SAN DIEGO (CN) – A wealthy pharmaceuticals tycoon testified in a wrongful death civil trial Thursday where his brother is accused of killing the tycoon’s girlfriend and hanging her body naked and bound off a Coronado, California, mansion balcony.
Jonah Shacknai took the stand a few days after his brother Adam Shacknai testified and denied killing Jonah’s girlfriend Rebecca Zahau on July 13, 2011. Zahau was found naked and hanged from a balcony off the Spreckels Mansion by Adam, who cut her down and performed CPR.
Zahau’s death followed a tragic accident involving her boyfriend Jonah’s 6-year-old son Max just two days earlier, when he had fallen from a second-story banister in the home and suffered a fatal brain injury while he was in Zahau’s care.
Zahau’s death was ruled a suicide by the San Diego County Medical Examiner and Sheriff’s Department. Officials suggested Max’s accident was a trigger for Zahau to die by suicide but her family has maintained she was a devout Christian who had her faith to fall back on when times got hard.
Jonah Shacknai said during questioning by his brother’s attorney Dan Webb Thursday he met Rebecca Zahau in October 2009 when she was working at an eye doctor’s office where he was a patient. The two went on their first date October 19, 2009, to a sushi restaurant in Phoenix, Arizona, where they had an hours-long conversation and told each other their “life stories,” Shacknai said.
“We had a great deal in common and both had a pretty clean lifestyle … there was significant compatibility on many levels,” Shacknai said.
“We were undoubtedly a couple at the end of 2009.”
But Shacknai said his romance with Zahau was plagued by outside stressors, including Zahau’s tense relationship with Shacknai’s oldest daughter, who did not accept Zahau. Shacknai also said it was “awkward” when he was on a family vacation with his kids in March 2010 and Zahau stayed at his house and had moved in her personal items and family pictures before the couple formally discussed moving in together.
Max’s mother, Dina Shacknai, had “heightened hostility” toward Zahau, Shacknai said of his ex-wife, because the boy and Zahau “had a very close relationship” and loved one another.
“If we had lived in our own little world it would have been a sustainable relationship,” Shacknai said.
Disputing the Zahau family’s belief Rebecca was a devout Christian, Shacknai said Zahau only attended church one or two times during the couple’s relationship and that “she was not a fan of organized religion.”
“She’s definitely not someone who subscribed to the orthodoxy of organized religion. We could not have been together if she had,” Shacknai said.
Shacknai recounted supporting Zahau financially, telling the jury in Superior Court Judge Katherine Bacal’s courtroom he had paid for an immigration attorney to help bring Zahau’s two younger siblings to the U.S. He also said he helped her support her parents when she decided to quit her job.
During the summer, Shacknai testified that he would move his brood to the Spreckels mansion in Coronado where they would spend the summer months. Zahau joined the family in 2010 and 2011 at the beachfront mansion before she died and had set up a painting studio at the home in addition to taking on home organization projects, Shacknai said.
The couple had hoped to mend Zahau’s relationship with Shaknai’s oldest daughter that summer, Shacknai said, and had even attended family counseling before moving into the mansion.
Shacknai got choked up when recounting the day of Max’s accident; he said he was working out at a gym a few blocks from his home when he got an emergency call and ran home to find first responders working to revive his son.
The night before Zahau died, Shacknai said the two shared a private moment while at the hospital with Max.
“She wanted to give me a long hug and hoped I could promise her everything would be okay,” Shacknai said.
Later that night, Shacknai said he left a voicemail for Zahau on her cellphone, crying and telling her doctors had relayed that if Max survived he was not expected to walk or talk again. Zahau did not return the call and the voicemail was never retrieved from her cellphone records.
The following morning Shacknai was with his son in the hospital when he said he received a text from his brother Adam Shacknai asking him to call him. When he did, Adam asked Jonah to sit down before telling him Rebecca had “taken her life.”
“I was speechless … it was unfathomable,” Shacknai said.
Shacknai said it was “inconceivable” that his brother Adam had anything to do with Zahau’s death.
Shacknai made his fortune when he started Medicis Pharmaceutical Corporation, which made dermatology products following a four-year stint as an attorney after he obtained his JD from Georgetown University. He sold the company in 2012.
The trial was expected to last through the first week of April.