The announcement Tuesday that Montreal pharma firm Valeant is buying Arizona medical cosmetics company Medicis has brought back into the spotlight a tragic, strange and -- some would say -- suspicious story surrounding Medicis’ founder Jonah Shacknai's dead girlfriend and son.
A statement issued by the two companies Tuesday described the $2.6-billion acquisition as “a significant next step” in Valeant’s quest to become a global leader in dermatology. It makes no mention of the tragic family drama that unfolded in Shacknai's life little more than a year earlier.
The ill-fated stars in this story are Shacknai, his six-year-old son Max, and Jonah’s girlfriend, Rebecca Zahau.
On July 11, 2011, Max Shacknai, Jonah’s son by a marriage that ended in 2008, was hospitalized after evidently taking a tumble off a balcony railing in his Coronado, California, home. He would die of his injuries four days later. Two days after Max’s fall, 32-year-old Rebecca Zahau was found dead in the same house. She was found naked and with her wrists and ankles bound.
“Investigators concluded that Rebecca Zahau tied rope to bedposts and around her wrists and ankles, she loosely bound her wrists, took one arm out and put both arms behind her back before tightening the noose,” NBC San Diego reported.
Jonah Shacknai had not been home at the time, though some other relatives of Zahau’s were. Investigators ruled Zahau’s death a suicide, but members of her family were unconvinced.
“It just doesn’t add up,” sister Mary Zahau-Loehner told the Associated Press. “Nothing adds up.”
Zahau-Loehner said investigators told her they found no suicide note. They did share text messages on her phone from months earlier about "issues" between her and Shacknai's children.
Zahau-Loehner said she spoke with her sister the night before her body was found and she gave no hint that she planned to take her life. She said she planned to bring Jonah Shacknai breakfast and a change of clothes the next morning to the hospital where his son was being treated.
Though Jonah Shacknai himself said his girlfriend’s death was “undeniably strange,” authorities didn’t seem suspicious of the events.
"Suicides can appear odd," San Diego County Sheriff's Sgt. Roy Frank said. "It's not unusual to have a suicide that appears to be something else."
All the same, Shacknai requested a second autopsy of his girlfriend, in an effort to dispel suspicions. After the exhumation, the doctor hired to examine Zahau, Dr. Cyril Wecht, went on Dr. Phil and told the audience he believed Zahau’s death may have been a homicide.
That speculative conclusion drew condemnation from some corners. Defense attorney Roy Black harshly criticized Wecht in a blog column, accusing the show of pulling a ratings stunt. Black noted that many members of Zahau’s family themselves said they believed -- without forensic evidence -- that her death was a murder. Black accused Wecht of pre-judging the case.
But perhaps the most unsettling element of the case came last month, when a team of forensic pathologists, hired by Max Shacknai’s mother, Dina Shacknai, concluded that the six-year-old boy’s death could not have been accident, given the cuts and abrasions found on his body. Dr. Judy Melinek, one of the doctors working for Dina Shacknai, said she believed the death was a homicide.
Dina Shacknai is now asking California authorities to reopen the investigation into her son’s death.
"Real science doesn't lie,” she told CBS 5 in Arizona.
Flowers and messages adorn a flower box outside the Spreckels Mansion in Coronado, Calif. Monday, July 18, 2011. The mansion is the site where a woman was found dead July 13, she was hanging nude from a balcony with her hands and feet bound. Credit: Lenny Ignelzi, AP
This 2010 photo released by Medicis Pharmaceuticals Corp. shows CEO Jonah Shacknai. Shacknai's 6-year-old son and 32-year-old girlfriend have each died in a span of less than a week, and both deaths were tied to his historic mansion on the San Diego Bay. Credit: Medicis Pharmaceuticals Corp. / AP
This August 2008 photo released by Horizon Eye Specialists & Lasik Center shows Rebecca Zahau, also known as Rebecca Nalepa, 32. Nalepa, the girlfriend of Arizona pharmaceuticals tycoon Jonah Shacknai, was found dead last week hanging nude from the second-floor balcony of a historic mansion, her wrists and ankles bound. Credit: Dwight Smith, Horizon Eye Specialists & Lasik Center / AP
This photo family released on Sunday, July 17, 2011 shows his 6-year-old Max Shacknai. Shacknai, son of Medicis Pharmaceuticals CEO Jonah Shacknai, has died, almost a week after falling down the stairs at his father's San Diego-area mansion, the same house where his father's girlfriend was found dead hanging nude from a balcony two days later. Credit: Family Photo / AP