07.27.11

Mogul Mansion Mystery Deepens

Two weeks after Rebecca Zahau was found hanging naked from a balcony of her boyfriend’s estate, the circumstances of her death are more baffling than ever. Christine Pelisek reports.

In the heavy air of a heat wave that drove the temperature up to 100 degrees, family and friends gathered on Saturday in tiny St. Joe, Mo., to lay to rest the body of 32-year-old Rebecca Zahau. 

It had been 14 days since she was found hanging from the second-floor balcony of the palatial estate of her pharmaceutical-executive boyfriend, Jonah Shacknai. Shacknai was at the memorial ceremony, his life turned upside down in recent weeks by the mysterious deaths of not only his girlfriend but also his 6-year-old son, Max, at the historic Spreckels mansion in tony Coronado, Calif. 

A source familiar with the situation told The Daily Beast that the 54-year-old Shacknai—who amassed his fortune making acne treatments and Dysport, a competitor of Botox—sat next to Zahau’s family members during the afternoon service. The source described him as in a “state of shock about his son and his girlfriend, [whom] he cared about very much.” Max had been buried last Wednesday. 

Questions have been raised as to whether Shacknai had anything to do with his girlfriend’s death. But so far, the police don’t seem to think so, and he has not been named as a suspect. 

“Would you sit with or grieve with someone who you thought was in any way complicit with the death of a loved one?” asks the source. “The answer is, of course not. No one has said he is a suspect, and the family certainly doesn’t blame him.”  

But because of the bizarre nature of the deaths, there has been widespread speculation as to what really happened to Zahau, and detectives are still trying to figure out whether she committed suicide or if something more nefarious happened to her. 

Answers to those questions are still weeks away, according to San Diego County Sheriff’s Department Sgt. Roy Frank. Frank says detectives are still waiting for toxicology and forensic evidence taken from Zahau’s death scene.   

“I am hoping in the next few weeks some of the evidence will come back and we can put something together to figure out what direction the case will go,” says Frank. 

In the interim, he says, detectives are trying to “find out as much as we can about Rebecca and what was going on in her life at the time.”  

Oddly, Zahau’s sister says that if that’s true, they haven’t asked her. “We aren’t in the loop with new developments,” says Mary Zahau-Loehner. “We haven’t had any official phone call telling us of our sister’s death. My husband called several times. No one asked if we were a relative or next of kin. I don’t know who identified her [at the morgue]. Obviously, we went and brought her back here, so I know it’s her.”  

The tragic story began unfolding on July 11 when Max Shacknai was fatally injured in an apparent tumble down a set of stairs inside the 103-year-old Spreckels mansion, the former home of sugar baron and philanthropist John D. Spreckels. Max never recovered and died of his injuries in the hospital a week later. According to reports, Zahau and a 13-year-old girl were in the home at the time of the incident. Then, just two days after Max’s fall, Zahau was found hanging from the mansion’s second-floor balcony, naked and tied at the hands and feet.  

‘Would you sit with or grieve with someone who you thought was in any way complicit with the death of a loved one?’

Jonah Shacknai’s brother Adam, who had flown in from Tennessee to help out his brother after Max’s fall, discovered her at 6:45 a.m. According to police, he cut her down from a “makeshift noose,” called 911, and tried to revive her.  

A few hours later, detectives were seen carrying two brown paper bags, a three-legged table, and a mirror or picture frame from the scene. Another officer carried out pieces of a gray carpet.  

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department served two search warrants on the Spreckels mansion following the incidents, one on the day of Zahau’s death and the other two days later. Frank will not say what the team of investigators was looking for. Detectives were later seen asking for hospital surveillance tape to confirm whether Shacknai was with his son at the time of Zahau’s death. Frank told The Daily Beast that Shacknai was not in Coronado at the time of her death but would not say where he was.  

Shacknai has hired the powerful Los Angeles–based PR firm Sitrick and Company to handle the hundreds of media calls he has received since the incidents. Meanwhile, Zahau’s sister has told reporters she doesn’t believe her sister would have taken her own life. “It was not a suicide,” she said. “Because I know my sister.” 

Phyllis Manno, the aunt of Zahau’s ex-husband, agrees with Zahau-Loehner. “I don’t think she did it either,” she told The Daily Beast. “That’s all I am saying.”  

Not much has been reported about Zahau. According to her sister, Zahau was very loyal toward those she loved, “one of the first people to visit a friend in the hospital with whom she had no contact in many months,” she says. “Rebecca always found ways to touch everyone’s life.” She explains that the two of them moved to the United States from Burma 10 years ago. “We both wanted to expand possibilities with our careers and education,” she says. “When we first came here we didn’t have family. She liked bigger cities and I liked smaller cities. We both became certified in our professions when we got here.”  

Rebecca wanted to be an ophthalmology technician because “she enjoyed correcting visions and the end result.” Her sister became a nurse. 

“She has close friends all over the place,” says Zahau-Loehner. “She was a person who wasn’t afraid to move. If she thinks there is a better chance for her career, she wasn’t afraid to move to another city. She was in Phoenix only the last four years. She was in California and New York.” 

She was also a fitness fanatic. “She liked to read things about fitness, and she realized that being fit was important for her well-being,” Zahau-Loehner says. “To her, she believed eating well and working [out] well had a lot to do with long life and longevity.” 

According to reports, Zahau began dating the pharmaceutical mogul around two years ago. They met through mutual friends. 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. Zahau’s former boss says that Zahau, who herself was divorced in February and went by the name Nalepa, quit her job as a certified ophthalmic technician last December to spend more time with Shacknai and his family. 

The deaths have rocked the peaceful beach community of 26,000. “It is crazy,” says Bruce Coons, the executive director of Save Our Heritage Organization. “Nothing happens around here in Coronado. It is a small Navy town with high-priced homes. It is a huge tragedy. The police are being exceedingly strange. We have no idea what is going on. Of course, everyone in town is speculating. There is about every theory you can think of out there.”

An earlier version of this article stated that Adam Shacknai arrived from Tennessee after Max’s death. He arrived after Max’s fall, but before his death -- Max did not die until a week later.