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."
In the wake of that OCDA-orchestrated meeting, Nguyen discovered she possessed previously unaired details about the murder as well as newfound enthusiasm for Kocontes' guilt. She agreed to testify for the government in exchange for immunity and sought guarantees the public would never learn details of her life. In June 2013, Nguyen's latest version of the truth secured her ex-husband's state indictment for the six-year-old killing of her competitor.
* * *
Though prosecutors believe Kocontes sinisterly arranged the cruise trip as a backdrop for Kanesaki's murder, the idea of taking the late-May 2006 vacation wasn't his. Bill Price, the PI, made the recommendation. His motive wasn't murder; it was reconciliation.
Kocontes and Kanesaki got married in 1995, when they both worked at the Los Angeles law firm O'Melveny & Myers. She was an administrative assistant, and he served as an attorney for corporate clients such as Land Rover North America Inc. In 2001, after moving to Orange County, the couple divorced, but still maintained a shared, if volatile, life together inside a $750,000 Maybeck Lane home in Ladera Ranch.
Price thought a 2006 cruise might ease tensions for the couple. At the time, Kanesaki, who'd quit her $40,000-per-year job, received several thousand dollars each month in state disability checks for arthritic fingers. Photographs depict a sweet woman, but, as reflected in several police contacts, she used booze to fuel angry outbursts against Kocontes, a workaholic who rarely drank. Their divorce occurred after she learned he'd been arrested in Pasadena for allegedly having sex in a motel with a 15-year-old Asian girl parading as an adult. According to Price, Kanasaki's resentment never subsided even though cops dropped the charges after determining the girl operated a fake-victim scam that also ensnared a police officer.
"It was [Kanesaki's] determination to make him miserable [about the incident]," Price told the FBI in July 2006. "She wasn't going to let that go to save her life. And he kept saying, 'I'm innocent.' Um, it was an ongoing battle that she couldn't get past. So when she drank, when she had her glass of wine, you can rest assured that was the first thing that was going to pop up."
In mid-2005, the resentment worsened when the attorney moved out, married Nguyen, bought his new wife a $1 million Orange County home as well as a new Lexus S330, and paid off her $17,000 credit-card debt. About two months into that marriage, Kocontes came home from work one night and smelled an unfamiliar men's cologne on their bed sheets. Nguyen, who'd met Kocontes in about 2003 on MatchDoctor.com, admitted to the federal grand jury she saw an ex-boyfriend in a strip mall parking lot and decided to have "revenge" sex with him because she assumed without proof that Kocontes had been sleeping with a legal assistant. The attorney moved out, relocated back to Ladera Ranch with Kanesaki and, after a less-than-three-month marriage, filed for divorce from the near-penniless Nguyen, who labeled him "cheap" for not letting her keep the home he bought for them.
In the wake of that fiasco, Kocontes—who consistently earned more than $100,000 annually—and Kanesaki tried to repair their relationship. They began attending counseling sessions and named each other the sole beneficiary in December 2005 wills. However, frictions remained.
In his initial FBI interview, Largo, Florida-based PI Price recalled numerous times in late 2005 and early 2006 when a frustrated Kocontes called. During some of these conversations, he heard Kanesaki screaming and breaking household items in the background. The PI called her a "mean" drunk, but a person "Lonnie cared about."
Susan McQueen—Price's girlfriend and also a PI who met Kocontes on the job and respected his skills—told the FBI that Kanesaki "became nasty and embarrassing" when she drank. McQueen decided to forgo future rendezvous after a few dinner dates with the couple. She also remembered an alarming phone conversation with the attorney. "She's flying off the deep end," McQueen recalled Kocontes saying. "She's throwing and breaking a lot of things." Another time, Kocontes called because Kanesaki was on one of "her tangents," had "thrown, like, a computer out the window," and "broke other things and had thrown some things" at him. "I think he thought he needed stitches," McQueen told the FBI agent.
In January 2006, Price spoke on the phone with Kanesaki, who'd been calling Kocontes "every name in the book." That same month, police arrested her for committing domestic violence against the attorney. A judge ordered Kanesaki to enroll in anger-management classes and attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. She might have needed additional therapy had she known Nguyen's sex life with Kocontes hadn't ended.
To relax Kanesaki, Price suggested she go on a trip with Kocontes to her native Japan, but she didn't want to travel there. Next, he recommended what he and McQueen did to relax: a Mediterranean cruise. She replied she didn't think Kocontes would spend the money. Not only did the attorney agree to go, but he also invited Price and McQueen to join them. The Florida couple declined.
* * *
Built with $100 million in France in 1981, the present-day MS Island Escape began its existence as the world's largest car/cargo ferry under a different name. In 1991, the owners converted her into a 623-foot cruiser with 768 cabins at the San Diego shipyards. Though there are three restaurants, six bars, a cyber-café, a theater, a spa, several shops, a salon, a pool and a casino, the boat is marketed to travelers as a "cheap and cheerful," three-star voyage to various Mediterranean ports. Advertisements for the operation used a song with the lyrics "We're going bananas!"
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.
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."
* * *
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.
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.
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.
* * *
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."
Nguyen replied, "Yeah."
* * *
"The totality of the evidence proves beyond a reasonable doubt Kocontes murdered Kanesaki," says Deputy DA Price, a 2014 police-union-backed candidate for the Long Beach City Council. She concedes there are "dramatic inconsistencies" between the various versions of truth her key witnesses have uttered over the years, but she believes they are now telling the truth. She told the Weekly, "I've made that credibility call."
In her statements to the grand jury that returned the indictment, Price argued that Kocontes planned the Kanesaki murder in Ladera Ranch, wanted to return to his relationship with Nguyen because "she never turned him down for sex," argued with a complaining Kanesaki on their trip, and then strangled and beat her to death before tossing her body off their cabin's balcony.
"She went straight down [to the ocean]," said Price. "She was not raped. She was not robbed. The person who killed her took nothing from her. The person who killed her wanted her gone—that was their only motive."
To Michael, Price's version is wishful thinking, her indictment the result of "vile" cheating by manipulating witness statements and withholding exculpatory evidence from the grand jury. He says the OCDA distracted jurors with character assassination, portraying Kocontes as "a money-grubbing, sexual deviant" and scam artist. And Michael, who is seeking a pretrial dismissal of charges, asks, "How was the grand jury supposed to ignore that 'evidence' and focus on the fact that not a scintilla of forensic evidence or eyewitness testimony was offered to support the [prosecution's theory]?"
The two sides continue to acrimoniously battle over Michael's insistence that the deputy DA committed prosecutorial misconduct and whether Price is correct that case law and Kocontes' purchase of cruise tickets while in Orange County justifies her grabbing jurisdiction for the Mediterranean Sea murder. Meanwhile, the 56-year-old defendant remains locked inside OC's Theo Lacy Jail, where he has been denied bail for more than 14 months. Rackauckas has not announced if he will seek the death penalty.