Mysterious deaths in Coronado puzzle investigators

The mysterious deaths of a 6-year-old boy and his father’s girlfriend within the same week in wealthy Coronado, Calif., have left police puzzled, with one investigator saying that scientific evidence in the woman’s death at the historic Spreckels mansion would ultimately determine what happened.

On Sunday, the mansion’s owner, pharmaceutical executive Jonah Shacknai, announced that his son, Max, had died. The boy had been taken to the hospital six days earlier after falling down the grand staircase at the Ocean Boulevard mansion built in 1908.

The naked body of Shacknai’s girlfriend, Rebecca Nalepa, 32, was found July 13 hanging by her neck from a balcony in the courtyard of the 27-room estate. Her hands and feet were bound.


Shacknai’s brother, Adam, a guest at the home, told investigators that he found Nalepa and cut her down in hopes that she was still alive. The two were the only ones in the house at the time.

The lead investigator called the circumstances “bizarre” and declined to classify the death as a suicide or “a criminal incident.”

As for the fatal fall of Max Shacknai, detectives would only say that they have found no direct connection between his death and that of Nalepa.

“Right now, we’re treating it as an accident,” a Coronado Police Department spokeswoman said.

No arrests have been made and no suspects identified in Nalepa’s death.

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department is investigating Nalepa’s death because the Coronado Police Department does not have its own homicide unit.

Coronado, with a population of about 24,000, sits across the bay from San Diego and is best known for its Navy bases and swanky beachfront hotels.

After he fell, Max Shacknai was rushed to Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, where his father and mother — Jonah Shacknai’s ex-wife, Dina, who also lives in Coronado — kept a vigil.

On Sunday, Shacknai announced the boy’s death via email.

“His loving, kind and vibrant spirit will forever be in our hearts and those whom he touched every day,” Jonah Shacknai’s email said. “The loss to our families, Max’s many friends of all ages, and teammates, and the community is immeasurable.”

Meanwhile, the San Diego County medical examiner has sealed the results of an autopsy on Nalepa, also known by her maiden name, Rebecca Zahau. A certified ophthalmic technician, she left her job in Scottsdale, Ariz., last year to spend more time with Shacknai and his children, authorities said.

Investigators are interviewing people about Nalepa’s final days.

“I think this is one of those cases where the forensics will determine the case,” said Sgt. Roy Frank of the sheriff’s homicide unit.

Investigators declined to say where Jonah Shacknai, 54, was when Nalepa’s body was found.

“We’ve spoken to Jonah and other members of the family,” Frank said. “Everybody has been completely cooperative.”

Within hours of the discovery of Nalepa’s body — as news helicopters circled overhead — attorney Paul Pfingst, former two-term district attorney, now one of the region’s top criminal defense attorneys, showed up at the mansion. Pfingst would only say that he’s been hired to represent someone in the case.

In announcing the death of his son, Jonah Shacknai suggested memorial contributions be made to the Whispering Hope Ranch Foundation in Scottsdale. Shacknai has served as president and director of the foundation, which helps special-needs children.

Shacknai, a lawyer, was once a top congressional aide involved with health issues. His hugely successful company, Medicis Pharmaceutical Corp., which he founded in 1988, is headquartered in Scottsdale. The company markets acne and anti-wrinkle treatments Restylane and Dysport, a competitor to Botox, in the United States, Canada and Europe.

The family splits its time between Scottsdale and the Coronado mansion, which was built in 1908 by sugar baron and philanthropist John D. Spreckels, who once owned the Hotel del Coronado and San Diego’s newspapers. The oceanfront house is listed as a national historic site.

In his Sunday email, Shacknai asked reporters to respect “the privacy of our families during this time of grieving for Max.”