By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
In February 2013, two Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD) homicide detectives and a prosecutor activated a surreptitious recording device in a central courthouse room. They guided Amy Nguyen—who they hoped would be their star grand jury witness in an unsolved Mediterranean cruise-ship murder—to the location and demonstrated concern for her well-being with saccharine chit-chat. After that, the three law-enforcement officials made disingenuous excuses for leaving the terrified woman alone.
Nguyen did not want to testify for the prosecution, which was gearing up for the trial concerning the May 2006 brutal killing of Ladera Ranch resident Micki Kanesaki aboard the cruise ship Island Escape. But she couldn't deny her link to the deceased woman. Fate placed the 4-foot-11-inch, 99-pound, 1998 Vietnamese immigrant and Kanesaki in consecutive marriages to the government's key suspect: Lonnie Kocontes, an Irvine attorney who'd taken Kanesaki on the cruise.
A subpoena compelled Nguyen to fly from the San Jose area, where she worked as a middle-school teacher, to Orange County's John Wayne Airport, ostensibly for a secret grand jury. Her worries weren't just that each of her contacts with Kanesaki had been unpleasant in a battle for Kocontes' attention. The Japanese native, who was Nguyen's senior by more than six years, liked to call her far more sexually frisky adversary "a Third World slut." Nguyen also feared perjury charges for telling law enforcement highly contradictory stories about the months before and after the murder.
In December 2006, a federal grand jury probed Kanesaki's death, but the inquiry didn't result in an indictment against Kocontes, who'd struggled with drugs several decades earlier and earned a criminal record without a history of violence. The failure to blame him for the murder wasn't surprising. Despite intense efforts, neither Italian police nor the FBI developed damning cases against him. There were no eyewitnesses or forensic smoking guns to unmask the killer's identity. Plus both Nguyen and Billy J. Price, the suspect's buddy and a Florida private investigator, strongly backed Kocontes' innocence.
"I have always found Mr. Kocontes to be of the highest moral character and very ethical in his dealings with everyone," Price said in a 2007 statement. "I have no qualms recommending Mr. Kocontes to anyone."
With the federal case at a standstill, U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) officials sent their Kanesaki files to Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas. The district attorney's office (OCDA) enjoys a track record of solving cold-case homicides. Despite glaring evidentiary deficiencies and a legal question about how a local DA in California could have jurisdiction over a crime 6,446 miles away, federal officials hoped Rackauckas would have more success.
The case landed with Senior Deputy District Attorney Susan Price, one of the OCDA's rising stars. The deputy DA got a break after Price—Kocontes' PI friend who is not related to the prosecutor—decided three years after the crime to turn on the suspect following an unrelated personal dispute. The PI amended his previous statements to portray Kocontes as likely guilty of murdering Kanesaki for financial gain. To win an indictment, the prosecutor needed Nguyen to drastically alter her prior federal testimony and parallel the PI's newest view.
But there was a huge problem.
Nguyen didn't like or trust the gregarious PI, a former Washington, D.C., cop and a Kroll & Associates detective-agency executive with numerous service accolades. Price met Kocontes in 1994, worked as his investigator on cases involving CIGNA Insurance Companies, and became the attorney's best friend. Nguyen knew of their closeness and was suspicious of Price's motives for altering his story about the killing, sentiments she voiced to the prosecutor.
When the two sheriff's detectives and the deputy DA placed Nguyen in the aforementioned private, courthouse room before her state grand jury appearance, the witness had no clue she'd been set up for a ham-fisted ambush. The prosecutor opened the door for the PI. The move startled Nguyen, causing immense anxiety that worsened when the deputy DA left the two controversial witnesses alone.
Court documents reviewed by the Weekly suggest the OCDA brought the PI to Orange County for a special mission: influence an uncooperative Nguyen before she testified. Price, a seasoned interrogator, launched into a 30-minute, high-pressure harangue designed to incense Nguyen.
"[Kocontes] is no fucking good!" said the PI, explaining his theory of the killing as well as his rejection of his 20-year close friendship with Kocontes.
Nguyen—who earned a master's degree in education/administration and supervision—resisted collaboration. An emotional Price alternately praised and challenged her integrity. She resisted. He mocked and sassed her. She resisted. He told the relatively poor public-school teacher of his substantial wealth and assured her he would personally aid her. She resisted. He insisted he knew Kocontes killed Kanesaki. She resisted. He stated Kocontes "raped a 15-year-old and this poor girl was damaged." Already aware of the unsubstantiated charge, Nguyen still resisted.
But Price ultimately found a nerve and strummed it. He told the 52-year-old woman that Kocontes called her a whore. Nguyen immediately began crying. "He called me a whore?" she asked.
"He told me basically you were good because he used to tap your ass," the PI said. "You want me to be honest with you? That's what he said. He said that you loved to get it in the ass."