Jonah Shacknai was involved in a number of local land deals and made himself known among real estate agents and city officials before at the oceanfront vacation home he shared with his family.
The Arizona pharmaceuticals magnate has maintained a low profile following the July 13 death of his girlfriend, Rebecca Zahau, 32, and the subsequent death of his son, Max, 6. A sheriff's homicide unit is investigating Zahau's death, and Coronado police are looking into the boy's.
Media reports place him at a memorial for Zahau in Missouri over the weekend, while the woman's family issued a statement describing her as a generous woman who was so “determined to support” others that she learned to swim to help a friend who wanted to be in a triathlon.
Mystery lovers have buzzed about Zahau, whose body was found nude and bound, and what role Max's condition—he was revived after being left without a pulse in a July 11 fall at the mansion—might have played in it.
Shacknai's only public utterances have been written statements issued through his Scottsdale-based company, Medicis (NYSE:MRX), and a crisis PR firm. In the first, he jointly with his ex-wife Dina; in the second police accounts of violence in their marriage, but called them misleading.
Few neighbors in the tight-knit community of Arizonans with second homes in Coronado will speak of Shacknai and few locals appear to know him well, other than having served him at area businesses.
Those who appear to have had some substantial contact with Shacknai locally did so through his handling of his properties. Though some said they spotted the steeliness that made Medicis such a success, they also said he was never brutal in his dealings.
Realtor Lou Ann Williams first met Shacknai 12 years ago. “He was a valued client, top notch,” she said. “He had his expertise and I had mine, and we managed to make it work.”
The last property he bought with Williams was the Spreckels mansion, a sprawling, but aging compound with a storied past.
“It gave him a chance to do what he liked best, preserve something for future generations,” Williams said.
Another agent, Scott Aurich, sold Shacknai the mansion. He said Shacknai's feelings for his children were clear.
“What he really cared about was his son. Family mattered to him,” Aurich said.
Over the last four years, Shacknai met with the city's Historic Resources Commission five times to discuss changes he wanted at the mansion.
They included replacing the original windows with French doors, and adding a master bedroom and a hydraulic roof. .
seeking changes to the guest house, caretakers quarters and the garage. Those were approved as well.
The Spreckels mansion was declared a historic resource in 2006, making any owners who promised to maintain it eligible for tax breaks. Shacknai bought the house for $13 million the next year. It was assessed at $7 million, greatly reducing his tax burden. Property taxes are based on the assessed value.
With that benefit, however, comes increased scrutiny. Shacknai or his representatives frequently had to meet with members of the city commission that reviews proposed changes to properties with historic designations. The group also appeared before the City Council.
“He always came armed with his attorney and his architect, complete with expensive color binders and drawings, sparing no expense,” recalled Doug St. Denis, a commissioner who was very critical of Shacknai's plans for Spreckels.
“He had absolutely no respect for the historical architecture he became steward of,” she said.
Public opposition was near unanimous, “and sometimes personal,” St. Denis noted, but Shacknai did not lose his composure.
“He was always gracious,” she said.
Another commissioner who supported Shacknai's plans was lavish in her praise.
“He is one of the most wonderful people I’ve ever dealt with. He was congenial, professional and upfront in his dealings with us,” Laura Crenshaw said. “He was trying to make a home for a modern family.”
Mayor Casey Tanaka, an initial opponent of Shacknai's plans, came around to “appreciating his vision.”
Before the council voted, Shacknai met with Tanaka at Café 1134. The mayor remembers the conversation as “cordial and friendly.”
After they discussed the mansion, Shacknai talked about his years as a congressional staffer, other historic homes and about “his pride and passion for the homes he had owned,” Tanaka recalled.