Weeks after three inmates escaped from an Orange County jail, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said that the ongoing investigation into the caper has not answered two big questions: What cutting tools the men used to saw their way out of the maximum security jail, and how they got ahold of them while behind bars.
Hutchens told The Times on Thursday that the Sheriff’s Department has resorted to forensic investigators to examine the metal bars and grates in hopes of identifying the tool or tools the men used.
“As far as the cutting tools, we don’t know yet how they got them,” Hutchens said.
Hossein Nayeri, Bac Duong and Jonathan Tieu escaped from their fourth-floor dormitory on Jan. 22 by slicing through metal grating and steel bars, then making their way down a plumbing shaft, authorities said.
The trio eventually emerged on the jail’s roof and descended five stories on a rope made of knotted bedsheets, authorities said. Within eight days, all three were back in custody.
An associate of Duong, Loc Ba Nguyen, was arrested and charged with aiding the escape and providing the tools to help the trio. But Hutchens said Thursday that the tools provided by Nguyen were “not cutting-edge tools” and so far the investigators have no evidence that he provided the sharper equipment that can cut through metal.
None of the three escapees are talking to investigators about how they obtained the tools that allowed them to escape from their dormitory-like cell, Hutchens said.
The sheriff said none of her staff are suspects in the ongoing investigation into the jailbreak, and no administrative action has been taken against any employees.
Hutchens has asked to meet with county supervisors in a closed-door session next week to discuss the ongoing investigation into the jailhouse escape. The private session is necessary because she will discuss personnel matters that cannot be publicly disclosed without infringing the rights of jail employees, she said.
News of the Feb. 23 meeting with the county supervisors follows criticism of the department by its own deputies’ union. Hutchens swatted down accusations that the department was dragging its feet on the investigation.
"Assertions that the department is not moving quick enough are blatantly false," Hutchens said in a letter to Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett.
In a lawsuit filed last week, the Assn. of Orange County Sheriff's Deputies argued that staff cutbacks at the Central Men's Jail in Santa Ana played a role in the inmates' escape.
The job cuts, they said, meant there was no one guarding the roof or patrolling a jail utility tunnel that the prisoners used.
Hutchens told supervisors Thursday that the investigation had not yet "reached a point" where officials could attribute the escape to "a lack of staffing."
She also took issue with the lawsuit's mention of saw blades being found in the jail before the escape.
"It is unfortunate that this discussion is taking place before all the facts are known," Hutchens wrote. "The department will not make any allegations or comment on such information until we are ready to do so from an informed point of view."
In her interview with The Times, Hutchens said she had taken steps to tighten security at the jails and had identified and closed potential escape routes.
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