A cruise ship passenger was dead before her body hit the Mediterranean Sea more than seven years ago, an Italian pathologist testified, according to court documents.
Micki Kanesaki, 52, of Ladera Ranch was strangled earlier in the evening before she went overboard, Dr. Pietrantonio Ricci told the Orange County grand jury during a secret session.
“Therefore, the sole remedy for a government whose nationals may have been harmed or another country’s flag ship or in another country’s territorial waters, where those countries failed to exercise (their) jurisdiction and prosecute, is to seek damages, not to confer jurisdiction.”
– defense lawyers James Bustamante and David Michael
“(Micki) Kanesaki’s murder began the moment the defendant concluded that he no longer wanted her in his life and needed to get rid of her in order to continue his love affair with (Amy) Nguyen. The defendant commenced the murder in Orange County, California, and completed it in Italy. The crime was ongoing from the time the intent was formed until the act was completed in Italy. Thus, the State of California has an interest in this case.”
– Deputy District Attorney Seton Hunt
Superior Court Judge William Evans in late May sided with Lonnie Loren Kocontes’ attorneys, finding even if someone formed criminal intent and committed an act in the state, California only has jurisdiction for crimes culminating in other states, not in other countries. Evans dismissed the case, and prosecutors immediately refiled charges.
Now, if Judge Gregg Prickett dismisses charges, Kocontes goes home. If not, the case continues. Prickett is expected to announce his decision in writing before July 29.
Ricci’s opinion after conducting Kanesaki’s autopsy was one of the pieces of circumstantial evidence presented by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office during two days in June that led to the indictment of Kanesaki’s ex-husband, Lonnie Loren Kocontes, on special circumstances murder charges.
Kocontes, 55, was an attorney with an Orange County law firm in 2006 when he took his wife on a Mediterranean cruise. He was living in Safety Harbor, Fla., when he was arrested and charged with her murder in February.
He now faces a minimum life sentence in prison without the possibility of parole from an Orange County judge if he is convicted of killing Kanesaki for financial gain. Kocontes has pleaded not guilty.
Deputy District Attorney Susan Price contends that Kocontes plotted and took steps to murder Kanesaki on the cruise while he was living with her in Orange County, in part to get access to $1.7 million in their joint account.
Defense attorneys argue, among other things, that Orange County has no jurisdiction to prosecute Kocontes for events that happened more than 6,000 miles away.
A ruling on the jurisdictional issue by Superior Court Judge Gregg Prickett is expected later this month.
DEATH ON THE MEDITERRANEAN
Kanesaki, a paralegal, disappeared in the darkness of night off the Italian coast in the wake of a cruise liner she boarded a few days earlier with Kocontes in Spain.
Kocontes reported her missing to cruise ship operators and later to Italian authorities, insisting that he last saw her sometime before midnight May 25, 2006, when she left their balcony stateroom aboard the Island Escape to get some herbal tea.
Her body was recovered less than two days later, but by then Kocontes had boarded an airplane and returned to his lover in Orange County, according to news accounts.
He later married someone else, moved to Florida and continued to practice law.
In the meantime, partially in the wake of Ricci’s opinion that strangulation and not drowning caused Kanesaki’s death, law enforcement authorities from Italy, the FBI and eventually the Orange County Sheriff’s Department investigated her death.
Last month, after international and federal authorities declined to prosecute, Price presented the case to the Orange County grand jury.
Price called 14 witnesses, including two from Italy, to the stand during two days of closed-door sessions and introduced 56 exhibits – photos, financial records and emails. The testimony produced more than 300 pages of grand jury transcripts. In the indictment process, a grand jury does not hear evidence from the defense.
Ricci, chief medical examiner for the Calabria region of Italy who performed the autopsy on Kanesaki in Italy, was one of the first to testify. He told the grand jury that he found, in addition to bruises on Kanesaki’s neck, injuries on other parts of her body.
“The same force that was applied to the neck was applied to the legs and the arms,” he testified.
Other witnesses testified, according to grand jury transcripts, that:
•Kanesaki’s body was found about 20 miles north of the island of Stromboli.
•Kocontes booked a three-star, “cheap and cheerful” cruise ship operating in the British market that few Americans take.
•At the time Kocontes cruised with his ex-wife, he was having an affair with a schoolteacher to whom he previously had been married for a few months.
•Private investigator Billy Price, who befriended Kocontes in the early ’90s, testified that Kocontes asked him about security on cruise ships – whether they had cameras or key codes for rooms.
•”Lonnie’s two biggest existences in life is: one, money; and sex, two,” Billy Price testified. “So if you talk to him about anything, it’s going to relate back to money, no matter how you look at it.”
WHO CAN PROSECUTE?
Prosecutors and Kocontes’ San Francisco defense lawyers have sparred in court and in written briefs around a central question: If a crime is planned in Orange County but concludes overseas, who has the jurisdiction to prosecute?
For the answer, both sides have looked in part to a 1905 California statute, trying to interpret whether it gives the state power to prosecute crimes that occurred only in other states or also in another country.
Kocontes’ lawyers, James Bustamante and David Michael, assert that any jurisdiction to prosecute lies with Italy, the country closest when Kanesaki disappeared, or possibly the Bahamas, following a longstanding maritime protocol called the “law of the flag.”
The Island Escape flew a Bahamian flag.
Allowing Kocontes to be prosecuted in Orange County runs afoul of international legal limitations on California’s jurisdiction, defense attorneys contend.
An Italian court determined that it lacked jurisdiction over Kocontes under Italian law, Deputy District Attorney Seton Hunt wrote in a legal brief. He insisted Orange County has jurisdiction to prosecute because Kocontes is alleged to have formed the intent to commit murder for financial gain while in the county and committed acts to facilitate the killing here.
“Lonnie Kocontes had direct access to a location where Micki Kanesaki would hit the water,” Price told the grand jury.
“And it is likely, based on the injuries around her neck and the injury to the back of her head, that the person who killed her was face to face with her … sucking the last life out of her,” she said.
“That killer wanted nothing other than to have her die.”
By VIK JOLLY / ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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