Boy, Interrupted

Editorial StaffAugust 10, 2012
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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.

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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.

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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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Sadly, the family started unraveling almost from the moment Max joined it. Though the terms of the Shacknais’ 2011 divorce settlement forbid Dina from disclosing the more acrimonious details of their marriage, several archived police reports of alleged spousal abuse came to light after the San Diego tragedy. Photos emerged of Dina sporting contusions on her right arm and back that she said were inflicted by Jonah’s Belgian Malinois guard dog. In the same documents, Jonah returns the charges of abuse, contending that Dina tried to choke him.

Though the marriage essentially ended on Christmas Eve 2008 when Jonah moved his belongings from the home, Dina and Jonah agreed to make the transition easier for Max by preserving a semblance of nuclear-family togetherness. They attended his soccer games together, went to his school functions together and split custody 50/50. Since Jonah spent his summers in Coronado, where he’d recently purchased the mansion formerly owned by sugar magnate John D. Spreckels, Dina spent her summers there, too, in a beach home near the mansion. That way, Max-handoffs would be quick and tension-free, and the two older children could freely visit between the two homes. “We didn’t want to be one of those divorced couples, where the parents can’t be in the same room at once,” Dina remembers. “And initially we accomplished that. We probably had a higher-quality of interaction than we did before the divorce.”

Dina’s marriage was over, but she had a healthy son, a staff position at the Melmed Center pediatric clinic in Phoenix, and a handsome alimony settlement. Life could definitely be worse.

She knows how it sounds: Bitter divorcee grinds her axe on the new girlfriend. But Dina says she had good reason to question the motives and character of Rebecca Zahau.

Though Dina was never away from Max more than six days at a time, she fretted during those childless intervals. Jonah often traveled for work, and she was not always privy to the childcare arrangements in his household, often relying on mutual friends for updates.

Dina found out that Zahau had moved into Jonah’s Paradise Valley home sometime in 2010. “Obviously I wanted to meet this woman who was helping care for my child. So I went to Max and asked if it was OK if I met her. And he was thrilled about the idea.” Rebecca and Dina met at a Scottsdale Starbucks in September 2010. It was an amicable but odd encounter, remembers Dina: “She told me her name was Rebecca Zahau. She said she was very close to her family, very family-oriented, and that they were descended from Burmese royalty, which was interesting. She showed me pictures of several family members.  And she said she worked at a Lasik center.”

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When repeated Internet searches failed to turn up any information on “Rebecca Zahau,” Dina checked with Jonah, who gave her the same name. She knew she couldn’t legally oblige her estranged husband or Rebecca to provide more information. “There are no existing legal statutes [when you have a child-safety concern],” she says. “If you ask for a background check, people will think you’re paranoid or invasive. You have no legal right to know.”

Over the following three months, Dina learned that Rebecca’s legal name was Rebecca Nalepa and that she was divorcing a Valley nursing student named Neil Nalepa. “As I later discovered, she had not used the name Zahau in this country,” Dina says. “She did not share the fact that she was currently married. That was a strange thing not to mention.” More incriminating, Dina discovered that Rebecca was arrested in 2009 for shoplifting approximately $1,000 in jewelry from a Valley Macy’s department store. She pled guilty to a misdemeanor and paid a $500 fine.

Dina confronted Jonah with her “dossier of information” and demanded they seek mediation with a court-approved parenting coordinator. Jonah – who declined to be interviewed by PHOENIX magazine – refused, Dina says. Meanwhile, the tension between Dina and Rebecca was ratcheting up. Evidently, Max sensed it, too. He tripped during a footrace and started crying inconsolably – unusual behavior for the athletic, confident child who played in a soccer league with kids two years his senior. “Jonah and I were trying to console him, and then Rebecca comes up and tries to wedge herself in,” Dina says. “Her boundaries were so distorted. And then she took pictures of Max when he was crying, which was weird.”

Dina had other concerns. Max, a voracious eater known to dip liberally into the candy drawer, suddenly became food-neurotic, eating little of his meals or none at all. Dina suspected that Rebecca – later described as a “keep-fit fanatic” by tabloid website – was micro-managing Max’s diet. She maintains that food was so controlled under Rebecca’s watch that Ethan sometimes asked his biological mom to bring him snacks.

In lieu of a costly and lengthy court battle, which Dina says could have bankrupted her, she and Jonah agreed on a set of ground rules regarding Max and Rebecca. According to Dina, Rebecca was not allowed to cross state lines alone with Max or take him to an airport. She was not to watch him alone when other members of the Zahau family were present. And she would not go to functions at Phoenix Country Day School, where Max attended kindergarten. The rules gave Dina some peace of mind – an indemnity against her worst parental fears. By the time the family convened in Coronado for Max’s 6th birthday on June 7, 2011, the tension between Dina and Rebecca had subsided. Rebecca even invited Dina and her sister, Nina, out for coffee after the party. Dina, whose mother was ailing, had to decline, but she thought it was a nice gesture.

Dina was fighting off the last remnants of bronchial infection on the morning of Monday, July 11, and had turned off her cell phone to ensure a good night’s sleep. A string of alarming text messages greeted her when she powered up her phone that morning. Her blood ran cold as her eyes ingested ominous words like “fall,” “ambulance” and “hospital.” The land-line phone rang, and she bounded down the stairs to answer it. Jonah was on the line, telling her a police car was on its way to take her to the hospital.

“Prepare yourself before you see him,” Jonah told her outside the intensive care unit at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego. She did. It didn’t help. “He was wearing a diaper,” she remembers. “He had a neck brace and a respirator… and a tube drilled into his skull to remove excess fluids. They said it was a heart attack. I couldn’t understand how all the injuries… were explained by a heart attack.”

Based on testimony from Zahau, who was watching Max that morning, the Coronado police theorized that the boy went into cardiac arrest while playing upstairs and somehow toppled over the staircase banister, grabbing a crystal chandelier near the landing to break his fall and taking it down with him. Zahau told police she was in a downstairs bathroom during the incident; her 13-year-old sister Xena, visiting from Missouri, was taking a shower upstairs. Jonah was not home.

Dina had questions, but she put them aside to focus on her son. She took heart in Rebecca’s initial statement that she had performed CPR on Max before EMTs restarted his heart. “I was in a state of shock,” Dina says. “I just thought it was so important to put all my focus and energy on him. I played opera for him, like we did at home, and read his Dr. Seuss books. I played him voicemail messages from his little girlfriend, Bailey. I thought he’d be up and playing soccer in no time. If he really had a heart condition, wow, I’d be nervous every time he went to the bathroom. But we’d get through it.”

Max’s physicians were still looking for clues to explain his cardiac arrest. “I felt like my life was collapsing like a card table,” Dina says. “The doctors said, ‘If you have any information, that would be helpful.’ So I asked Nina to go talk to Rebecca. Beg her on your hands and knees, if you have to. Ask her if there’s anything, anything, that might help Max. Some detail or something she left out [of the police report].”

Nina did visit the Spreckels mansion to see Rebecca that night, according to her own statements, after sending Rebecca a 9:41 p.m. text message that wasn’t returned. “I went up to the front door and rang the bell. Nothing. Rang the bell a second time. Nothing. I knocked on the door. I looked through the glass. Nothing,” Nina told a CBS8 producer in San Diego the following November. Though Nina spotted Zahau’s car in the driveway, she gave up trying to roust Rebecca and walked back to Dina’s house.

Though a passerby would later claim to have seen Dina, not her similarly-built twin sister, at the Spreckels mansion that night, investigators concluded that the woman was Nina. It would be an academic point if not for the following morning’s grisly discovery. Dina says she got the news at the hospital. “Jonah was sobbing. He said ‘Rebecca killed herself,’” Dina recalls. “I didn’t know what to say. I was like, ‘I’m so sorry.’ My next thought was ‘Why would she do that? Max is going to be fine.’ I still believed he would be OK.”

As Dina was leaving the hospital, a Coronado police detective paid her a visit. “Are you aware what happened?” he asked.

“Yes, it’s awful,” Dina answered. Later, at her home, two more detectives asked Dina what she thought about Rebecca’s death. She was in a hurry to return to the hospital to view the results of Max’s MRI. “They said something like ‘Is this related to what happened to Max?’” she recalls. “And my first thought was: ‘What are you suggesting? That somebody hurt Max on purpose? That somebody harmed Rebecca?’… They were intimating [foul play].”

When Dina returned to the hospital, Max’s neurologists delivered crushing news: The MRI revealed extensive damage to his basal ganglia, the brain structure associated with motor function.

For the next three days, Dina’s life consisted of a diminishing litany of denial and bargaining. She contacted associates at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix. She looked into spiritual healers. Meanwhile, Max slipped deeper into the fog. Finally, on Friday, July 15, after an unexpected spike in brain pressure, Max’s EEG went flat. “At first, I thought the machine was broken,” Dina says. “He basically experienced brain death. At that point, his heart was beating artificially. If there was some activity, would I have turned off the respirator? No! But there was nothing.”

Dina and Jonah made the painful decision to donate Max’s organs, which later saved three lives. Cruelly, that process could not begin for another 24 hours, until his artificially-respirated body had expunged the chemicals used to keep him in a hypothermic coma. At night, after the throngs of TV cameras left the hospital, Dina went back to the Coronado house and retrieved her son’s favorite soccer uniform. With the help of her friend Susan – and a helpful nurse, who temporarily removed some of Max’s tubes and wires – Dina dressed her son one last time. She pulled the shorts over his legs, tied his cleats and used some gel to style his hair in the fauxhawk he liked so much. She fell asleep next to him, and in the morning, for one dreamlike split-second, she forgot he’d ever been hurt.

In Dina’s dream, Max is wearing a familiar blue shirt and sporting his trademark grin. He jumps in her arms and they dance over soft grass. In the dream, Dina knows he died but accepts without reservation his return. Reincarnation as dream logic.

Waking up is hard. “It’s searing to your very core,” Dina says, sitting in Max’s “meditation room,” where he used to read and take naps. Two walls are filled with framed portraits of Max. Dina often thinks about what he might have looked like as an older boy, or an adult, but tries not to.

Coming back to the Paradise Valley home – populated by so many photos, keepsakes and ghost-like memories – was excruciating, but it was the only place Dina wanted to be. Tormented by happy memories.

Dina remembers the moment she began clawing herself out of the malaise. It was a February day in this very room. “What should I do, Maxie?” she asked, looking inside herself, searching for clear echoes of her lost child. “I thought, there must be some reason this happened, some purpose,” she says. “So I looked around the room… and I saw the little house he made for me on Mother’s Day, because he always wanted people to be over to play. And then I knew what I could do to honor Maxie and help other little kids and moms and dads.”

Dina made two resolutions. First, she would plan Max’s memorial. The family had held a private burial, but this would be something bigger and more celebratory.

She also resolved to advocate for divorced parents such as herself and split-custody children like Max. The foundation she envisioned would promote a dialogue between divorcing parents about creating a voluntary “safety plan” that would later oblige each parent to authorize background checks on any adult who might later live under the same roof as their children.

“It would be like a box you check off during the divorce settlement,” Dina says. “Then that negates the whole she’s-just-being-paranoid or he’s-just-being-controlling part of it later on. [The background check] would just be something you do automatically.”

The nonprofit, dubbed Maxie’s H.O.U.S.E. – Health Outreach Understanding advocacy for our kids, Safety and protection, Education and research – has picked up momentum this summer. In June, Lisa Budinger, a friend whose two boys were frequent play pals of Max’s, resigned her position as president and CEO of the Arizona College Scholarship Foundation to run Maxie’s H.O.U.S.E. as its president and COO. She echoes Dina’s claims that the foundation’s aims are not about “attacking your ex” or “creating an invasive climate.” A divorcee who says she experienced a “safety concern” involving her kids, Budinger suggests that social mores have not caught up with the reality of widespread divorce and shared-custody situations. “It’s just a completely different dynamic with families today,” she says. “You have to navigate a system full of holes, and everybody is just muddling through trying to figure it out.”

Pointing to studies that show higher-than-normal child abuse rates among households in which at least one adult is not a parent, Budinger likens background-check-agreements to the advent of seatbelts – a good-sense preemptive measure that will gradually gain acceptance. “Would you give someone you just started living with your ATM [card]?” she asks. “Probably not. But would you let them spend time with your child? You probably are.”

It’s impossible to parse Dina’s motivations for starting Maxie’s H.O.U.S.E. from her suspicions that Rebecca was not forthright about her son’s injuries. Dina expresses sympathy for Rebecca and the Zahau family (“I feel horrible for Rebecca… a loss is a loss… it’s sad and painful for everyone.”) but also believes a background-check agreement would have reduced stress on the family and invited an “extra layer of scrutiny” that might have benefited Max.

Though she stops short of positing an alternate theory about the “incident” that took her son’s life, Dina ticks off perceived inconsistencies and improbabilities in the official Coronado Police report, which included a diagram showing how Max might have tripped or fallen over the staircase banister. She points out that the caricature of Max in the diagram makes him look taller than his 3-feet-9-inches, and scoffs at the notion that Max may have used a scooter to achieve the momentum necessary to carry him over the banister and into the chandelier. “The doctors ruled out a heart condition on the Thursday before he died,” Dina says. “Then detectives started propagating the scooter theory. He was not a daredevil. He was just not that kind of boy.”

She also wonders why he didn’t suffer lacerations from the chandelier: “So he took this scooter with him over the banister, took out a chandelier with a flying tiger kick and [sustained] no cuts? How did he do that?”

Dina also casts doubt on the veracity of Rebecca’s statements to the police. She flatly refuses to believe Max rasped the name of Rebecca’s Weimaraner, Ocean, before lapsing into unconsciousness, as Rebecca claimed. “Really, that was his dying declaration?” she asks. “The dog trips him or whatever, and he lies there on the ground trying to declare the name of his malefactor? It’s preposterous.” She also wonders why Rebecca told the police she performed CPR, when, she says, “the EMT report stated definitively that CPR was not administered.”

She also puts stock in observations made by Dr. Brad Peterson, chief of the intensive care unit at Rady Children’s Hospital, where Max spent his last few days. According to search warrants unsealed in September 2011, Peterson “did not feel the visible injuries were consistent with the cardiac arrest and brain swelling experienced by [Max] Shacknai. Dr. Peterson expressed concerns [that]… suffocation may have occurred prior to Shacknai’s fall.” (See sidebar, right.)

Dina says she doesn’t think Coronado police detectives thoroughly vetted the Spreckels mansion for clues, or properly interviewed Rebecca’s sister Xena as a witness. When Coronado police detectives visited the Valley in August 2011 to debrief her, Dina asked them if they checked to see if Xena – who was allegedly taking a shower during the incident – had wet hair. “They didn’t have a clear answer,” Dina recalls.

Based on information shared by someone close to the Shacknais, Dina also alleges that Rebecca was a “jiu jitsu expert” who demonstrated her mastery in “not a playful way.” “‘She wouldn’t let me up until I tapped out,’” Dina quotes her source as saying.

Of course, Rebecca Zahau is no longer here to defend herself from what, in a court of law, might be dismissed as circumstantial evidence and hearsay. Dina says she is conscious of this but feels a stronger debt to her son – and his legacy. “I know he had the judgment, character and skill not to just fly off some banister,” she says. “So I think we have a long way to go.”

“It’s been really hard to be quiet and say nothing,” Dina says. “I still think [Max] is my responsibility. It’s still my job to find out what really happened to him. Isn’t it? Just because he’s not here doesn’t mean it’s not my job.”

On June 7, 2012 – the day his soccer-loving son Max would have turned 7 years old – Jonah Shacknai launched MaxInMotion, a nonprofit foundation conceived to give financially-disadvantaged Valley youth access to organized sports. Max’s older teenage siblings, Gabriele and Ethan, are co-directors of the foundation.

Dina Shacknai applauds MaxInMotion but says she was not asked to participate, learning of its existence via “a one-line text message” on the day before its launch. She also says that Jonah declined to contribute resources to Maxie’s H.O.U.S.E. – the foundation she launched in July.

In response, Jonah released this statement through his publicist: “I respect Dina’s efforts to help others through her creation of Maxie’s H.O.U.S.E. My children, close friends, members of the community and I launched MaxInMotion… to also provide a much-needed community service and commemorate Max in a very meaningful way. Since then, hundreds of caring friends and members of the community have participated by visiting the website, volunteering and donating funds… Everyone is welcome and appreciated for joining us in these efforts.”

For information on Maxie’s H.O.U.S.E., visit

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Rebuttal: Coronado PD
On September 2, 2011 – at a joint media briefing held at San Diego County Sheriff’s Headquarters – the Coronado Police Department presented its findings in the death investigation of Max Shacknai. The short-form version: Max’s death was an accident and not the result of foul play. An artist’s rendering commissioned by the CPD (see graphic) shows how the 6-year-old may have tumbled over the railing at the Spreckels mansion while roughhousing.

Dina Shacknai privately expressed misgivings about the investigation in meetings with CPD detectives in 2011. She claims that Max’s stated weight in the report – 57 pounds – was wildly off-the-mark; an important variable in calculating his momentum and center of gravity. (A May 2011 medical exam weighed him at 44 pounds.) She also says the figure in the rendering looks “too tall” to be her 3-foot-9-inch son.

Despite Dina’s objections, CPD Commander Tom Lawton stands by the report: “We contracted with a biometric professional, a consultant, to look at the biomechanics of the fall. We presented the most likely scenario of how the fall occurred.” He also dismisses the theory that Max might have been smothered, which gained traction after Max’s intensive care physician, Dr. Brad Peterson, observed evidence of suffocation. “The word ‘suffocation’ brings to mind somebody putting their hand over somebody else’s mouth,” Lawton says. “What it really means is loss of oxygen. And that could happen by striking one’s head and cracking one’s vertebrae [as Max’s autopsy indicated]. But to assume it was suffocation in the way the public sees it, as foul play, we found no evidence of that.”

Lawton maintains that Dina’s other forensic objections – the lack of chandelier-caused cuts on Max’s body, inconsistent statements made by Rebecca Zahau, etc. – all fit within the plausible framework of the report. “We’re very confident in the disposition of this case,” he says. “We understand that some Shacknai family members have questions. We’re respectful of [Dina’s] concerns and have talked to her many times. But we see it differently.”

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