07.19.11

Mysterious Death at Mogul’s Mansion

Two days after a 6-year-old suffers a fatal fall, a woman is found hanging from a balcony in the same house.

Two tragic incidents that couldn’t appear more different. In one, a boy just 6 years old succumbs to injuries sustained after a tumble down the stairs. In the other, a gorgeous medical technician is found hanging from a balcony, totally nude, her hands and feet bound.

The link between them: The incidents occurred within days of each other—at the same palatial estate.

Now San Diego police are trying to piece together exactly what happened over the last week in the sprawling $7 million Spreckels mansion, the former home of sugar baron and philanthropist John D. Spreckels, onetime owner of The San Diego Union and San Diego Tribune.

Today, the home is owned by 54-year-old Jonah Shacknai, a wealthy pharmaceutical executive who amassed his fortune making acne treatments and Dysport, a competitor of Botox. Last year, Shacknai’s Scottsdale, Arizona–based company, Medicis Pharmaceutical Corp., earned $123 million. His 27-room estate is located in tony Coronado, a seaside town near San Diego known for its naval bases, high-end restaurants, and pristine beaches.

And now, for two very mysterious deaths. The first incident occurred on July 11, when Shacknai’s 6-year-old son, Max, was fatally injured in an apparent tumble down a set of stairs inside the 103-year-old mansion. He never recovered and died of his injuries in the hospital a week later. Then, just two days after Max’s fall, Shacknai’s beautiful 32-year-old girlfriend, Rebecca Nalepa, was found hanging from the mansion’s second-floor balcony. She was naked and tied up.

Now police are trying to figure out whether Nalepa committed suicide or if something more nefarious is at play.

rebecca-Zahau-Pelisek
Rebecca Nalepa (Courtesy of Horizon Eye Specialists & Lasik Center)

“It is a case that has caught a lot of interest,” said Sgt. Roy Frank of the San Diego County sheriff’s homicide unit. “In this case, you are dealing with a situation that is kind of a mystery.”

According to police, on Monday, July 11, the Coronado Police Department received a 911 call at 10:10 a.m. from a distraught 13-year-old girl inside the Spreckels mansion. The caller told the 911 operator that a boy later identified as Max Shacknai had fallen down the home’s grand staircase. When paramedics arrived, they discovered that the boy was not breathing and did not have a pulse. Also in the home at the time, said police, was an adult female, reportedly Nalepa. Max was rushed to a hospital in Coronado before he was transferred to Rady Children’s Hospital San Diego.

Around 4:30 p.m., just hours after the incident, Ted Greenberg, the owner of San Diego-based Camp Diggity Dogs, received a call from Nalepa, who explained that her son was injured in a fall and she needed the dog-boarding service to pick up her 14-month-old Weimaraner pup so she could go to the hospital.

“I spoke to her numerous times,” said Greenberg. “She was definitely upset.”

In this case, you are dealing with a situation that is kind of a mystery.

Greenberg said he couldn’t pick up the dog immediately because it didn’t have all of its vaccinations, so she called him again the following morning at 8:15. They arranged for Greenberg to pick up the dog and take it to the vet to get its shots. He met Nalepa at the house. Greenberg told The Daily Beast that she was “very quiet and calm, almost like someone was asleep in the house. She wasn’t hysterical … She asked me to keep the dog for a few days.”

Later in the evening, Nalepa’s sister Mary Zahau-Loehner told ABC News that she spoke to her sister and that she was “normal, fine, just getting ready to go to bed.”

That same night, a neighbor reportedly heard loud music coming from the mansion. Sergeant Frank wouldn’t comment on the report, adding only that “sometimes it comes down to perception.”

The next morning, on July 13, Coronado police officers were once again called to Shacknai’s mansion. This time the call came from Shacknai’s younger brother, Adam, who discovered Nalepa hanging from a second-floor balcony at 6:45.

Frank said Adam had flown in from out of state on Monday and was “staying in the house to be there for his brother.” According to Frank, Adam cut Nalepa down from the “makeshift noose,” called police, and attempted to render medical care.

The investigation was immediately handed over to the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department because the Coronado cops don’t employ full-time homicide investigators or have the resources to handle the case. “The last homicide was in 2007, and it was a murder-suicide,” said Coronado Police Department spokesperson Lea Corbin. “We have an extremely low crime rate.” 

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department served two search warrants on the Spreckels mansion, one on the day of Nalepa’s death and the other two days later. Frank would not say what the team of investigators—which includes five detectives with the sheriff’s department, Coronado police detectives, and investigators with the California Department of Justice—was looking for.

According to reports, Nalepa began dating the pharmaceutical mogul around two years ago. Shacknai had divorced his second wife, Dina Romano, a clinical psychologist and the mother of Max, in 2008. He has two children from a previous marriage to a woman named Kimberly James. Nalepa’s former boss said that Nalepa, who herself was divorced in February and sometimes went by her maiden name, Rebecca Zahau, quit her job as a certified ophthalmic technician last December to spend more time with Shacknai and his family.

“Her hours became more focused on her life outside of work,” said Michael Trier, the CEO of Horizon Eye Specialists & Lasik Center in Arizona. “Over a few months it started to make sense. Her focus was elsewhere.”

The couple began spending their summers in Coronado, a city of 26,000 people where Shacknai bought the Spreckels mansion in March 2007. The huge property includes a main house with a wine-storage room once used during Prohibition, and a guesthouse with two master-bedroom suites.

As of now, police are saying very little about the deaths. The Coronado Police Department told The Daily Beast that Max’s death “has not yet been ruled an accident or foul play.”

“The autopsy hasn’t been done yet,” said Corbin. “It would be inappropriate to rule it one way or another.”

A spokesman for the San Diego sheriff’s department would not comment on the cause of Nalepa’s death either, nor would he say if the two cases are connected. He said Shacknai was not home during the incident.

“At this point we haven’t come to a conclusion,” said Frank. “It is not an accident, so what that leads to is a suicide or homicide. We process the case as if it is the worse-case scenario, and that way we don’t miss anything.”

The cause of Nalepa’s death is pending toxicology results that can take up to six weeks, he said. “This could be a suicide or this could be a homicide,” he added. “Sometimes suicide and homicide can look very similar. We definitely are keeping an open mind on this … Sometimes people can be very creative when it comes to suicide.”

On Sunday, Shacknai spoke out for the first time, sending an email to reporters about his son. “His loving, kind and vibrant spirit will forever be in our hearts and those whom he touched every day,” the email said. “The loss to our families, Max’s many friends of all ages, and teammates, and the community is immeasurable.”

Curiously, prominent San Diego defense attorney and former district attorney Paul Pfingst showed up at the mansion twice, once on Tuesday after Nalepa was discovered and again on July 18. During his second visit, Pfingst refused to identify a client but told reporters that he was not representing Jonah Shacknai.

Reached at her home in St. Joseph, Missouri, Nalepa’s distraught sister said she didn’t believe her sister would have taken her own life. “It was not a suicide,” she said. “Because I know my sister.”