Former lawyer gets life for strangling ex-wife, throwing her from cruise ship in 2006

SANTA ANA, Calif. — A former California lawyer who strangled his ex-wife and threw her body from a cruise ship near Italy in 2006 will spend the rest of his life in prison.

Lonnie Loren Kocontes, 62, was sentenced Friday to life without the possibility of parole in the death of 52-year-old Micki Kanesaki, whose body was found in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Paola, Italy, on May 27, 2006. Prosecutors argued that Kocontes killed Kanesaki for financial gain.

Kocontes was also accused of plotting to have his third ex-wife murdered in order to prevent her from testifying about the killing of Kanesaki, who was his second ex-wife.

“The defendant thought he had planned the perfect crime and lured his prey to her death with a Mediterranean cruise,” Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said in a statement. “He picked the perfect ship, the perfect stateroom and the perfect time to kill his ex-wife. And he almost got away with murder.”

Strangling Kanesaki before tossing her overboard was Kocontes’ downfall, Spitzer said.

“Because she died before she hit the water, her lungs were filled with air – not water – so she floated,” the district attorney said. "And by a miracle, her body was discovered. That miscalculation allowed us to convict him of murder.

“After 14 years, Micki Kanesaki’s family never gave up hope that this day would come, and the Orange County District Attorney’s Office never gave up on achieving justice for Micki.”

The trial was delayed for years as authorities determined whether Orange County could try Kocontes for a killing that took place in international waters, according to the Orange County Register. It was ultimately allowed to proceed under the theory that Kocontes planned the murder in California.

The three-month trial, which began in February, also saw a lengthy interruption when courts were shuttered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Kocontes was convicted of murder in June.

Micki Kanesaki’s brother, Toshi Kanesaki, called Kocontes a “vicious, cruel, evil person,” the Register reported.

He also called Kocontes a cold-blooded killer and a sociopath. He said his younger sister “got the last revenge” when her body was found in the waters near Italy, NBC Los Angeles reported.

“You are rotten to the core,” he said during Kocontes’ sentencing. “I never want to see you again.”

Julie Saranita, Micki Kanesaki’s niece, also spoke Friday.

“He is a man devoid of what makes us human,” Saranita said, according to the Register.

Kocontes denied killing his ex-wife and, at one point, accused Toshi Kanesaki of “abandoning” his sister, NBC Los Angeles reported. Superior Court Judge Richard King admonished the defendant, saying the victim’s relationship with her brother had no relevance to the case. King ordered him to stop attacking the man.

“I stood by Micki Kanesaki through significant periods of depression. I went to counseling with her,” Kocontes said, according to the Register and the NBC affiliate. “I did everything I could to help Micki Kanesaki overcome her depression. I did not murder Micki Kanesaki.”

King was unmoved, telling Kocontes he had no doubt about who killed the victim.

“In this court’s mind, there is no question of the defendant’s guilt,” King said.

A jury found Kocontes guilty of one count of first-degree murder, with the special circumstance enhancement of murder for financial gain, Spitzer said. The state is seeking nearly $1 million in restitution from Kocontes.

A near-perfect murder

NBC Los Angeles reported that Kocontes and Kanesaki met at an L.A. law firm, where he worked as an attorney and she as a paralegal. They married in 1995 and divorced in 2002.

Despite the divorce, the couple continued living together at their home in Ladera Ranch as they began taking steps to split their assets. Kanesaki, who had severe arthritis that forced her to quit working, turned to investments to earn a living.

Kocontes met a woman, Amy Nguyen, on a dating website in 2002. They began a relationship without Kanesaki’s knowledge.

Kocontes and Nguyen married in 2005 in Las Vegas and moved in together in Orange, the NBC station reported. That September, he asked a court to force Kanesaki to sell their home in Ladera Ranch, but she resisted.

“There was a dispute between the two (over) whose house this was,” Senior Deputy District Attorney Susan Price said.

Kocontes wanted to sell the home and split the proceeds but Kanesaki, who had paid off the mortgage, believed she was entitled to keep the house, the prosecutor said.

Bill Price, a former police officer who was once Kocontes’ best friend, testified that Kocontes was worried about having to split his assets with Kanesaki.

He told investigators that “nothing mattered to (Kocontes) more than money and sex,” Susan Price told jurors, according to NBC Los Angeles.

Ultimately, Kocontes dropped his bid to force the sale of the home and moved back in with Kanesaki, but told Nguyen he still loved her and did not want to leave.

Months before the murder, Kocontes drew up new wills for himself and Kanesaki, giving their assets to one another. He then planned a cruise, which Price said was an unusual move for the attorney, who was known for his thriftiness.

That thriftiness was apparent in the cruise he booked: a trip on the Island Escape, a ferry that had been converted into an economy cruise ship.

Kocontes “specifically asked for a balcony room,” Price said. “It was very important to him.”

The Register reported that Nguyen, who was divorced from Kocontes shortly before the fatal cruise, testified that Kocontes told her he wanted to have Kanesaki killed on board the ship. She said Kocontes claimed that Bill Price, who worked as a private investigator, would find someone to kill Kanesaki and provide him with an alibi.

“He said that Bill’s people will throw Micki in the water, and Bill and his girlfriend will be his witness,” Nguyen said.

The alleged plot didn’t work out, however.

“(Kocontes) said Bill and his girlfriend decided not to go on the cruise, and he would have to take matters into his own hands,” Nguyen testified, according to the newspaper.

Nguyen said she didn’t believe that her ex-husband was serious about killing Kanesaki. Prosecutors said they were confident that Price, who testified against his former best friend, was not involved in the murder.

According to Spitzer, Kocontes and Kanesaki flew May 21, 2006, to Spain, where they boarded the budget cruise ship. Three days later, following an all-day excursion in Messina, Italy, Kanesaki vanished.

She was last seen alive on the ship around 11 p.m. that night, the district attorney said.

Kocontes is accused of strangling Kanesaki late the night of May 25 or early the morning of May 26 and flinging her body overboard from the balcony of their cabin, prosecutors said. He reported her missing to the crew shortly before dawn.

Kocontes returned to California alone on the morning of May 27. Kanesaki’s body was found that afternoon by the crew of an oceanography research vessel.

In his own testimony, Kocontes claimed that he and Kanesaki had plans to remarry, and the cruise was part of the rekindling of their relationship. He claimed they’d shared dinner and a bottle of wine the night she disappeared, then went to the ship’s casino and attended a show.

He testified that upon returning to their cabin, he took Ambien and fell asleep. When he awoke, Kanesaki was missing.

His defense attorney argued that Kanesaki fell from the ship to her death and said the injuries found on the victim’s body, including a broken neck, were the result of that fall.

Dr. Pietrantonio Ricci, the Italian doctor who conducted Kanesaki’s autopsy, refuted those claims. Testifying through an interpreter, Ricci said the victim suffered injuries to the base of her neck from “a violent action that was continued on for a period of time,” as well as a blunt force injury to her head, the Register reported.

Ricci said the injury was caused by an object with a convex surface, such as a bottle of wine.

The doctor also testified that there was no water in Kanesaki’s lungs, an indication that she was dead before she went into the sea.

“Do you believe Micki Kanesaki was murdered?” Price asked.

“Absolutely,” Ricci responded.

The aftermath

Kocontes sold the Ladera Ranch home after Kanesaki’s death and was the beneficiary of those proceeds, as well as the funds in their bank accounts. According to Spitzer, the former attorney came under scrutiny by the FBI in 2008, when he attempted to transfer $1 million between multiple bank accounts.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California ultimately seized the cash from Kocontes’ bank accounts and initiated civil forfeiture proceedings.

The Register reported that the federal investigation of Kocontes ended when Nguyen testified on his behalf. She later changed her story, however, and told an Orange County grand jury in June 2013 that her ex-husband, who by that time had moved to Safe Harbor, Florida, had told her about his plans to kill Kanesaki.

In 2015, prosecutors accused Kocontes of plotting with a pair of fellow inmates to kill Nguyen so she could not testify about what she knew.

According to the newspaper, he is accused of drafting a letter for Nguyen to sign stating that her testimony in his favor before the federal grand jury was the truth. He planned to pay the inmates to force Nguyen to sign the document, then kill her.

One of the inmates went to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office in April 2014.

The murder solicitation charges against Kocontes were dropped last week in light of the life sentence he received, the Register reported.