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Nancy Grace

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Man allegedly strangled wife, threw body from cruise ship

  • Lonnie Kocontes charged with murder in ex-wife's 2006 death
  • Body found off coast of Italy, authorities alleged financial motive for murder
  • Federal judge recently questioned strength of evidence against Kocontes
Lonnie Kocontes is charged with murder in ex-wife's 2006 death

According to Lonnie Kocontes, the last time he saw his ex-wife, she was leaving their cabin aboard a cruise ship in the Mediterranean to get a cup of tea.

Kocontes wrote in a declaration filed in federal court that he fell asleep sometime between midnight and 1 a.m. on May 26, 2006, having drunk a glass of wine and taken a sleeping pill. He claimed that when he awoke around 4:30 a.m., his ex-wife, Micki Kanesaki, was missing and her bed did not appear to have been slept in.

Kanesaki's body was found on May 27, 2006 in the water off the coast of Paola, Italy. By that time, Kocontes had already boarded a plane to return to their Orange County, California home. An Italian medical examiner determined that she had been strangled and thrown into the water.

"I loved her with all my heart," Kocontes told the Los Angeles Times in July 2006. "I wish I never had gone on the cruise."

Last week, Orange County prosecutors filed a charge of special circumstances murder for financial gain against Kocontes for Kanesaki's death, alleging that he killed her on the ship and dumped her body overboard. If convicted, Kocontes faces a minimum sentence of life in prison without parole and could be eligible for the death penalty.

The 55-year-old former California attorney was arrested Friday in Florida, where he now lives with his current wife. He remains in custody awaiting extradition.

Kocontes' attorney, David Michael, told HLN he has been fighting similar allegations for years in an asset forfeiture case in federal civil court since the government seized more than $1 million that they claimed Kocontes received as a result of Kanesaki's death-money the government alleged gave him a motive to kill her.

"Everybody's got it wrong," Michael said.

According to Kocontes' 2011 declaration, he and Kanesaki met in the early 1990s at a Los Angeles law firm where he worked as an attorney and she was an administrative assistant. They married in 1995.

Federal court documents allege that Kocontes was fired from his job after an arrest in 2000 for charges of sexual contact with a minor that were later dismissed. In 2001, he and Kanesaki divorced to protect their assets from potential civil litigation while continuing to live together, but their personal relationship deteriorated after his arrest.

Michael emphasized that Kocontes was not prosecuted on that sexual contact charge and that he later sued the accuser for making false allegations. Kocontes stated in his declaration that he received a $60,000 out-of-court settlement in that case.

According to Kocontes, authorities were called to the couple's house several times following verbal altercations between him and Kanesaki. She was arrested for battery on one occasion, but the charges were dismissed after she completed a domestic violence program.

The couple eventually separated, but they reunited in late 2005 after Kocontes' brief marriage to another woman. They attended counseling and executed wills naming each other as their sole beneficiaries, according to court documents.

In January 2006, Kanesaki was arrested again when Kocontes alleged she got drunk and kicked him several times, court documents show. After that, she enrolled in anger management classes and attended Alcoholics Anonymous.

According to his declaration, Kocontes purchased tickets for the May 2006 cruise along the Italian coast "to further rekindle and heal our damaged but improving relationship." He wrote that they intended to remarry later that year.

They flew to Spain on May 21, 2006 and boarded the cruise ship there. On May 25, they went on a daytime excursion to Messina, Italy. According to court documents, they were last seen by others on the ship around 11 p.m. before Kocontes says they returned to their cabin and finished drinking a bottle of wine.

After he reported Kanesaki missing in the early hours of May 26, he was questioned by ship personnel and Italian authorities. U.S. federal prosecutors later alleged that his statements in those interviews about her whereabouts and activities before her disappearance were not consistent with the available evidence.

Michael disputed the claim that there were any inconsistencies in Kocontes' statements. One example alleged by prosecutors was that he told investigators Kanesaki had taken a sleeping pill before she disappeared and no traces of the pill were found during her autopsy. In a statement to Italian police, however, Kocontes specifically noted that he did not actually see her take the pill and was not certain that she did.

In his declaration, Kocontes said he returned to California on May 27 while authorities were still searching for his ex-wife because the U.S. consulate had informed him that there was no chance she was still alive if she had been in the water for 24 hours. Once Kanesaki's death was ruled a homicide, the FBI interviewed Kocontes twice and collected a DNA sample.

Court records show a federal grand jury was convened in December 2006 to investigate Kanesaki's death, but no indictment was issued.

In 2010, federal prosecutors discussed potential criminal charges with the Orange County District Attorney's Office, according to a district attorney's office press release. Two years later, the district attorney's office asked the Orange County Sheriff's Department to conduct further investigation of the case.

The district attorney's office said that "additional evidence" related to the murder has been discovered by the sheriff's investigators. Senior Deputy District Attorney Susan Price declined Thursday to discuss the details of that evidence, but she said the charges against Kocontes are based on "the totality of the evidence" and not any specific new information.

Michael suggested that local prosecutors are only acting now because a judge granted a motion for summary judgment against federal authorities in November 2012 in the asset forfeiture case.

"All of a sudden, the county of Orange springs into action," he said.

Price disputed that allegation.

"That's absolutely inaccurate," Price said. "We've been investigating and working on this case for two years. Orange County decided to file charges in this case to seek justice for Micki Kanesaki."

She said the status of the federal case is irrelevant to her office's investigation. They began actively working on the case in 2011, but they have spent much of the last two years gathering all of the relevant documents and reports.

According to authorities, Kocontes stood to benefit from Kanesaki's death by receiving more than $1 million from her bank accounts and properties. In 2008, federal investigators seized Kocontes' assets after he attempted to transfer a large amount of that money between several domestic and foreign bank accounts.

In November 2012, federal Magistrate Judge Marc Goldman cast doubt on the case against Kocontes in the summary judgment in his favor regarding his effort to have the seized funds returned to him. In his ruling, he wrote that federal prosecutors failed to provide evidence that Kocontes had ever been violent against Kanesaki in the past or any evidence linking him to her murder other than his presence on the cruise ship, describing the government's case as "nothing more than allegations and speculation."

Goldman also questioned the alleged financial motive, stating that prosecutors did not present admissible documentary evidence to support their assertion that Kanesaki was independently wealthy or that Kocontes ever received more than $500,000 as a result of her death.

"We completely dispelled any notion that he had a motive to kill her," Michael said.

According to Michael, documents obtained by the defense showed that Kanesaki was only earning $40,000 a year when she was working and received most of her income from disability insurance after arthritis caused her to retire in the late 1990s. Kocontes said in his declaration that he was making more than $100,000 a year from his legal work throughout their relationship.

Kocontes acknowledged that he tried to move assets into foreign accounts opened in his current wife's name in 2008, but he said he only did so to try to protect their funds after a former client threatened civil action against him. He also maintained that even if Kanesaki had a multi-million dollar trust fund somewhere as prosecutors claimed, he had no knowledge of or dealings with it.

Federal prosecutors filed a copy of an email Kanesaki sent to a friend in 2005 complaining about Kocontes trying to control her money and investments from her parents' retirement fund. At the time, she wrote about her desire to separate her finances from his. Prosecutors also had reports on interviews with several relatives of Kanesaki who believed that she kept up to $3 million in a personal account.

Still, Goldman wrote that prosecutors failed to prove the existence of Kanesaki's alleged trust fund or that Kocontes had made any effort to access the money after her death. 

Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Kortum, who represents the government in the federal case, would not comment Thursday on Goldman's assessment of the financial evidence because the issue will be addressed on appeal. However, Susan Price told HLN that Orange County prosecutors are confident they can prove that Kocontes had a financial motive to kill Kanesaki.

Documents filed in federal court on Kocontes' behalf also challenged the Italian autopsy's conclusion that Kanesaki was murdered at all. Three defense experts submitted reports arguing that Kanesaki's injuries suggested other causes of death besides strangulation. However, Dr. Dean Hawley, a forensic pathologist who examined the defense experts' analyses for the government, cited more than two dozen statements in their reports that he considered inaccurate or unsupported by the evidence.

Following Goldman's decision granting the summary judgment, Michael said the federal court can now either order the government to return the funds to Kocontes, stay the ruling pending an appeal or partially stay it with regard to the approximately $450,000 that both sides agree he received as a result of Kanesaki's death. A hearing was held earlier this week on a motion to stay the ruling.

The criminal charges have been filed in Orange County because investigators believe Kocontes planned the murder there before they left the country for the cruise. A district attorney's office spokeswoman told HLN prosecutors do not expect to have any trouble proving that they have jurisdiction to pursue the case.

Kocontes is currently being held in Pasco County Jail in Florida. If he waives extradition proceedings, Price said he could be returned to California within ten days.


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