Crime & Courts

O.C. escapees held a prisoner while on the run -- and fought over whether to kill him

Just as Orange County sheriff's deputies discovered several inmates had vanished from a Santa Ana jail, three men got into a taxi cab not far from the lockup.

The cabbie drove them 40 miles to Rosemead, stopping at a Target store, where the three went shopping. When they returned, one of them pressed a gun to the taxi driver's rib cage.

It was 9:30 p.m. on Jan. 22, long before photos of Hossein Nayeri, Jonathan Tieu and Bac Duong would be splashed across television, newspapers and social media and their names became synonymous with a jailbreak that would gain national attention.

That moment in the Target parking lot began a days-long ordeal for the driver, who became the fugitives' prisoner and was forced to accompany them on a wild flight from justice that stretched from Southern California to the Bay Area.

The account of the driver's kidnapping was released by the Orange County Sheriff's Department on Monday, along with a detailed narrative of the fugitives' attempt to escape their pursuers.

During more than a week on the run, the men traveled through some of California's largest cities undetected, somehow keeping their prisoner hidden and staying one step ahead of law enforcement in spite of an ever-widening dragnet.

The effort began to unravel when two of the escapees got into a fistfight over whether or not to kill the cabbie.

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The narrative was one of several major developments in the jailbreak case Monday.

Prosecutors also said there was insufficient evidence to bring criminal charges against Nooshafarin Ravaghi, the teacher who sheriff's investigators said was crucial to the escape plot. The district attorney's office did, however, identify one of Duong's associates as the man who provided the tools that the inmates used to cut their way out of Central Men's Jail.

A sheriff's spokesman said investigators believe Nayeri began plotting the escape in July. Tieu was already an inmate. Duong was brought to the jail in December 2015 after he was charged with attempted murder, less than two months before the escape.

The three slipped out of the lockup shortly after 5 a.m. on Jan. 22, climbing through plumbing tunnels and an air duct to gain access to the facility's roof before rappelling down to the street. Within minutes, they were picked up by Loc Ba Nguyen, a friend of Duong's, who drove them to a home in Westminster, according to Capt. Jeffrey Hallock, a Sheriff's Department spokesman.

The escape went undetected for at least 16 hours, and the fugitives used the head start to their advantage. The men traveled to several homes in Orange County, collecting cash from acquaintances in the Vietnamese community that they would use to finance their time on the lam, Hallock said.

At the moment sheriff's deputies were staring at severed air ducts and a rope of knotted bedsheets, wondering how the men had busted out of the maximum-security lockup, the cab driver had already been taken prisoner. Hallock identified Duong as the armed man who took the driver captive.

They spent the night at an unknown location in Los Angeles County. The following afternoon, Duong responded to a Craigslist posting advertising a white 2008 GMC utility van for sale in South Los Angeles. He took it for a test drive and never returned.

The men had been on the run for roughly 36 hours and they already had a bankroll, two vehicles, a prisoner and a big head start.

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, whose agency has come under fire because of jail practices that allowed the men's escape to remain undiscovered for nearly a day, acknowledged Sunday that the time lapse was pivotal to the men's success.

"Because it was not reported until 15 hours later … that created a delay for us and it took us a while to catch up to them," she said.

That idea was reinforced by the account released Monday about the fugitives' movements, which showed law enforcement was often looking in one direction as the fugitives scurried the opposite way.

As law enforcement in Orange County turned up the pressure on local Vietnamese criminal organizations, hoping they might be able to use daily raids to leverage a surrender, the fugitives and their prisoner were actually holed up east of Los Angeles, in the Flamingo Inn Motel in Rosemead.

They stayed there for three nights — from Jan. 23 to Jan. 25 — without incident, even finding the time to visit a hair salon in El Monte in an attempt to change their appearance, Hallock said.

The motel's manager, who declined to give his name, said someone other than the fugitives checked them in around 7:30 p.m., provided a driver's license and asked for a room with two beds. The person paid cash. A clerk handed over the key to Room 116 for the men.

"They were very quiet," he said. "We weren't even sure they were in the room."

The guests left last Tuesday morning. Later that day, he said, law enforcement officers arrived asking about the men.

The men traveled to a post office in Garden Grove, where Tieu mailed a letter to his mother in Little Saigon. Investigators believe the letter was sent as a distraction, meant to pull police in the wrong direction as the fugitives fled north to San Jose.

Split into two vehicles, the stolen van and hijacked taxi, they drove to the Alameda Motel in San Jose. The motel manager, who spoke with The Times on condition of anonymity, said the men asked for a smoking room and paid $200 in cash for two nights. The manager made no mention of the prisoner. In fact, he said, the men were model customers.

"I just can't believe it," the manager previously told a Times reporter. "There are crazy things going on in life. But these guys were quiet, nice and no drama."

As the men hid in San Jose on Jan. 27, the Sheriff's Department announced the arrests of several people with connections to the fugitives and made public pleas for help from the local Vietnamese community.

Hundreds of miles away, the escape plot was beginning to crumble inside the San Jose motel. Nayeri wanted to kill the cab driver and "bury his body," Hallock said. Duong refused.

The two got into a fight, according to Hallock. The next day, when Nayeri and Tieu left the motel to have the stolen van's windows tinted, Duong and the taxi driver fled the motel in the cab, returning to Rosemead.

Duong set the cab driver free Jan. 29 and went to see a friend at an auto body shop in Santa Ana. Looking sickly and scared, Duong asked his friend to call authorities and arrange his surrender. He then stepped outside to smoke a cigarette and await arrest.

Nayeri and Tieu were found in San Francisco the next day when a man noticed the stolen van in a Whole Foods parking lot near Golden Gate Park. Nayeri tried to run, but he was captured by police a short time later. Tieu went quietly, as officers found him hiding in the back of the van.

Police have not identified the cab driver, who suffered minor injuries, according to Hallock, who did not elaborate. It was not immediately clear whether anyone had filed a missing persons report in connection with his disappearance.

Contacted by a reporter on Monday, the driver declined to be interviewed.

The release of the timeline and the allegation that Nguyen had smuggled items into the jail at Duong's request came as prosecutors declined to charge Ravaghi, the teacher who had been described as a linchpin in the escape plot.

She was arrested last week on suspicion of aiding in the escape and providing the men with a Google Earth map of the jail, but detectives have not recovered such a printout.

"It is unfortunate she was labeled a conspirator," Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas said.

Hallock, however, maintained that Ravaghi and Nayeri had been planning the escape for months. Hutchens said she may ask the prosecutor to reconsider charging Ravaghi, 44, after further investigation. Ravaghi, who had taught English-as-a-second-language classes in Orange County's jails for 18 months, was released from jail Monday afternoon.

Prosecutors allege that Nguyen smuggled a knife and other tools that were used in the escape into the jail between Jan. 12 and Jan. 15, according to a criminal complaint. Authorities did not say how the tools were smuggled into the jail, and Hutchens refused to discuss what items Nguyen allegedly smuggled in.

Detectives have yet to recover any cutting tools used in the jailbreak. Nguyen was arrested the day after the escape, but prosecutors did not charge him until Monday.

The Sheriff's Department has launched an internal review to determine what could have been done to prevent the escape. In the last week, the agency has come under intense scrutiny because of a policy that required jail staff to physically count inmates just twice each day.

Three administrative checks are supposed to be conducted between the two physical checks. Those records checks are meant to track inmate movements to court, educational classes, medical facilities and other areas throughout the day.

Each of those checks failed to detect the escape, and Hutchens said she believes they were carried out improperly. She said it appears that deputies failed to call the locations where Nayeri, Tieu and Duong were supposed to be at the time of those checks.

It remains unclear how the inmates were able to conduct what was essentially a construction project without attracting the attention of any guards.

The men were probably digging for days, said Hutchens, who considers the escape humiliating for the Sheriff's Department.

"Three dangerous individuals got out of a maximum-security jail," she said. "That would be an embarrassment for anybody."

james.queally@latimes.com Twitter: @JamesQueallyLAT

richard.winton@latimes.com Twitter: @lacrimes

anh.do@latimes.com Twitter: @newsterrier

Times staff writer Taylor Goldenstein contributed to this report.

MORE ON THE O.C. JAILBREAK

Orange County jailbreak was an 'embarrassment,' sheriff says

O.C. Sheriff's Department examines what went wrong as fugitives return to jail

Her pink Taser, poisoned hamburger patties and an iPhone: the story of a wife who lured an Orange County fugitive out of Iran

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 02, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Escapees remained low, on the move - Fugitives shopped at Target, stayed at motels, had a prisoner-and fought over whether to kill him." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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