What Really Happened in Coronado

By Kron, Joan | Newsweek, September 26, 2011 | Go to article overview

What Really Happened in Coronado


Kron, Joan, Newsweek


Byline: Joan Kron; Kron is contributing editor at large of Allure magazine.

One millionaire, a tragic accident--and a mysterious death--at a seaside mansion. New details on the final moments of a CEO's girlfriend and his 6-year-old son.

Jonah Shacknai felt like the luckiest man in the world. It was July 8, and the millionaire CEO was enjoying a summer idyll with his kids in the tony seaside village of Coronado, Calif. He was talking on the phone with George Kopp, a Washington lawyer and buddy since the 1980s, when they were both congressional aides. Kopp recalls the conversation clearly. "Jonah said he was kicking a soccer ball with his boys, Max and Ethan. His daughter, Gabby, was there preparing for her volunteer trip to Africa in August. Jonah said, 'We're having an absolutely perfect day. I've got my kids with me. Rebecca's with me. The weather is perfect. My life is perfect. What could be better?'?"

Three days later, Shacknai, the founder and chief executive of Medicis, the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based pharmaceutical company known for its acne products and cosmetic injectables, would experience the unpredictability of life he would often talk about when raising money for autism research. Shacknai, 54, used to tell donors, " 'We're on a random walk through life,' " Kopp says. "?'Some parents, due to an accident of fate, can wind up with kids with autism or some other condition. I have three normal kids. But at any moment, a normal kid can dive into a pool and hit his head and become paralyzed. Life is random. We can't explain it.'?"

By July 16, two of the people dearest to Shacknai would be dead, the lives of two families would be changed forever, friends would become enemies, and reputations would be dragged through the mud. The story has been playing in the media like a CSI drama--but it is closer to a Greek tragedy.

According to reports pieced together from several sources, between 6 and 7 a.m. on Monday, July 11, the twice-divorced Shacknai and his 6-year-old son, Max, drove his other children--Ethan, 13, and Gabby, 14--to the San Diego airport for a flight to Phoenix, where they were meeting their mother. Gabby and Ethan hugged and kissed their little Maxie goodbye. It would be for the last time.

Jonah and Max returned home to 1043 Ocean Boulevard, the historic 27-room mansion facing the Pacific that was built by sugar baron John D. Spreckels in 1907 as a beach house. Jonah bought it in 2007 for $12.75 million to escape the blistering Arizona summers. That day, Jonah was thinking about taking Max to the zoo. But first he decided to get in a quick workout at Hollywood Fitness three blocks away--a quick sprint up to Orange Avenue, cross the median, watch out for the vintage trolleys, turn left past restaurant row, hang a right onto B Avenue, a little past the home shop with starfish-decorated pillows, and up two flights. Coronado is the Southampton of San Diego. You can almost smell the scented candles when you drive into town.

Rebecca Zahau, Shacknai's girlfriend of two years, stayed home with Max. At some point, Max started playing by himself in the spacious second-floor hallway. He may have been kicking a soccer ball (Max was on a team back in Scottsdale) or he may have been riding his scooter. No one knows for sure. Moving fast, Max tripped over something--perhaps Ocean, Zahau's 14-month-old Weimaraner--and was catapulted over the balustrade of the grand U-shaped stairwell. He apparently grabbed onto the chandelier, pulling it loose from the ceiling, and crashed head first onto the carpeted foyer floor below, along with the massive light fixture. Zahau was in the first-floor powder room behind the stairwell. The last time she had seen Max, he was in the kitchen. When she heard the crash she came running to find him on the floor, his scooter lying over his left shin, broken glass all around. He whispered one word, "Ocean," before losing consciousness, according to the San Diego County Sheriff's Department's investigation into the incident. …

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