion on Ocean Boulevard, near the historic Hotel Del Coronado, of Some Like It Hot fame. The sprawling house, built more than 100 years earlier by sugar heir John D. Spreckels, had once been Dina’s home, too—it was where she and Jonah celebrated their marriage, and it was where, just hours before he called, paramedics had responded to a 911 call and found their son at the bottom of a staircase beside a broken chandelier.
Max had been in the care of his father and his girlfriend of two years, a beautiful 32-year-old immigrant from Myanmar named Rebecca Zahau. When Dina got to the hospital, she says, Jonah told her that Max had fallen down the stairs and that the doctors were suggesting that he might have had a heart attack.
Jonah said that he and Dina needed to be tested for Long QT syndrome, a hereditary heart rhythm condition that can cause seizures even in the very young. As she pieced the story together, and Max was placed in a medically induced coma, she learned that Jonah had not been at the mansion at the time of the incident.
As Jonah later told the police, after taking his two children from his first marriage, Ethan and Gabby, to the airport (they were flying east to join their mother), he had gone to work out at a gym a few blocks from the house, where he said he received a hysterical, unintelligible phone call from Rebecca. He ran home, and by the time he got there medics were preparing to put Max into an ambulance.
The Spreckels mansion on Ocean Boulevard where Max Shacknai and Rebecca Zahau died.
The investigating officer who interviewed Rebecca later gave a deposition for the upcoming trial saying that Rebecca told the police that she had been in a downstairs bathroom when she heard either a crash or the barking of her dog, Ocean. She emerged to find Max lying on the floor in the foyer beside the staircase, badly injured; there were a few soccer balls in the area and a Razor scooter lying on his leg.
She called for her 13-year-old sister, Xena, who was visiting and had been taking a shower on another
The day after the incident, Dina's twin sister, Nina Romano, flew from San Francisco, along with her teenage son. "When we got down there, Rebecca picked us up from the airport, and I knew from the beginning that something was weird,” Nina tells me. They had met only a few times before, but Rebecca hugged Nina tightly. “She put her head right in the crook of my neck and said, ‘I’m so glad you’re here.’”
Once in the car, Nina recalls, “I looked at her and said, ‘Rebecca, what happened? I don’t understand.’ And she looked at me and said, ‘I know!’ I said, ‘I heard that Max had a heart attack and fell down the stairs. Where did he fall from—the first landing, the second landing?’ She said, ‘He fell from the bedroom.’ She said it twice... She wasn't giving me any details. I said, ‘I don’t understand this. He’s a healthy young boy.’ And she looked at me and said, ‘Can you read directions?’ and handed me her phone."
When Nina arrived at the hospital she tried to tell her sister that Rebecca was acting strangely, but Dina was preoccupied with her son.
The next day Rebecca picked up Jonah’s brother Adam Shacknai from the airport, as well. Adam, who was then 48, is cut from a different cloth than his older brother. He lives in Tennessee, in Memphis’s funky Midtown district, and makes his living as a tugboat operator, though Dina describes him as “a writer and a pretty cerebral guy.”
The Shacknai brothers and Rebecca had dinner at the Fish Market restaurant that night. Rebecca ate little and was silent for most of the meal. Adam later said in a deposition that he felt sorry for her.
While Jonah returned to his room in the Ronald McDonald House on the grounds of the hospital, Adam and Rebecca retired to the Spreckels Mansion. Adam agreed to sleep in the guesthouse; Rebecca was in the 27-room mansion alone. (Xena had flown back to her home in Missouri, and Rebecca had taken Ocean to a kennel.)
Before they went their separate ways, Adam told Rebecca, “I know something about grief,” having lost his mother. “If there’s something you want to talk about or whatever, I am around.” Then, according to his deposition, he wished her good night, called his girlfriend, took an Ambien, and went to sleep around 8 p.m.
Early the next morning he decided to get some coffee in the main house. But when he walked toward the mansion he saw Rebecca’s naked body hanging by a red rope from a second-story balcony. The police later noted that her hands and feet were bound behind her and that there was a gag in her mouth. At 6:48 he called 911. “I got a girl, hung herself,” he said, his voice shaking. “Same place you got the kid yesterday.” (The ambulance that picked up Max had not come the day before but two days prior.)
On the recording of the 911 call, Adam sounds frantic as he tries to come up with the house address. He said in his deposition that he had run inside to look for a knife in the kitchen and then dragged a broken three-legged table to where Rebecca was hanging, somehow standing on it to cut her body down. He removed the blue Mossimo T-shirt stuffed into her mouth and tried to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, despite the fact that rigor mortis had begun to set in. You can hear him panting and yelling on the recording: “Are you alive?” Rebecca’s autopsy would later reveal unexplained wounds on her head and scratches on her back.
Jonah and Dina were at Max’s side when Adam called. Jonah left the room to take the call. When he returned, Dina says, he told her that Rebecca had killed herself, and then he pantomimed stabbing himself in the stomach. “Why?” Dina recalls asking. “Asian honor,” Jonah said.
When investigators from the San Diego County Sheriff ’s Department came to interview Jonah at the hospital that afternoon, he said, “She comes from a true Asian background... they just look at things differently in terms of responsibility.”
He characterized the relationship between his girlfriend and his ex-wife as being “at the edge of civil” and mentioned that Rebecca’s ex-husband, a man named Neil Nalepa, who was later cleared of suspicion, “was in exceedingly insistent contact with her, [he] texts her almost every day.” Despite his seeming confidence that Rebecca had killed herself, near the end of the interview, after the officers asked about security dogs, Jonah said, “Do I need protection?”
Back at the Spreckels Mansion, the Coronado Police and the San Diego County Sheriff's Department were treating the death as a possible homicide, In the second-story guestroom, where the other end of the rope around Rebecca’s neck was tied to a bed, they found knives, black paint, brushes, and a cryptic message painted on the door: "She saved him can you save her."
Many would later question the way the police handled the scene. Rebecca’s body was left lying in the summer sun for hours (a local news helicopter photographed her from above), and while the police took DNA samples from Adam and gave him a polygraph test, they did not explain why a glass of clear liquid in another room in the guesthouse was not examined.
Adam, like his brother, seemed to believe that Rebecca’s death was a suicide. “She was there when Max got hurt, supposedly,” he told polygraph examiner Paul Redden. “Maybe she just couldn’t live with it.” Redden found the test results inconclusive, but Adam was released and later allowed to fly home. (Nalepa, who spoke with detectives that weekend, had been seen at a gym in Arizona the morning Rebecca died. And Jonah had been captured on video at the Ronald McDonald House.)
Coronado was abuzz with theories—a contract killing! A crime of passion!—and the local media made a circus of the crime scene. Few people outside the heartbroken Shacknai family seemed to notice when Max was pronounced dead on Saturday. His “accident” had not yet been explained; the heart attack theory was dismissed. Days before he died, Dina says, one of the physicians at Rady told her and Jonah, “It’s possible he could have been suffocated.”
On September 2, 2011, seven weeks after the deaths of Max and Rebecca, San Diego County Sheri Bill Gore held a media briefing to announce his department’s findings. “There’s been a lot of speculation about this case,” he said, with some understatement. Max’s death, he said, “was the result of a tragic accident.” He posited that the boy had been racing down the second-floor hallway on his Razor scooter when he tripped or fell over the railing, bringing the chandelier down with him.
And Rebecca, the ghoulish aspects of her death notwithstanding, had bound and gagged herself. The sheriff even presented a video of a young woman about Rebecca’s size tying the rather complicated nautical knots around her hands and then slipping them off before putting them on her wrists behind her back.
And the cryptic message on the door? The authorities couldn’t do a handwriting analysis, according to Gore, because it was block printing. They deemed it a suicide note.
The outrage was immediate, fueled by the press, internet sleuths, and suicide experts, who said such a suicide was unheard of. There were so many complaints and questions that Gore finally stopped answering them and posted an FAQ section on the sheriff’s department website. Why hadn’t the police analyzed a pair of panties found in the guesthouse trash, for instance? There was no evidence of a sexual assault, the sheriffs maintained, and “the investigation revealed this item was likely related to a girls slumber party at the mansion in the days leading up to Rebecca’s death.”
Why didn’t they process a drop of blood found in the shower by the master bedroom? “Since the master bedroom was in another part of the mansion, and there was no evidence at the scene of the event suggesting anyone else was bleeding other than Rebecca, this item was not tested.”
And where did she learn those complex knots? “Simply stated, this is one of those questions which will most likely never be answered with any certainty.”
In Missouri, Rebecca’s relatives complained that no one had contacted them to ask about Rebecca’s state of mind. Her sister Mary Zahau-Loehner insisted that Rebecca didn’t blame herself for Max’s death and questioned how she could have come up with such a bizarre scheme in two hours.
(The police said that at 12:50 a.m. Rebecca had retrieved a message Jonah claims to have left on her cell phone saying that Max wasn’t going to survive, and the coroner estimated her time of death at around 3 a.m. But both Nina and Rebecca’s family say that the general opinion up until then had been that Max was improving, or at least stable. Jonah’s message was subsequently deleted and was never retrieved by investigators.)
“We were raised Protestant Christians,” Mary told the San Diego Reader. “She wouldn’t kill herself, and definitely not in the nude. Asian people are too modest.” Another sister, Snowem
Max was not a daredevil. I spent more time with him than any of these people. He wasn’t an "I’m gonna swing from the chandelier" kind of kid.
Dina and her family were equally appalled by the conclusions of the sheriff's investigation. “Max was not a daredevil,” said his aunt Nina. “I spent more time with him than any of these people... He wasn’t an ‘I’m gonna swing from the chandelier’ kind of kid.” (A family friend, Susan Budinger, recalls Max wanting to hold her hand while he jumped on a trampoline.)
In the following months both Dina and Rebecca’s sister, Mary took steps to question the findings. Dina hired Exponent, a company that has analyzed disasters ranging from James Dean’s car crash to the Oklahoma City bombing, to challenge the claim that Max went over the railing while riding on his scooter.
Exponent’s Dr. Robert Bove concluded that Max’s scooter could never have reached the speed necessary on the hallway’s thick shag carpet to propel himself over the railing—and that his center of gravity was far too low. Bove could also find no scenario in which the scooter went over the railing along with the boy, let alone land on his leg, and he noted the absence of cuts on Max’s hands, despite the assertion that Max had been hanging on to the chandelier.
“A more reasonable scenario,” forensic pathologist Judy Melinek wrote,“ is that Maxfield was assaulted by another person in the hallway, near the banister of the second floor.” “Additionally,” she wrote, “the location of the injury to the top of the cervical cord makes it incredibly unlikely that Maxfield would have been able to clearly articulate the word ‘Ocean’ after the fall, a process that requires intact upper cervical cord neurons.”
Meanwhile, with the help of Seattle attorney Anne Bremner, who offered her services pro bono, the Zahau family investigated every aspect of Rebecca’s death. Dr. Maurice Godwin, a private forensic consultant hired by Bremner, said the death looked like “a ritualistic killing.”
Dr. Cyril Wecht, a forensic pathologist who first came to fame questioning the Warren Commission’s findings about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, wondered about the tape residue found on Rebecca’s legs: “Are we to think she first bound her legs with duct tape but took it off to use rope instead?” he said on the Dr. Phil show. Chicago-based private investigator Paul Ciolino summed up the team’s conclusion nicely when he said of the investigation, “It didn’t pass the smell test. It stinks.”
In January 2012, Bremner’s legal team sent an 18-page letter to deputy attorney general Julie Garland of the California Department of Justice, asking that Rebecca’s case
Robert Bove was at the meeting, and Judy Melinek joined by phone, but in the end, they too were refused. “We’re sticking with our brand of physics,” Dina says she was told by the sheriff’s department. That might have been the end of it, but in July 2013, Rebecca Zahau’s family filed a $10 million wrongful death suit naming Adam Shacknai, Dina Shacknai, and Nina Romano as co-conspirators.
For almost four years the wrongful death suit presented a plot masterminded by Dina. “I guess it was like, Dina and I confronted Rebecca, knocked her over the head, rendered her unconscious, and were like, ‘Oh my god, what did we do?’ ” is how Nina sums it up. “Then we had to get Adam to finish the job.”
“What a motivation for murder, right? She stole your husband and killed your only kid!” That’s what Keith Greer, the Zahau family’s lawyer, tells me last February, though when Jonah met Rebecca, in 2009, he was already separated from Dina. Greer’s conspiracy theory was based on rather thin evidence: An eyewitness insisted he saw a woman with dark hair, like Dina’s, on the porch the night of Rebecca’s death.
(This witness also told detectives that the woman’s hair was long, although Dina’s was short, and that she weighed as much as 200
“I think generally the simple answer is the right answer,” says Greer, who worked on another suspicious death case, the disappearance of George Smith on a honeymoon cruise in 2005. “From a pragmatic perspective, I think Adam approached Rebecca, she got uncomfortable and tried to escape, screamed for help, and he bashed her on the head. He was stuck on a path that wound up with her dead.” Adam did not respond to a request for an interview, but he is vigorously contesting the lawsuit.
In the years since her death, most of the attention has been on Rebecca, and the civil case (set to go to trial in San Diego Superior Court in February 2018) is not likely to change that. “Nobody talks about Max,” says Nina Romano, “but if he hadn’t died, maybe Rebecca would be alive.”
Dina was at first reluctant to meet me. “I’ve been told that I come across a less relatable than Nina, that I’m not as sympathetic,” she says. (“People don’t see her falling apart,” Nina tells me later, “staying in bed for weeks. When they see her she’s put together. She’s got her pearls, she’s got her jacket...”)
The Zahau family’s suit thrust the sisters back into the unforgiving glare of internet speculation. “I was getting death threats on my Facebook page,” Dina tells me. She says she would like to join forces with the Zahau family now that they’re not accusing her of murder, but she says she has been rebuffed in her efforts to do so. The only upside of fighting the suit for nearly four years has been that she has become aware of evidence she might not have known about otherwise.
Dina made a point of attending or listening to every
Like, why did Rebecca scream at her sister Xena at the end of her 911 call, as paramedics stood on the porch, “Don’t open that door!” Was she aware of some danger she hadn’t shared with her? Why did the police ignore a neighbor two doors from the mansion who told them she heard a woman crying for help at 11:30 the night Rebecca died?
Why did former San Diego DA
“When people say I’m over-the-top,” Dina says, “I point to the fact that Max and Rebecca are deceased, and there are no answers.”
Jonah Shacknai has not spoken on the record in the years since Max and Rebecca died. A Georgetown law school alumnus, before going into business Jonah cut his teeth in politics as chief of staff for Congressman Jim Scheuer in the 1970s. Under a pseudonym, he co-wrote an amusing satirical novel based on his experiences in Washington, DC, titled Confessions of a Social Climber. The book is filled with Machiavellian twists and turns, a? la House of Cards. The company he founded in his thirties, Medicis Pharmaceuticals, was named after the banking family of Renaissance Florence, remembered now for their ruthless ambition.
Jonah has since remarried and tried to move on. In his only official statement, released in conjunction with the San Diego County sheriff’s report in September 2011, Jonah wrote, “Max was an extraordinarily loving, happy, talented, and special little boy... He brought joy to everyone who knew him, and we will miss him desperately.” Of his girlfriend, he added, “Rebecca too was a wonderful and unique person who will always have a special place in my heart.”
According to Mary’s deposition testimony, Rebecca was thinking of leaving Jonah in May 2011. “She felt like she wasn’t getting the appreciation she deserved for all the hard work she did, or respect from his other kids,” attorney Greer says. “She felt he didn’t back her the way he should.”
Though Dina once suspected that Rebecca had been involved in Max’s death, she doesn’t believe that now. “I don’t have reason to believe that Rebecca killed Max,” Dina said in June. “Who would assault a six-year-old boy?” Dina thinks that there may have been someone else in the house whom the police never investigated.
Nor does she believe that Rebecca killed herself or that Adam was responsible. Rebecca’s death, she says, was the result of what attorney Anne Bremner called “rage and planning,” and there is no evidence that Adam knew her well enough to hate her. For her part, Nina wonders, “Does Adam know more than he’s saying? I just don’t know.”
Dina believes the deaths are inextricably linked, and any light shed on one may answer questions about the other. And Greer also thinks the security hired by Jonah may be significant. “After Rebecca was found hanging,” he reminded me, “his company put two hired bodyguards on him. He said it was for the media. Who needs guns for the media? Was somebody sending a message to him?”
These questions and more will likely be raised come this winter’s trial. And Rebecca’s past may also hold yet uncovered clues. According to her family, she was so alluring to men that over the years many became obsessed with her, even dangerously so. When she started dating Jonah, the women she worked with at a local eye clinic Googled him and tried to tell Rebecca about her wealthy new suitor. “I don’t want to know,” she told them. She was trusting, perhaps to a fault. Her sister Snowem remembers once asking Rebecca why she never locked the mansion doors. “No one is going to rob you,” she said. “Everyone leaves their doors open here.”
This story appears in the December 2017/January 2018 issue of Town & Country.
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.