Cruise Passenger Accused of Killing Wife and Throwing Her Overboard Pleads ‘Not Guilty’

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Lonnie Kocontes claims the last time he saw his ex-wife, she had plans to get a cup of tea. The couple had been on a Mediterranean cruise ship getaway aboard the Island Escape when Micki Kanesaki left the stateroom she and Kocontes were sharing to get her beverage late at night.

What happened next still remains a mystery to this day.

According to Kocontes, he fell asleep sometime between midnight and 1 a.m. on May 26, 2006, during which time his wife had gone to get her tea. He admits to having consumed a glass of wine and sleeping pill, causing him to knock out until about 4:30 a.m., when he noticed Kanesaki was not in the room. At this point, Kocontes alerted the ship’s crew, which began an investigation into the cruise ship passenger disappearance.  The next day Italian police boarded the vessel, obtained surveillance footage from the ship and took statements of the crew. Shortly after, Kanesaki’s body washed ashore the coast of Paola, Italy.

However, by the time the body was found, Kocontes was already on a plane back to the home in Orange County, California he and Kanesaki shared. He claims he boarded the plane while officials were still searching for his ex-wife after being informed that there was no chance she would still be alive.

It had only been 24 hours since Kanesaki was missing, but Kocontes appeared to have given up all hope. Was it because he truly felt Kanesaki was gone or was it because he wanted her gone to begin with?

That is a question prosecutors have been trying to answer for years.

When officials retrieved Kanesaki’s body, an autopsy revealed she was strangled before going into the water, leading authorities to believe her death was no accident. Kanesaki’s death was soon ruled a homicide, and the FBI began interrogating Kocontes, collecting DNA samples to get to the bottom of the case. Meanwhile, Kocontes maintained that he loved his wife.

Prosecutors in Orange County, however, were not convinced. They believe Kocontes killed his wife for financial gain then threw her body overboard. Charges of special circumstances murder were filed in February of this year, but Kocontes pleaded ‘not guilty’ to the cruise ship murder in court yesterday, sticking to his original story.

Yet, as horrific as the accusations against him are, this isn’t the first time Kocontes has been arrested. Kocontes, a former attorney, was fired from his law firm in 2000 and was arrested on charges of sexual contact with a minor, which he also denied.

Kanesaki also has an arrest record for battery. The couple, which originally wed in 1995 after meeting at Kocontes’ law firm, had a tumultuous relationship, which Kocontes claims was wrought with abuse. He claims police came several times, arresting her for domestic violence. However, the charges were later dropped.

The couple eventually divorced, allegedly to protect assets from the sexual harassment claim, but continued to live together. Yet, their relationship eventually deteriorated and they went their separate ways.

Kocontes remarried, but then reunited with Kanesaki in 2005. They named each other as sole beneficiaries in their wills, but in January 2006, Kanesaki was arrested again on domestic violence charges.

Kocontes then decided to purchase cruise tickets, which he believed would heal their damaged relationship. He said in court that they had planned to remarry later that year.

So what happened on the cruise ship?

According to U.S. federal prosecutors, the statements Kocontes made regarding his whereabouts before the disappearance of his ex-wife were not consistent with the available evidence. In one story, prosecutors allege Kocontes told investigators Kanesaki had taken a sleeping pill before she went to get her tea, however, no traces of the pill were found during her autopsy. In a statement to Italian police, Kocontes said he didn’t ‘actually see her take the pill and didn’t know if she had or not.

Court records show a federal grand jury met in December 2006 to investigate the cruise ship murder case, but no indictment was issued. Then in 2010, federal prosecutors discussed potential criminal charges with the Orange County District Attorney’s Office. Two years later the district attorney’s office asked the Orange County Sheriff’s Department to further investigate the case and found “additional evidence” related to the murder.

According to authorities, Kocontes stood to benefit from Kanesaki’s death by receiving over $1 million from her assets.  In 2008, Kocontes began  transferring large sums of money from Kanesaki’s bank accounts into joint accounts he held with yet another new wife. Kocontes acknowledged he was trying to move the money, but was doing so to protect his funds.

Federal prosecutors presented a copy of an email Kanesaki sent to a friend in 2005, which complained about Kocontes trying to control her money.  Several of Kanesaki’s relatives also who believed that she was holding millions in a personal account.

The criminal charges filed against Kocontes claim the murder was premeditated and was the real reason he booked the cruise.  He is due back in court May 29 and faces the death penalty if found guilty of Kanesaki’s cruise ship death.

Turn to our Cruise Ship Law Blog for continuing coverage of this tragic cruise passenger murder story.