The name Jonah Shacknai—a former pharmaceutical executive with a net worth of $3 billion according to online estimates—is back in the news these days as the family of his late girlfriend seeks more answers regarding her 2011 death.
Shacknai, who was in a relationship with 32-year-old Rebecca Zahau at the time of her death, was the co-founder and chairman of Illustris Pharmaceuticals and the former CEO of Medicis Pharmaceutical, according to his website. He’s also the president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids Foundation and the founder of the MaxInMotion Foundation.
Content warning: This story contains details on a case involving a death determined to be suicide.
Rebecca Zahau was found dead at Jonah Shacknai’s mansion in 2011
On Jul. 13, 2011, Zahau’s body was found hanging from a balcony at the historic Spreckels Mansion in Coronado, Calif, near San Diego. The sheriff’s department ultimately ruled her death a suicide and filed no criminal charges in the case.
Zahau’s family filed a wrongful death suit alleging that Jonah’s ex-wife, Dina Shacknai, and her sister, Nina Romano, conspired with Adam Shacknai, Jonah’s brother, to kill Zahau. Because of their alibis, the women were eventually dropped from the suit, leaving Adam as the only defendant.
The civil trial commenced in Feb. 2018, with the jury hearing testimony about DNA and fingerprints, viewing photographs and diagrams, and even seeing a doll bound in ropes.
Jurors in a civil trial found Jonah’s brother, Adam, responsible for Zahau’s death
In the end, nine of the 12 jurors determined that Zahau did not die by suicide, and the jury ruled that Adam was liable for her death. But because it was a civil trial, it was damages at stake, not prison time. The jury awarded Zahau’s mother $5 million in damages, plus $167,000 in compensation for lost financial support.
“I don’t take it personally because it is so ridiculous,” Shacknai told The San Diego Union-Tribune at the time. “I’ve got my doubts about whether the plaintiffs believe it. At the beginning of the trial, I didn’t have any animosity toward them because I thought they wanted to grieve publicly.”
Another twist in the story is that Jonah’s son Max, 6, had suffered a fall at the house on July 11, two days before Zahau’s body was found. He died days later, but while he was still being treated in the hospital, Adam flew to San Diego to be with Jonah. On social media, conspiracy theories suggested that Zahau was killed because she didn’t keep Max safe, or that she had killed the boy and was killed in revenge.
Now, according to the Times of San Diego, Zahau’s family is seeking to have the case reopened. In Mar. 2021, a California Superior Court judge set an Oct. 2021 hearing date after Zahau family members sued to get the sheriff’s department to turn over more information.
If you or someone you know are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.