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Safety Harbor man charged in ex-wife's death during 2006 cruise in Italy

SAFETY HARBOR — On May 27, 2006, the body of a California woman was found floating off the coast of southwest Italy. Micki Kanesaki, 52, had been on a cruise with her ex-husband, Lonnie Kocontes, 48.

Kocontes, an attorney, told authorities his ex-wife left their room in the middle of the night for a cup of tea and never returned. She had been talking about suicide, he said. Months later he bought a house in Safety Harbor, and started splitting time between the coasts to be with his ailing father. He moved here and remarried.

Nearly seven years later, authorities have decided Kanesaki's death was not a suicide. Kocontes was arrested Friday night outside The Shops at Wiregrass in Pasco County and charged with his ex-wife's murder. He strangled her and threw her from the ship, according to the Orange County (Calif.) Sheriff's Department, and later tried to take more than $1 million from her bank accounts.

Kocontes remains in the Pasco County Jail until extradition proceedings, according to Orange County sheriff's spokesman Jim Amormino. He faces a charge of murder for financial gain. A call to Kocontes' home, where he lives with his wife Katherine Kern, was not returned Saturday.

Kanesaki's death had been investigated off and on for years by Orange County authorities and the FBI. Investigators recently found new evidence that prompted the murder charge, said Amormino, who declined to elaborate. An arrest warrant was issued Friday.

The weeklong voyage along the Italian coast on the Island Escape in 2006 was supposed to be a getaway for rekindled love, Kocontes said in news reports then. The two met in the early 1990s at a California law firm; Kocontes an attorney, Kanesaki an administrative assistant. They married in 1995 and divorced in 2001, but kept living together in their Mission Viejo, Calif., home.

Kanesaki drank and was violent, according to Kocontes. In 2002 she was arrested and charged with battery on Kocontes. That charge was dismissed, but in January 2006 she was arrested again after Kocontes said she kicked him in the leg four times.

Still, Kocontes said the couple had been planning to remarry later that year on their anniversary — Nov. 29.

"I loved her with all my heart," he said in 2006. "I wish I had never gone on this cruise."

In October 2006, Kocontes bought his home at 2202 Cypress Hollow Court in Safety Harbor for $607,000, according to county records. He married Kern in 2007. In 2008, authorities say, Kocontes tried to transfer more than $1 million from Kanesaki's bank accounts into accounts held by him and his new wife.

Friday's arrest was not Kocontes' first brush with law enforcement. He was convicted of five felonies while a young man in Nebraska, including drug possession and burglary, and he spent three years in prison there, according to a 2010 Associated Press story. In 2000, a 15-year-old girl he met at a library accused Kocontes of having sex with her. Criminal charges against Kocontes were dropped when she refused to testify, and he later sued her and the case was settled for about $1 million.

While Kocontes has been arrested, the investigation is still ongoing, said Amormino, who urged anyone with information to call District Attorney Investigator Randy Litwin at (714) 347-8492 or OCSD Investigator Don Voght at (714) 647-7051.

In 2008, Kocontes tried to get his Nebraska convictions pardoned so he could get an law license in Florida. The state denied the request. Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning cited the ongoing investigation into Kocontes' ex-wife's death and the accusations of sex by the girl as his reasons.

"Either you are the unluckiest person on the planet," Bruning told Kocontes, "or there is something that is not quite right."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register and the Lincoln Journal Star. Will Hobson can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or whobson@tampabay.com.

Safety Harbor man charged in ex-wife's death during 2006 cruise in Italy 02/16/13 [Last modified: Saturday, February 16, 2013 10:32pm]
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