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Two deaths at Coronado mansion turn spotlight on owner

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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

She left her job earlier this year to spend more time with Shacknai and his family, Trier said. People who knew the couple said they seemed to care greatly for each other.

Immediately after she was found dead, San Diego County sheriff’s detectives said her death might have been a suicide. Shacknai’s brother, Adam, a guest at the home, told investigators that he found Zahau hanging from the balcony and cut her down in hopes that she was still alive.

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Detectives now say that the investigation could take weeks and that scientific evidence will ultimately determine what happened. No suspects or even “persons of interest” have been identified in Zahau’s death.

Her sister last week issued a statement to reporters saying that she does not believe Zahau could have committed suicide.

“Obviously, the investigation is not complete yet,” wrote Mary Zahau-Loehner in a statement to San Diego’s KFMB-TV, “but as far as what I know about my sister, my sister did not commit a suicide. My sister was not depressed, my sister was not frantic, my sister was planning to call my parents the next day and was planning to keep me posted about Max the next day.”

Investigators have declined to say where Shacknai was when his girlfriend’s body was found, but they have said he has been completely cooperative.

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paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

Times staff writer Tony Perry contributed to this report.


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