Lonnie Kocontes' Love Boat

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

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.

The FBI gave Price's tape to Rackauckas' office. Nguyen admitted that she'd lied about the night of Kocontes' return from Italy. Yes, he'd been distraught about the death, but he hadn't slept on the sofa. They had what she called "comfort" sex, and he left at sunrise. The tape prompted the OCDA to open its case.

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

Though police-tilting Orange County judges have been known to ignore evidence of law-enforcement officers committing perjury, a citizen lying under oath—especially in a murder case—isn't as likely to be readily pardoned. Perjury is a felony that risks imprisonment for as much as four years. In reality, however, prosecutors don't file charges if a witness flip-flops on prior sworn statements and testifies in alignment with the government's theory of a case.

Despite the ability to overlook undeniable proof of Nguyen's perjury, OCDA couldn't ignore that the Price/McQueen recording presented an obstacle: How could she reasonably explain her contradictory federal grand jury testimony? She'd initially stated she knew nothing about a murder plot, didn't learn about the cruise until afterward and vouched for Kocontes' genuine emotional devastation about the death.

Nowadays, Nguyen blames Kocontes for her lies. She says he repeatedly called her on the telephone before her federal court appearance and coached her to give false answers. That contention placated the OCDA's concerns. However, Michael, Kocontes' attorney along with colleague James A. Bustamante, labeled Nguyen's tale "convoluted." Asks Michael: Does it make sense that a 20-year attorney who theoretically took great care to get away with murder and complained about continual FBI harassment would risk a phone wiretap that would expose him as a murderer who told his ex-wife to perjure herself?

Having offered an excuse for the content of her federal testimony, Nguyen also explained her motivation for lying. She says Kocontes threatened to have her killed if she didn't follow his orders. During a 2013 interview, OCSD homicide investigator Alex Quilantan asked how the attorney delivered his threat. Most people would remember specifics about a death threat, but Nguyen couldn't recall a single detail. She wasn't even positive if the alleged threat happened in person or during a phone call. To Quilantan's attempt for more specificity, she replied, "And he [said] that, yeah, that's why he said don't say anything about it or, or I will have [Bill Price's] people come and kill you and make it look like an accident."

If fear that Price's people would kill her caused her enough concern to lie to a federal grand jury, why had she agreed to meet with Price and McQueen when they confronted her, in person and unannounced, in 2009? After off-the-record discussions, she even allowed them to record her making damning statements against Kocontes. Nguyen now declared her divorce from the attorney had been the result of Kanesaki possessing the never-before-mentioned blackmail document, whose existence, if true, might give the OCDA another motive for murder.

When Nguyen met with the OCDA in February 2013, she informed deputy DA Price, "Everything I know came from [PI Price]." Then, unaware she was already being recorded, Nguyen insisted on making a request off the record: She wanted to erase a portion of her federal testimony seven years earlier.

"I don't know where to start," Nguyen said. "In [federal] court, I said I slept with someone [to cause Kocontes to divorce me]. It's not true."

This self-serving assertion might possess more believability if Price hadn't unequivocally told the FBI in 2006 that he knew the reason Kocontes divorced Nguyen: her infidelity. Or if her original story of her sex-revenge escapade hadn't included a name of a man who is no longer around to challenge her claim. He died in December 2005 at the age of 52.

Despite Nguyen's credibility issues, as well as zero evidence of any mysterious killers, a blackmail document or a burglary at Kanesaki's parents' home, the deputy DA accepted her star witness' latest story without reservation.

"I want you to know, understand, I'm telling you from my heart, I will do whatever I can to protect you," Deputy DA Price assured her. "I don't believe you had anything to do with Micki's death. I don't believe that you killed Micki or that you were involved in killing Micki. I don't believe that at all. But I do believe that you're a witness who has information about the person who killed Micki."

Implying Price's oral immunity assurances weren't sufficient, Nguyen demanded a written deal blocking any charges tied to the murder. The deputy DA complied. "You are not going to be prosecuted for perjuring yourself in 2006," Price said. "However, if you testify in the future and you lie . . . you may be prosecuted for perjury. The most important thing to me is that you tell the truth."

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