SAFETY HARBOR, Florida -- A Safety Harbor man has been arrested for the murder of his ex-wife, nearly seven years after she was found strangled and thrown overboard on a cruise ship in Italy.
It's taken several years of work for investigators to put together a case, but they now believe Lonnie Kocontes murdered his wife because he was the beneficiary of several of their bank accounts and property.
On Friday night, he was arrested in Wesley Chapel, and while he's behind bars in Pasco County right now without bond, this case will likely take place in Orange County, California once he is extradited. That's where the couple lived before Kocontes moved to Florida and, according to the Orange County Sheriff's Office, it's where this murder plot may have all started.
The minimum sentence in this case could end up being life in prison without the possibility of parole, and 10 News has learned that he is eligible for the death penalty.
On Friday night, neighbors in Safety Harbor saw authorities pull up to Kocontes' house. "They were wearing flak jackets with guns," a neighbor tells 10 News.
After his arrest, those who live near him say they're relieved, but were hesitant to talk on-camera. "We're still kind of concerned," a neighbor says. "There's an awful lot of cars over there. We don't know who's actually in there." Several of the cars that they say they've seen pull in and out of the driveway have no license plates on them.
The concern about Kocontes started in 2006, when he and his ex-wife, Micki Kanesaki, took a cruise together to rekindle their relationship. During that cruise, Kocontes reported his ex-wife missing. He flew back to California the same day her body was found floating off the Italian coast. Kanesaki was arrested twice in the past for battery on her ex-husband, and was ordered to take an anger management class.
In 2008, Kocontes was accused of trying to transfer more than $1 million between bank accounts with his new wife. The FBI investigated the transfers for any illegal activity, and the U.S. Attorney's Office eventually seized money from his accounts.
Last year, additional information was discovered in Kanesaki's death, and enough evidence was collected to file a murder case against Kocontes this week.
"We've always had some sense in the back of our minds that something like that might happen," says a neighbor. "It's a little bit of relief, a little bit of apprehension."
We're told the U.S. Marshal's Florida Regional Fugitive Task Force, investigators from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, and investigators from the Orange County Sheriff's Office used surveillance to track Kocontes from his home in Safety Harbor to The Shops at Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel on Friday, Feb. 15.
Kocontes served prison time in the 1970s for burglary, narcotics possession, and possession of marijuana with intent to deliver. In the 1990s, he was charged with sexual acts and lewd conduct with a child younger than 16. Those charges were later dropped. He is currently listed as an active member of the State Bar of California. He was admitted in 1993.