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
Federal agents had failed to make a case against Kocontes, but they refused to abandon pursuit. In November 2008, DOJ prosecutors declared him guilty of murder in civil proceedings to justify confiscating more than $1 million of his savings from a Florida bank account. Inside Orange County's Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse, U.S. Magistrate Judge Marc Goldman considered the government's case for guilt, including FBI statistics indicating "the most prevalent form of female homicide is homicide committed by an intimate partner."
The DOJ case failed to impress Goldman. He rejected each of the government's assertions, labeling some of the claims against Kocontes "unsupported speculation," "circular" logic or just wrong. The judge said the evidence indicated the killing did not occur in the couple's cabin and that nobody knows where the crime happened or where the corpse was tossed overboard or even if a killer lurked undetected on the cruise staff.
"While Kocontes was at the scene of the crime, so were the more than 2,000 passengers and crew who were also onboard," wrote Goldman in a 2012 ruling. "Thus, there is no physical, visual or aural evidence linking Kocontes to the murder."
FBI agents attempted to find holes in the suspect's story and asserted they'd succeeded by claiming Kocontes lied about Kanesaki also taking an Ambien before her death. Autopsy results for the pill were negative for the drug. But Goldman corrected the government agents. Kocontes had stated they'd both agreed to take the pill, but he'd also noted he didn't know if she had done so because she'd walked inside the cabin's bathroom.
The judge also discarded the use of FBI statistics as evidence of Kocontes' guilt. "While suspicion naturally would focus on the domestic partner in a case such as this, suspicion is not enough," Goldman wrote. "When all is said and done, the government has presented nothing more than allegations and speculation to support its claim that Kocontes murdered Kanesaki."
* * *
Kocontes could have continued to evade law enforcement if not for one crucial mistake: He angered his pal Price and McQueen.
In February 2008, Tampa-area resident Edward Bujanowski hired Kocontes to represent him in a civil action for a $25,000 cash deposit and a 30 percent contingency fee. Because he did not have a Florida bar license, Kocontes asked a judge to allow him to use his California bar membership to work on the Bujanowski case pro hac vice—with a special exemption. A judge approved the request in October 2007, but he revoked it two months later, after lawyers for the defendant discovered Kocontes had been sent to prison in Nebraska in the 1970s, according to court records. Lawyer-less, Bujanowski requested the return of his full deposit and ended up suing Kocontes, who was willing to refund only $5,000. He claimed his private investigator—McQueen—had already billed $20,000 in the matter.
That case got messy and, according to Price, resulted in McQueen wanting to "slap Lonnie" in the face. On a recording made by the OCDA's office, Price explained the reason he and McQueen turned on their friend. "[Kocontes] had another lawsuit called the Bujanowski lawsuit, and he tried to put [McQueen] in a bind with those attorneys, and she could have lost her [PI] license and everything else," he said. "He lied about Susan, about taking money. . . . He got her in a lot of trouble."
The Florida couple that had spoken so highly of Kocontes to the FBI in 2006 after Kanesaki's murder now, three years later, were upset by what they saw as an unforgivable betrayal. In January 2009, the two PIs flew to San Francisco, found Nguyen, participated in non-recorded discussions and elicited a new version of events on tape. The teacher claimed she knew in advance about the plot to kill Kanesaki on the cruise, urged Kocontes to not do it (but failed to alert authorities) and claimed Kocontes told her Price would have two mafia characters execute the crime undetected. After the murder, Kocontes planned to return to her, Nguyen contended.
"Lonnie told me that, uh, Bill had a big connection that, uh, we have just have people to do that—throw Micki, throw Micki out of the boat," Nguyen told McQueen.
She also raised two puzzling mysteries. After Kocontes allegedly threatened to use information contained on her laptop computer to name her as an accomplice to the murder, she says, she followed his telephonic orders to remove the hard drive and give it to him. Nguyen also asserted that the real reason Kocontes divorced her was because Kanesaki blackmailed him with a secret document tying him to an unknown financial crime. She says Kocontes told her that Price's associates, the same ones who were supposedly involved in the murder, broke into the Los Angeles home of Kanesaki's parents and retrieved the document before the cruise.
"Lonnie told me," Nguyen said, "that Bill give [sic] him instruction to go marry a mutual girl, get married to somebody else, or both of us to get married so they, that they won't . . ."
"So that it wouldn't look suspicious?" McQueen interrupted.
"After Micki's death?"
McQueen replied, "Lonnie lies a lot."
In Nguyen's mind, Price's recording of the last part of their conversation was only for his personal use. But the PI delivered the bombshell recording to the FBI, the same agency to whom he had vouched for Kocontes. Seven years after Kanesaki's killing, Price now recalled ominous-sounding memories he forgot to tell investigators: While researching the fateful vacation, Kocontes asked him about the location of security cameras on cruise ships—none were on the Island Escape—and, after the incident, contemplated moving to a country without an extradition treaty with the U.S.