CEO Shacknai Wields Small Army Against Speculation on Death of His Girlfriend

Last Updated Sep 8, 2011 12:59 PM EDT

Medicis (MRX) CEO Jonah Shacknai's threat to sue the lawyer representing the family of his late girlfriend, who was found bound and hanging naked from a balcony at his Coronado, Calif., home on July 13, is an attempt to do the impossible: Dampen speculation about the death.

The Shacknai family has reportedly hired two lawyers, a PR firm and a private detective since the death, which has officially been declared a suicide.

Shacknai hired a PR firm, Sitrick & Co., less than a week after Rebecca Zahau Nalepa's death. Executives at that agency have had a series of off-the-record conversations with reporters whom the agency believes have made mistakes in their coverage.

Media coverage has changed: A source close to the case told BNET that Rebecca told her family she believed Max, Shacknai's 6-year-old son, may have been "planking" on a stair rail before he suffered a fatal fall two days before she died. (Planking is a fad in which people photograph themselves lying face down in unusual locations.) USA Today initially published a story that included the planking reference, but that word was removed from later editions, as these images of Google's cache of two older versions of the story show:



USA Today did not return a message requesting comment. San Diego officials said at their press conference on the deaths that they had not heard of the planking theory from any witness, but there were no witnesses as to what Max was doing before he died. They theorized he must have run at the stair rail in order to gain enough momentum to sail over it and hit a chandelier before landing on the floor below.

A lawyer appears hours after the death
On the day Rebecca's body was found, attorney Paul Pfingst, a former two-term district attorney in San Diego and now a local criminal defense attorney, showed up at the crime scene and claimed to represent an unknown member of the Shacknai family. When asked about Pfingst's role in the case, San Diego officials said they had not had contact with him. Pfingst did not return a message requesting comment.

Shacknai also hired a private detective to look into the death of Rebecca (and also to pick up her dog from a kennel).

And when the San Diego Sheriff's Department presented their findings in the case -- that although Rebecca's death was unusual it was nonetheless a suicide -- the presentation included a letter from Shacknai thanking the police for their work, which is unusual in criminal investigations.

Shacknai fights back
It is not clear what influence the lawyers, the PR firm and the private detective have had on the case. Police found no evidence of foul play and no evidence that a third party may have been present when Rebecca died. Yet the strange, ritualistic manner of her death and a message written in the third-person left at the scene have inspired thousands of comments from readers under hundreds of stories who don't believe it was suicide.

The cease-and-desist letter to the lawyer representing the Zahau family is Shacknai's first overt attempt to hit back at those who do not believe Rebecca killed herself.

Anne Bremner, an attorney who represents the Zahau family, has been vocal in her assertion that she does not believe Zahau committed suicide, that the message painted on a bedroom door -- "She saved him can you save her?" -- at the scene was not a suicide note, and that more attention should be paid to bruises on her head that she alleges are not consistent with hanging.

In the letter, Shacknai's lawyer told Bremner that her statements that he is rich and powerful enough to influence law enforcement officials' investigation of the deaths are "false" and "constitute defamation, per se." The letter claims that Shacknai "never once considered retaining an attorney" throughout the investigation and that "it is only now," because of Bremner's allegations, that he has had to do so. That statement stands in contradiction to Sheriff Bill Gore, who told the Sept. 2 press conference that Shacknai had lawyers present when his department briefed the family on their findings prior to their public release.

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