An Irvine attorney booked a “cheap and cheerful” Mediterranean cruise so he could strangle his ex-wife and throw her body overboard to solve his financial disputes with the victim and move into a home in Orange with his new spouse, a prosecutor told jurors Thursday, while the defendant's attorney cast doubt on several witnesses in the case.
Lonnie Loren Kocontes, 62, is charged with murder with a special circumstances allegation for financial gain in the killing of 52-year-old Micki Kanesaki, whose body was recovered by the crew of a research vessel on May 28, 2006, in the Mediterranean Sea near Italy.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Susan Price said Kanesaki, at the time, “was with a man who no longer loved'' Kocontes and had remained with her for “financial'' reasons.
Local news from across Southern California
"Had they not found her body, we would never know she was strangled and was dead before she ever hit the water,'' Price said.
Kocontes, now a resident of Safety Harbor, Florida, and Kanesaki met while working at a Los Angeles law firm, where he was an attorney and she was a paralegal, Price said. They married in 1995 and divorced in 2002, but continued living together in Ladera Ranch and took steps to split up their assets to protect him from threatened litigation, she said.
Kanesaki suffered from severe arthritis and couldn't work as a paralegal any longer, so she turned to investing, according to the prosecutor.
Kocontes met Amy Nguyen through a dating website in 2002 and they had an intimate relationship while the defendant continued living with Kanesaki, who initially “had no idea this affair was happening,'' Price said.
Kocontes' former best friend, Bill Price, is expected to testify that “nothing mattered more to (Kocontes) than money and sex,'' the prosecutor said.
She said Kocontes got married to Nguyen in Las Vegas in 2005 and the two moved in together in Orange. In September of that year, he filed a motion in court to have a judge force Kanesaki to sell their Ladera Ranch home, Price said.
“There was a dispute between the two whose house this was,'' she said, adding Kanesaki did not want to sell the residence or move out.
Eventually, Kocontes dropped the issue, left Nguyen and moved back in with Kanesaki, but told Nguyen he loved her and did not want to leave her, the prosecutor said.
Kocontes then had new wills drawn up for himself and Kanesaki, according to Price, who said Kocontes was named as executor of his ex-wife's estate.
Soon after, the two made plans to go on a cruise, which was unusual because he seldom went on vacation and was known for his thriftiness, Price said.
Before the trip, Kocontes asked his best friend, a private investigator and retired cop, about security on cruise ships, such as surveillance cameras, she said.
Kocontes picked an unusual cruise vacation for Americans because it required a flight to Minnesota and then London before boarding the ship in Spain, Price said. The travel agent was concerned his client might not like it because it was a no-frills trip aboard a converted ferry, she said.
Kocontes “specifically asked for a balcony room. It was very important to him,'' Price said.
On the first day of the cruise, the defendant and Kanesaki opted for a daylong Sicily excursion. They returned to the ship, where they had dinner and shared a bottle of wine before going to a casino and seeing a show, Price said.
He told investigators he woke up about 4:30 a.m. on May 26, 2006, and realized she was missing. Kocontes told investigators that Kanesaki may have gotten nauseous from the wine and fell overboard, Price said.
The defendant was put up in a hotel in Naples, but he stayed just a day and returned home before his ex-wife's body was found, Price said. Instead of going to his home in Ladera Ranch, he went to Nguyen's house, where they resumed their intimate relationship, she said.
An autopsy showed Kanesaki's lungs “were completely free of water'' and had “severe hemorrhaging around her neck,'' which was “consistent with strangulation,'' Price said. The pathologist, Dr. Pietrantonio Ricci, who is expected to testify, said the victim also sustained a skull fracture or hemorrhaging in her brain, Price said.
Nguyen told investigators that at some point, Kocontes told her that he paid his friend Price to kill Kanesaki and hurl her overboard, according to the prosecutor, who said the friend did not go on the cruise. Nguyen lied to a federal grand jury in 2006 that was investigating the killing, Price alleged.
Kanesaki's niece, Julie Saranita, tape-recorded phone conversations with Kocontes while she was cooperating with FBI agents, according to Price, who played some of the conversations for jurors during her opening statement.
Kocontes was angered when Saranita confronted him with the autopsy results and asked him if he had anything to do with her aunt's death, Price said.
While federal agents were looking into the death, Kocontes at some point talked Nguyen into removing a hard drive from one of his computers in his Irvine office, Price said. She lied to the federal grand jury because Kocontes threatened to kill her and make it look like an accident, Price alleged.
Kocontes' attorney, Denise Gragg, told jurors “there are very few things in this case that are not contested,'' but one of the main differences involves the relationship between the defendant and the victim.
Kanesaki had to stop working because of her arthritis and her only income was disability payments, Gragg said. Kocontes was the “breadwinner'' in the marriage, Gragg said.
They split up their assets due to the threatened litigation, but it never materialized, Gragg said. Kocontes continued to support Kanesaki from 2002-2005 even though he had “no legal obligation to do so,'' she said.
“You're going to hear conflicting evidence about the cause of death,'' Gragg said.
“Essentially her neck was broken,'' Gragg said, adding that was “consistent with someone who hits the water... consistent with a fall.''
Gragg also told jurors that they would hear “evidence that Amy Nguyen is a liar'' and about the defendant's best friend's “role in the changing of her story.''
Kocontes is also charged with attempting to solicit the murder of Nguyen while he was in jail and is awaiting trial in that case.