Prominent Twin Cities businessman Irwin Jacobs and his wife were found dead Wednesday in their Lake Minnetonka home in an apparent murder-suicide, according to a close friend and business associate.
Orono Police Chief Correy Farniok said officers who responded to the Shoreline Drive home shortly after 8:30 a.m. found the bodies in a bed along with a gun.
Jacobs for much of his career was a nationally known investor who looked for unrecognized value in companies and sometimes made huge profits with short-term stock trades. Alexandra Jacobs was an accomplished painter and a devoted mother and grandmother who avoided the limelight that her husband often relished.
“We are heartbroken by this loss, and we ask that our privacy be respected as we grieve during this very difficult time,” the couple’s children said in a statement, adding that they were shocked and devastated.
The Jacobs children declined further comment.
(The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.)
Dennis Mathisen, a longtime business associate of Irwin Jacobs, told the Star Tribune Wednesday afternoon that Irwin killed his wife and then himself. Both were 77.
Mathisen described himself as a “very dear friend” of Irwin Jacobs. He said Mark Jacobs, a son, and a secretary for Irwin Jacobs, told him of the deaths and that Irwin was responsible for them.
Mathisen said Alexandra Jacobs “had been in a wheelchair for the last year or so and had signs of dementia. Irwin was just distraught over her condition.”
He said he spoke with Irwin Jacobs about three days ago, and “he was upbeat. I talked with his son Mark yesterday, and he talked to both of them. He said Irwin seemed up.”
Keith Carpenter, vice president and general counsel for Hopkins-based Jacobs Management Corp., said late Wednesday afternoon that they were “dealing with a big loss.”
A 911 call
Farniok said police were called by someone who routinely enters the home. He stopped short of describing the case as a murder-suicide, but said no suspects were being sought.
The Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office is expected to release the identities on Thursday.
More than a half-dozen police and sheriff’s vehicles were at the scene, a large, wooded hilltop lot with a commanding view of Lake Minnetonka with hundreds of feet of shoreline along Smith’s Bay. Crime scene tape sealed off the sprawling property surrounding the Georgian Colonial-style mansion.
Bob and Carolyn Nelson, neighbors since 2003, said they heard nothing unusual at the home Wednesday morning and said they found out about the deaths when they returned from an errand later in the day.
Bob Nelson said Jacobs put the house up for sale several years ago, then took it off the market. Jacobs also sold some of the hilltop property for building lots. Several new houses are under construction or have recently been finished.
Jacobs, whose prominence faded in recent years, made a fortune as a corporate raider who bought and liquidated failing companies at a profit. He said he had a fortune of more than $200 million at one point in the 1980s.
For more than 40 years, he has owned J.R. Watkins Co., the Winona-based maker of soaps and other household products that are sold around the country. He owns Jacobs Trading Co. in Hopkins, a retailer specializing in liquidation of merchandise.
He owned boat maker Genmar Holdings Co., which went through a lengthy bankruptcy restructuring earlier this decade. Besides owning a piece of the Vikings for a time, he also bought the Grain Belt beer company in the mid-1970s, along with its distinctive brewery in northeast Minneapolis. He later sold the beer brand to G. Heileman Brewing Company and the brewery to the city of Minneapolis.
A kind, humble woman
While Alexandra Jacobs avoided the spotlight, acquaintances described her as a talented artist and giving person who, along with her husband, was active in PACER Center and Courage Center, which serves people with disabilities. One of the couple’s five children had physical disabilities.
“She was a beautiful, warm, loving mother, wife and friend to many,” said Cassie Burns, a friend and former high school classmate of one of the Jacobs children. “She was totally devoted to her husband and family.”
Jacobs exhibited her watercolors and oil paintings in the 1980s and 1990s at several local galleries and her work hangs in local commercial spaces and homes.
“She painted extensively in oil, water color and ink. And she was active at the Minnetonka art center,” Burns said.
Paula Goldberg, PACER Center executive director, said Alexandra Jacobs often donated her artwork for the auction at the organization’s annual benefit. Irwin Jacobs helped start the live auction years ago when he first offered Goldberg two tickets for a Michael Jackson concert.
“He got up on stage and got $1,000. … That was the kindness of Irwin,” she said.
Alexandra, who long served on PACER’s advisory board, was a warm person who cared about other people, said Goldberg, who last saw Alexandra at one of PACER’s benefits several years ago.
“I’ll remember her smile, her kindness and her humility. She gave of herself,” she added.
In recent years, friends said Alexandra Jacobs struggled with health problems and was often in a wheelchair.
Last fall, at a benefit gala for Abbott Northwestern Hospital, people recalled Jacobs rising from her wheelchair to dance with her husband.
The couple met when she was 19. Irwin Jacobs, a graduate of North High, courted then-Alexandra Light, a year younger and a graduate of Washburn High who grew up near Lake Harriet.
Irwin Jacobs arrived for his first date in 1961 in a leather jacket and alligator loafers.
“He looked kind of gruff,” Alexandra recalled in a 1989 Star Tribune article.
They married in 1962.
It’s unclear what led to their deaths.
But murder-suicides involving caregivers and their partners are often due to multiple factors, and not just because the caregivers “couldn’t take” the responsibilities any longer, said Dan Reidenberg of SAVE, a national suicide prevention organization based in Minnesota.
While the stress of caregiving plays a role, so does the loss of long-term companionship as a loved one suffers dementia or other debilitating conditions, he said. “All murder-suicides tend to involve more than just one thing that causes them.”
Warning signs don’t have to include overt threats, but rather subtle statements such as “my life doesn’t have any purpose anymore” when spouses lose their loved ones to death or illness, he said.
The combination of an aging population, rising health care costs, and increasing anxiety levels is raising the risk for more of these kinds of murder-suicides, Reidenberg said, and the risk exists for all.
“That is a key factor here,” he said. “The public needs to understand that suicides and mental health issues don’t choose you based on the amount of money that you have. Robin Williams had a wealth of resources. Anthony Bourdain had a wealth of resources.”
A 2007 study examined the underlying causes of murder-suicides involving intimate partners by reviewing 225 events and 444 deaths. Most occurred in homes and involved male perpetrators using firearms. Illness was mentioned as a cause in just over half of the cases, according to the study by a University of Utah researcher. But in 30% of these cases involving elderly couples, only the perpetrator was sick. The study also found that these incidents rarely involved pacts in which the couples agreed in advance, and they often involved relationship problems.
Irwin and Alexandra were inseparable, according to a longtime friend who asked not to be named. “They were soul mates,” she said. They held hands, worked together and adored one another, the friend said.
Alexandra broke her hip several years ago and the hip didn’t mend properly, the friend said. “Mobility became difficult.”
But she’ll always remember Alexandra’s artistic talent, humility and lovely laugh.
“She was a great source of strength for Irwin,” her friend said.
Star Tribune staff writers Neal St. Anthony and Jeremy Olson contributed to this report.