Lonnie Kocontes' Love Boat

The Irvine lawyer escaped charges he murdered his ex-wife. Then another ex-wife and a friend turned on him

Lonnie Kocontes' Love Boat
Illustration: Cameron K. Lewis | Design: Dustin Ames

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.

Happier days: Kocontes and Kanesaki
Happier days: Kocontes and Kanesaki
Cameron K. Lewis

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.

Price pounced.

"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."

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16 comments
18usc241
18usc241 topcommenter

"Deputy DA Price, a 2014 police-union-backed candidate for the Long Beach City Council"

That will be fun. I can verbally shit on Price and Long Beach police Chief Jim McDonnell at LB city council meetings. This is the asshole Chief that thought it was funny to almost cause a traffic accident when me and my wife were in Long Beach celebrating our 15th wedding anniversary. I wonder if this idiot questioned his white female cop yet?

sweetliberty17761776
sweetliberty17761776

hey

oc


your login has a problem 


I havent been able to log in via yahoo for some time now

949girl
949girl topcommenter

I always think men that exclusively date Asian women are a little off.  I can't put my finger on it but there is something odd about a white man only dating Asian women.

949girl
949girl topcommenter

Great article.  What prompted you to write this article now?  Is it going to trial soon?    I almost forgot about this case.  I'm curious, why is this crime being prosecuted in Orange County when the murder took place in Europe?  Is it because it was planned in Orange County?  I can't see the jury believing Nguyen since she's lied so many times. I think this will be one of those cases that will get a hung jury or a not guilty verdict.  But he probably did do it if I had to take a guess.    

jimgilchrist
jimgilchrist

@18usc241  As usual, your comments are not too bright.  Keep posting and you will surely have every reader siding with the cops, which is the most rational thing to do.


Sounds to me like you and your wife were driving under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.  Not surprising for abusive derelicts of society to always blame someone else for the accidents they cause.  You and your old lady really should get some help from a substance abuse counselor, or simply a psychiatrist, whichever applies.  Hmmm…maybe both?


You two are cry-babies.


Jim Gilchrist, Founder and President, The Minuteman Project

ananemous
ananemous

@949girl  What does that have to do with this article? Kocontes is Asian. Can he exclusively date Asian women?


Whophantom
Whophantom

Because they luv them long time...LOL

rscottmoxley
rscottmoxley topcommenter

@949girl  Thank you for your question. I have followed this investigation from the outset, observed the FBi's failure to win an indictment and, when Orange County prosecutors took the Mediterranean Sea murder case, wondered about the strength of what they claimed were new, case-solving facts. An exploration of those alleged "facts" resulted in this news article.

18usc241
18usc241 topcommenter

Oh hi genius! Thanks for the good laugh. You obviously don't know who you are talking to. I'm the last Latino American man your collection of law enforcement morons should have screwed with in Orange County.

By the way, your pals in OC law (otherwise known as the poor man's version of Donald Sterling) would know if I'm a drunkard or druggie since they flushed millions of taxpayer dollars playing racist hate crime games with me since Stan Knee and Brad Gates. Why don't you ask them?

By the way, so classy of you to bring my wife into the discussion.

And LBPD + Chief are still just following orders monkeys. No change since last comment.

949girl
949girl topcommenter

@sweetliberty17761776 @949girlNot even.  Just my opinion that guy's who exclusively date Asian women are strange.  Maybe I struck a nerve with you.  lol

ted.mendez
ted.mendez

@rscottmoxley @949girlNice reply, Moxley. And very interesting story. Seems like it's going to be hard for a jury to believe the "star witness" or that calculating PI. I can see Nguyen being shredded on cross-examination. Nonetheless, very strange goings on in this one.

949girl
949girl topcommenter

@sweetliberty17761776 @949girlIt's not racism to think white men who only date Asian women are weird.  It's an opinion.  My opinion is is that white guys who only date asians are strange. 

949girl
949girl topcommenter

@whateveryousay @949girl@sweetliberty17761776Thank you @whateveryousay.  It wasn't coming from a racist place.  The defendant has 3 women mentioned in this article that are Asian (Japanese, Vietnamese and Thai) so maybe I'm jumping to conclusions when i say he exclusively dates asians but I don't think I'm wrong based on his pattern.  I know a few people through work or mutual friends or even a couple of aquaintances who have an older white dad and broken english speaking Filipino mom.  Every relationship that involves an older white guy and an Asian woman who doesn't speak English that well are just weird...period.  Even the children of these couples have said that their family life was strange. 

whateveryousay
whateveryousay topcommenter

@949girl @sweetliberty17761776  949 is spot on.  I have a friend from long ago that is an Asian only dating guy.  Even before I knew that I thought something was up with him.  He's not evil, just off.  

He calls it Yellow-Fever.


 
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