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August, 2012, Page 124
Photos provided by Dina Shacknai and Lillian Reid
Maxfield Shacknai on Coronado Beach in San Diego
A year after the much-publicized Coronado mansion deaths, Dina Shacknai – mother of 6-year-old Max Shacknai – talks for the first time about the tragedy and her efforts to create a legacy for her only child.
Dina Shacknai tells a charming story about her late son, Max, and she relates it so vividly the boy seems to inhabit the room – his 6-year-old essence finding a momentary foothold in his mother’s weary smile and tear-shot eyes.
It was something he did a few times on the subway during a family trip to New York City. Max, a friendly and unabashed toddler, was puzzled by the glum, world-weary affect of his fellow riders. “You know – it’s that subway look,” Dina says, tipping her head tiredly and hooding her gaze in a pantomime of big-city ennui. “Where you just try to do your best to suffer in peace and not make eye contact.”
Max would target one of these wretched workaday souls and unleash a gaping ear-to-ear grin. “Like this,” Dina says, squinting her eyes and displaying both rows of teeth. With supreme effort, Max would hold the smile until his victim finally glanced his way. A double-take would follow, then maybe a bemused grunt, and finally, a smile in return. Soon, every subway rider within two or three seats was grinning despite themselves – forcibly evicted from their bubbles of solitude by the disarming boy from Arizona.
“I thought it was amazing how a child’s loving and friendly nature could affect others so quickly and in such a palpable way,” Dina says, and suddenly the happiness drains from her face. The smile is gone. Max is gone.
Almost a year has passed since Max died in a San Diego hospital bed – reduced to a sobering footnote in the tabloid circus that ensued after the nude, bound body of Rebecca Zahau, his father’s girlfriend, was discovered in the same Coronado mansion where Max suffered a mortal fall two days earlier. Dina’s bereavement is nearing its conclusion; this month, she’s launching a nonprofit foundation in her only child’s name, an endeavor she hopes will prevent other children from suffering Max’s fate and give her own life structure and purpose.
Dina is not at peace. She still harbors questions, suspicions and barely-concealed outrage. In a series of exclusive interviews with PHOENIX magazine, Dina shared her misgivings about the investigation into Max’s death, discussed her mindset as the Zahau family’s nightmare unfolded, and traced the devastating emotional journey set in motion by the tragic events at the Spreckels mansion last summer.
It started out as a sad human-interest story on a slow-news Monday: On July 11, 2011, Max Shacknai, 6-year-old son of Arizona millionaire pharmaceutical CEO Jonah Shacknai, was found unresponsive and critically injured at the base of a staircase in the family’s 103-year-old mansion. The few inches devoted to the story in Phoenix and San Diego newspapers were less news articles than parables illustrating that, yes, horrible things can happen to any family, no matter how charmed.
The story also carried an unspoken whiff of mystery – or negligence. Sure, little boys get into scrapes all the time. But how often do they pitch themselves over staircase banisters?
Two days later, Zahau – Max’s babysitter on the morning of his mishap – was found hanging from a courtyard balcony at the mansion, instantly transforming the sad human-interest story into tabloid catnip. Blogs and comment boards exploded with conspiracy theories. The story made heavy rotation on Nancy Grace, and People magazine teased the tragedy on its cover. Was it a revenge killing? Sex play gone wrong? Though she held vigil by her son’s hospital bed on the night in question, Dina was bandied as a possible culprit – along with her sister, her ex-husband, her ex-brother-in-law and any number of family members. TV crews and reporters gathered outside the hospital, and in the days and weeks following Zahau’s death, true-crime fetishists devoted whole websites to her demise.
By the end of the week, Max was gone, too. Through all the chatter, some people “didn’t even know a little boy had died,” Dina says.
The grieving mother wanted none of it. While the Zahau family went on Dr. Phil to plead their case of foul play, Dina withdrew to the ranch-style home in Paradise Valley she once shared with her ex-husband – the one full of Max portraits, Max photos and Max art projects – and shut out the world. “I was a recluse,” the 41-year-old says of the six months or so following Max’s death. “I didn’t want to go to the grocery store, or leave the house at all. I couldn’t do a memorial, you know, for his friends. So they could remember his beautiful life and say goodbye.”
The former Dina Romano was in her late 20s when she met Jonah, the then-40-something CEO of Scottsdale-based pharmaceutical giant Medicis, maker of anti-aging gels and the Botox-analog Dysport. Emerging from a divorce, Jonah was bowled over by the brainy and statuesque young woman, and Dina was flattered by the dashing executive’s attention. “Dina’s a rock star,” says an associate who knows the former couple. “She has all kinds of expertise – Italian poetry, fine wines, all these interests. She’s larger than life, in a very endearing way. Jonah is less worldly, but incredibly smart.” Dina converted to Judaism at Jonah’s behest, and the couple married in 2002.
Dina Shacknai in Max’s playroom
Dina soon left her job in medical sales and started volunteering at Southwest Autism Research Center (SARRC), eventually enrolling at Argosy University in Phoenix for her doctoral studies in clinical psychology. That Dina would choose to work with children makes sense to those who know her; raised by adoptive parents in Northern California, she and her fraternal twin sister, Nina, had a less-than-idyllic childhood. Friends theorize that Dina’s raison d’etre as psychologist was to synthesize the warmth and empathy she felt her own childhood lacked. Consequently, when Max was born in 2005 – the newest addition to a blended family that included Jonah’s two children from his previous marriage, Ethan and Gabby, now 14 and 15, respectively – Dina endeavored to turn the Paradise Valley home into a haven of enrichment and fun. She read him poetry from an early age, migrating from Maurice Sendak to Shakespeare to Pablo Neruda. She took him on trips to Italy and New York. She kept a fully-stocked candy drawer and organized elaborate playdates at the home. She even built a small stage in the living room so he and his friends could bang on drums and indulge their inner Biebers.
In a remembrance video commissioned by Dina and screened for his friends and family at the Paradise Valley home last April, Max is seen hamming it up with his sister, Gabby, on the stage – lip-synching to Celine Dion. He appears superbly well-adjusted – a happy, radiant kid with plenty of advantages and a mother who subscribed wholeheartedly to the child-wonderland model of parenting. A charmed little man.
“He was the diplomatic type, very sensitive to discord, and just wanted everybody to get along,” Dina remembers. “We called him our Elmer’s Glue.”
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