Lonnie Kocontes' Love Boat

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

On May 21, 2006, Kocontes made arrangements for a neighbor to take care of his beloved dog, Snowy, and then drove with Kanesaki to LAX. The couple flew from California to London and Spain, boarded the Island Escape on May 23 and occupied balcony cabin 9579 with two beds. On her last day alive, May 25, the couple took a city-excursion tour in Messina, Italy; dined aboard the ship; watched a comedy show in the casino; and, with a partially unfinished bottle of wine, returned to their cabin near midnight. While finishing the bottle, they discussed plans for the upcoming Naples trip.

Around 1 a.m., Kocontes, still hampered by jet lag, took an Ambien sleeping pill while Kanesaki said she was leaving the cabin to purchase a cup of herbal tea from the buffet, according to a statement he gave to Italian authorities. When he awoke at 4:30 a.m., she was missing, the light on her side of the cabin remained on, and her bed hadn't been slept in. His search of the ship proved fruitless. At 5 a.m., he notified the ship's customer-relations office of the situation and repeatedly talked to Price on the phone. The crew circulated a photograph of Kanesaki, but none of the other 2,000 passengers—including people on either side of Kocontes' cabin—reported seeing or hearing anything suspicious during the night.

When the ship docked in Naples, the police boarded and secured the cabin. Officers found an empty wine bottle in the trash can, but "everything looked in place," according to a report. Forensic testing for potential evidence of a struggle found nothing, the same result as searches of the ocean for the missing woman. Local police assumed Kanesaki went overboard in the middle of the night somewhere between Messina and Naples and grilled Kocontes for hours. They even ordered him to sign a document written in Italian. Experiencing an insurmountable language barrier, the attorney contacted U.S. officials for assistance. Cruise officials eventually secured him a hotel room in Naples and resumed the Mediterranean voyage without him.

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

On May 27, with U.S. consulate officials telling him the chances of Kanesaki being found alive were zero, Kocontes followed Price's advice to return to America, but he didn't advise Italian police about his departure. He flew into New York's JFK Airport, called Nguyen from a payphone and cried. "He said, 'We went on a cruise, and I don't know what happened; Micki fell off the boat,'" Nguyen told the federal grand jury about the conversation. "I didn't believe it. I did not believe it for a long time. I said, 'No! No!'"

When Kocontes eventually landed at LAX, he didn't drive to his Ladera Ranch home. He went to visit Nguyen in Riverside. She recalled he was exhausted and distraught: "He was all crying, eyes sobbing." She fixed him chicken soup, listened to his ramblings and let him sleep on her sofa. "He kept saying, 'I wish I knew what happened to her.'"

Later, FBI agents questioned Kocontes, asked him to strip, and photographed his body in an unsuccessful search for bruises or scratches that might indicate he'd been in a struggle. He also agreed to a second interview and voluntarily supplied a DNA sample. Yet the agents—who were puzzled that the attorney left Italy without waiting for an outcome—didn't hide their suspicions.

Back in Italy, authorities wondered if Kanesaki committed suicide, accidentally fell overboard or was murdered. The answer arrived on May 28—shortly after Kocontes' U.S. return. Approximately 36 hours after she'd gone missing, and about 20 miles off the coast of Vibo Valentia, a boat crew discovered her floating, decomposing cadaver dressed in a blue T-shirt and light-green pajama pants. A June 7 autopsy found bruises on both arms and her right thigh "due to intense grabbing maneuvers," as well as hemorrhaging in the soft tissues and muscles of her neck.

"Therefore, it is correct to assert that the cause of death of Micki Kanesaki was due to acute cardio-respiratory insufficiency generated by mechanical asphyxia due to strangulation," according to an Italian law-enforcement report. The murderer attacked Kanesaki, repeatedly banged her skull on a solid object, strangled her and tossed the corpse overboard. Forensic clues hinted at a possible sexual-assault attempt. Italian officials concluded, "[Bruises on] the thigh could be interpreted as an attempt for a forceful sex act, even though there are no signs of trauma in the vulva and anal areas."

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Based on the assertions of Kanesaki's family and friends that the woman was independently worth several million dollars, FBI agents believed they had the motive for the killing. But financial records, including bank and investment statements, didn't support that theory. David Michael, Kocontes' San Francisco-based defense lawyer, reports the death resulted in about a $200,000 windfall to his client, though OCDA places the amount at $730,000 more.

After the cruise, Kocontes sold the Ladera Ranch house and, by 2007, had moved to Safety Harbor, Florida, a tiny city of 17,000 residents near Tampa. There, he hoped to revive his law career and married Katherine Kern, a young Thai woman he'd met through his sister-in-law, who is also from Thailand.

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