With millions of words comprising countless boring sentences uttered every week in Orange County Superior Court, it’s rare that a fresh Broadway play-type line unexpectedly spews.
But we can thank accused murderer Lonnie Kocontes for prompting semi-snoozing journalists to lift their chins off their chests, open their eyes wide, smile and put pen to paper.
Kocontes—a former Irvine civil attorney who’s been villainously featured on national network TV crime shows like NBC’s Dateline following the sensational, so-far unsolved Mediterranean Sea cruise ship murder of his second wife—barked arguably the best courthouse line of the year in recent days.
On June 12, the defendant, who was handcuffed to a wooden chair, angrily told Judge Richard M. King, “Hit men don’t send invoices!”
That statement had nothing to do with the 2006 strangulation of Micki Kanesaki, whose corpse was found floating in the ocean off the coast of Italy while vacationing with Kocontes on what she may have expected to be a pleasant, post-divorce reconciliation trip.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Suzie Price is hoping to nail Kocontes for that cold-case murder as well as for allegedly enticing hit men in 2014 to make his third wife, Amy Nguyen, permanently disappear.
The soft-spoken Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant and San Jose-area school teacher by profession, is a central player in both cases. Her testimony factored in the non-indictment of her ex-husband during federal grand jury proceedings early in the Kanesaki probe. An FBI investigation additionally determined nobody witnessed the crime and forensic evidence couldn’t positively identify the killer.
But, years later, after a bitter Kocontes nemesis frightened Nguyen into believing she could be the next victim, she changed her story and helped Price win a state court indictment, according to court records reviewed by the Weekly.
In her new version, Nguyen claims Kocontes admitted in advance of the Mediterranean cruise that two hired hit men would toss Kanesaki overboard.
That alleged information collected cobwebs over the years and, nonetheless, became the tardy tale basis for the county prosecutor to win an indictment. Grabbing jurisdiction from federal agents, Price argued that even though the killing occurred more than 6,300 miles away, the murder plot began here when Kocontes purchased the vacation tickets.
Law enforcement thoroughly investigated the ship’s passenger list but found no evidence that any contract killer had boarded.
Given that fact, Price thinks Kocontes strangled his ex-wife in their cabin, tossed her limp body into the water in the wee hours of the morning as other vacationers slept and waited until after sunrise to appear distraught as he declared her inexplicably missing.
While battles over jurisdiction ensued for several years, two career criminals—Anthony King and Maverick Semanu, who’d had falling outs with Kocontes—told Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) investigators they’d been solicited to get Nguyen’s signature on an affidavit undermining the flip-flop testimony that had aided Price.
“[King] said Mr. Kocontes asked if he or someone else would contact his ex-wife and get her to recant or kill her,” natty OCSD Sergeant Don Voght told the judge this week.
Our sheriff’s department has a long, remorseless history of illegally using informants, hiding evidence of the plots from juries, and then committing perjury in cover ups, a fact well-established by what has become nationally known as the Orange County jailhouse informant scandal.
But the three testifying department investigators—Voght, Alex Quilantan and Bill Beeman—insist King first voluntarily came forward with the Nguyen murder plot four months after obtaining it because he was supposedly concerned for her safety, the standard less-than-convincing line in the cutthroat snitch world where grabbing cash payments and punishment perks is standard fare—not altruism.
During questioning, Kocontes, who represented himself, tried to poke holes in the government’s case by noting King and Semanu gave what he sees as nonsensical, contradictory stories about key topics.
For example, the two men—who were not called to the witness stand by Price—didn’t agree about the defendant’s payment offer and terms. Was the job worth $2,000? Or $100,000? Or $1 million? Was Nguyen to be murdered whether or not she signed the affidavit? Or killed only if she refused to cooperate? The convicted felons produced differing accounts.
During the OCSD investigation in league with King, a secretly placed recording device in the Theo Lacy Jail cell occupied by Kocontes and King failed to capture the defendant talk about harming Nguyen as a way to sabotage the pending Mediterranean murder case, according to the defense.
Recordings did memorialize Kocontes saying something like, “If your guy wants to bill me, [I’ll pay later].”
In his June 12 closing argument, the defendant pleaded with Judge King to ponder the government’s logic, saying the aforementioned, “Hitmen don’t send invoices!”
Kocontes conceded, however, that he did want Nguyen approached—only “to obtain the truth from [her]” but he didn’t consider her “the enemy,” the defense claims tapes prove.
“The idea that a lawyer would believe an affidavit [alone] would free him [from a murder charge] is unbelievable on its face,” he said. “[I’d] know that’s not going to be admissible.”
But the prosecutor summoned Beeman—a wily 29-year deputy who delights in utilizing voice-altering phone equipment. He played the role of “Greg,” King’s thuggish cold-blooded assassin pal in the theatrics. According to this deputy, Kocontes discussed the murder solicitation plan during several telephone calls by using code that relied on real estate terminology.
When it was his turn to ask questions at the preliminary hearing, the defendant pressed Beeman to admit there had been no mention of murder or bribery between them.
“From my recollection, the big thing you were concerned about was keeping ‘the property off the market,’” the deputy replied to Kocontes, who observed that “ambiguous code talk” doesn’t “mean anything.”
That argument caught the ire of Price, who moonlights as a respected, two-term member of the city council in Long Beach.
Chatting with a man posing as a killer by using real estate terms with a “non real estate agent” is weighty corroboration of Kocontes’ guilt, she argued.
To her, “keeping the property off the market” meant killing Nguyen.
She said, “Basically, he was shopping the jail for someone to commit this crime for him.”
During the preliminary hearing, Judge King, a former homicide prosecutor in Price’s unit, demonstrated both ample patience with Kocontes’ habitual inability to follow the court’s rules as well as genuine consideration of his arguments.
It’s now up to King to decide if he believes kinks in the credibility of the snitches and deputies warrant blocking advancement of the solicitation of murder case to a trial.
I’m guessing it won’t.
The judge, a 19-year veteran of the bench, said he will announce his ruling on June 18.
[UPDATE: As expected, the judge agreed to push the case to a jury trial.]
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; obtained one of the last exclusive prison interviews with Charles Manson disciple Susan Atkins; won inclusion in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Best American Crime Reporting for his coverage of a white supremacist’s senseless murder of a beloved Vietnamese refugee; launched multi-year probes that resulted in the FBI arrests and convictions of the top three ranking members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department; and gained praise from New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.