agents in California believe an Orange County lawyer murdered his ex-wife for financial gain during a 2006 Italian cruise and tossed her body overboard near Naples.
Indeed, federal law enforcement officials have tried without success to win a grand jury murder indictment against Lonnie Kocontes for the Mediterranean vacation death.
Now, a federal judge in Orange County is mocking the FBI's alleged stunning lack of evidence against Kocontes, and has ordered the agency to return to him more than $1 million it confiscated after the death of Micki Kanesaki, a legal assistant.
This month inside the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse in Santa Ana, U.S. Magistrate Judge Marc L. Goldman granted Kocontes' motion for pre-trial summary judgment for return of the assets after declaring that the FBI's reasoning in the case was erroneous, stale, illogical and "circular."
The couple met while working at the same Los Angeles law firm, married in 1995 and struggled through a tumultuous relationship. They filed for divorce in 2000, but continued to live together. Police documented several times when Kanesaki became physically abusive to Kocontes. She was arrested for battery twice and forced to attend an anger management course. They reconciled in 2005 and Kocontes--who has a criminal record that includes illegal narcotics possession and burglary--booked the Island Escape cruise ship trip in May 2006.
According to court records, the couple boarded the ship in Spain on May 23. Two evenings later as the cruise headed toward Naples from Sicily, they went to dinner before visiting the ship's casino and a late comedy show. After returning to their cabin, they each drank a glass of wine and Kocontes took an Ambien sleeping pill to help with lingering jet lag. He says he fell asleep after Kanesaki said she was going to the ship's café for tea sometime between midnight and 1 a.m. He awoke at 4:30 a.m. to find her bed had not been slept in and alerted the crew. Kanesaki's corpse was found floating off the Italian coast on May 28.
Dr. Pietrantonio Ricci performed an autopsy and determined that she'd likely been strangled to death.
To the FBI, Kocontes killed his wife and isn't entitled to "criminally derived property" from subsequent death proceeds that were held in a Safety Harbor, Florida bank account.
But Goldman declared in his Nov. 20 ruling, "There is no direct evidence that Kocontes murdered Kanesaki" and he dissected each the FBI's five major arguments otherwise:
1. The couple had a history of marital discord; Goldman's response: "There is no evidence Kocontes was ever physically abusive towards Kanesaki. Rather, it is undisputed that it was Kanesaki who became physically violent towards Kocontes during the couple's infrequent altercations. The mere fact that the couple had a troubled relationship does not provide circumstantial evidence giving rise to an inference that Kocontes murdered Kanesaki."
2. Statistical evidence shows most female murder victims are killed by an intimate partner; Goldman's response: "Unsupported speculation and conclusions simply do not provide relevant circumstantial evidence" in this case.
3. Kocontes was present at the crime scene; Goldman's response: "While Kocontes was at the scene of the crime, defining the scene as the entire cruise ship, so were the more than 2,000 passengers and crew who were also on board. There is no physical, visual or aural evidence linking Kocontes to the murder" or any evidence that she was "murdered in the cabin she was sharing" with him.
4. Kocontes lied about Kanesaki taking Ambien before her death and the autopsy proved that she hadn't; Goldman's response: A twisting of facts because Kocontes had told investigators that he "did not know if Kanesaki had taken the pills."
5. Kocontes had a financial motive to kill; Goldman's response: The argument is "not compelling circumstantial evidence that he committed murder" because "Kocontes had access to a substantial portion of these assets while Kanesaki was alive."
In case anyone missed Goldman's contempt for the FBI case, he added this line at the conclusion of his 28-page analysis: "When all is said and done, the government has presented nothing more than allegations and speculation to support its claim that Kocontes murdered Kanesaki."
Goldman did not rule on Kocontes' pending request to slap the government with financial penalties for its conduct in the asset confiscation.
California State Bar records show that Kocontes, who graduated from the University of Texas School of Law, has an active license to practice law.