A boy dies in a fall, a beautiful woman is found hanged – a wealthy beach town is riveted
The chain reaction of horrors began earlier this month when the 6-year-old son of pharmaceutical mogul Jonah Shacknai was seriously injured falling down the stairs in his father’s 27-bedroom historic mansion.
Two days later, Shacknai’s beautiful girlfriend, Rebecca Nalepa, 32, who was with the boy at the time, was found hanging nude from a second story balcony in the mansion, her hands and feet bound.
When little Max died on July 17 of his injuries, the quiet, picturesque and wealthy island community of Coronado, Calif., just across the bay from San Diego, was confronted with its biggest – and most mysterious – police investigations.
“This is one of the stranger cases I’ve ever covered, mostly because there are still so many unanswered questions,” Kristina Davis, a longtime crime reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune, tells PEOPLE. “And at the center of it all is this very high-profile millionaire. Everyone here is trying to figure out the mystery. Everyone seems to have a theory.”
Although not widely known by the public, the 54-year-old Shacknai is prominent in business circles as chief executive of Arizona-based Medicis Pharmaceuticals. The two deaths have focused an unaccustomed spotlight on Shacknai’s personal life, including mutual domestic abuse allegations against him and his now ex-wife.
So far, it’s not even known if a crime was committed. There have been no arrests and the causes of both deaths remain under investigation. Shacknai has cooperated with authorities, though he has not commented publicly on the investigation.
But authorities have made clear this is not just a routine case.
“It’s not usual to find a female unclothed, tied up and hanging,” Sgt. Roy Frank, of the San Diego Sheriff’s homicide unit, tells PEOPLE. “This, combined with Max’s death, makes it a suspicious case.”
It’s also one with an intriguing setting right out of a vintage crime novel.
The historic Spreckels Mansion is an Italian Renaissance and Beaux-Arts-decorated residence built in 1908 for a member of the Spreckels sugar dynasty. It stands next door to the famed Hotel del Coronado. It is one of two Spreckels Mansions in California; the other, in San Francisco, is now home to romance writer Danielle Steele. Shacknai moved into the San Diego mansion in 2007, using it primarily as a summer residence.
A former congressional staffer who coordinated health and environmental legislation in the House of Representatives, Shacknai has been the chairman and CEO of Medicis since 1988. The Scottsdale, Ariz., company earned $700 million in net revenue last year making acne treatments Solodyn and Ziana and facial wrinkle line Restalyne.
Shacknai has three children with his first two wives; Max’s mother is Shacknai’s second wife, Dina Romano, whom Shacknai divorced in 2008 shortly before he started dating Nalepa, an ophthalmic technician at Horizon Eye Specialists & Lasik Center in Scottsdale, Ariz.
As Nalepa’s relationship with Shacknai grew more serious, she quit her job in December to spend more time with Shacknai and his children, including his youngest, Max, according to reports from her former boss, Michael Trier.
Few details of Max’s death have been released, other than he fell down the stairs and wasn’t breathing at his home while Nalepa was on the property and paramedics were unable to save him with CPR. He was buried on Wednesday.
But there came a twist when Nalepa’s body was discovered two days later by her boyfriend’s brother, Adam Shacknai, who was staying in the guesthouse and was the only person home at the time of what officers called “a very violent and very suspicious” death.
Adam had called 911 and told police he cut Nalepa down and tried to save her. Adam is a “prime witness” who has been “very cooperative,” Frank says, adding that he has since left California.
While police have not yet ruled out the possibility that Nalepa took her own life, despite the bindings to her feet and hands, her family can’t accept that conclusion.
“My sister did not commit suicide,” her sister Mary Zahau-Loehner says in a statement. “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.”
Shacknai has not commented on his girlfriend’s death. But he and ex-wife Dina released a joint statement in remembrance of the boy they called Maxie: “His loving, kind and vibrant spirit will be forever in our hearts and those whom he touched every day.”
It was a rare display of unity for the pair, who had a nasty divorce in which they accused each other of physical and verbal abuse, according to reports released by the Paradise Valley, Ariz., police.
At one point, Romano claimed that during an argument her then-husband failed to call off the agitated family dog, which then attacked her. She also accused him of elbowing her in the chest, while he alleged she tried to choke him and once broke his finger.
In response, Shacknai and his ex-wife released another statement, saying, “These police reports are not reflective of the totality or the precise details of the events during a difficult time in our marriage that we worked through together.”
Whether these allegations become an issue in the current investigations remains to be seen. For right now, the case is still wide open.
“We’re trying to keep an open mind,” says sheriff’s Sgt. Frank. “We believe the evidence will point us in the right direction.”
• Additional reporting by KEN LEE