The fugitives had already taken a hostage by the time deputies inside an Orange County jail were staring at severed air ducts and a rope of knotted bedsheets, wondering how three men had escaped from the maximum-security lockup.
Forty miles northwest of the Men's Central Jail, Bac Duong pressed a gun into the rib cage of a cabdriver outside a Target in Rosemead, pulling the man into a wild flight from justice that stretched from Santa Ana to San Francisco, investigators said.
The Orange County Sheriff's Department released a detailed narrative of the eight-day manhunt for the fugitives on Monday, saying Duong was critical to both the success, and ultimate collapse, of the getaway.
It was an associate of Duong's, Loc Ba Nguyen, who smuggled in tools that the men used to tunnel through four layers of metal, rebar and steel as they ascended to the jail's roof on the night of the escape on Jan. 22, said Capt. Jeffrey Hallock, a department spokesman.
And it was Duong's refusal to kill the hostage cab driver inside a San Jose motel room days later that set in motion events that brought the sprawling search to a close, Hallock said.
Nguyen drove to the jail around 5:15 a.m. on the morning of the escape, shortly after Duong, Hossein Nayeri and Jonathan Tieu had rappelled down the side of the facility, Hallock said. He drove them to a residence in Westminster, and the men began moving between homes in Santa Ana and Huntington Beach, Hallock said.
The men used that head start to collect money from friends in the Vietnamese community, Hallock said. At 9:30 p.m., they hailed the cabdriver and asked for a ride to Rosemead.
As the trio drove toward Los Angeles County, jail deputies were just beginning to notice they were missing, Hallock said.
The men went shopping at a Target in Rosemead, and Duong took the cabdriver prisoner a short time later.
The escape plan had been in motion for months, according to Hallock, who said Nayeri began plotting the jailbreak with Nooshafarin Ravaghi in July. While the Sheriff's Department maintains that Ravaghi was crucial to the escape plan, Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas said Monday that there was "insufficient evidence" to charge her with a crime, and seemed pessimistic about the possibility of charging her at a later date.
"It is unfortunate she was labeled a conspirator," he said.
It was not immediately clear how the men came to meet inside the Santa Ana jail, or if Nayeri recruited the other men into his plan. Duong had only been housed at the facility for two months at the time of the escape.
After taking the cabdriver hostage, the men hid in Los Angeles County at an unknown location, Hallock said.
Duong responded to a Craigslist posting advertising the sale of a white GMC utility van the next day, Jan. 23, according to Hallock. He took it for a test drive and never returned. Nguyen was arrested the same day, though he wasn't formally charged with aiding the escape until today, Hallock said.
The men had been on the lam for roughly 36 hours and they already had a bankroll, two vehicles, a hostage and a massive head start.
The trio laid low for the next several days, hiding out at the Flamingo Inn Motel in Rosemead, according to Hallock.
On Tuesday, they visited a post office in Garden Grove, where Tieu sent a letter to his mother. Hallock said investigators now believe that was a distraction, used to cover their flight to San Jose.
The men took both the stolen van and the hijacked taxi as they headed to the Alameda Motel in San Jose, Hallock said. While the men were on the road, the Sheriff's Department continued to exert pressure on local Vietnamese crime syndicates, and repeatedly told the public they were confident the fugitives were still hiding in Southern California. Sheriff's deputies made several arrests of people they said were connected to the fugitives.
But hundreds of miles north, the escape plot was beginning to crumble inside a San Jose motel room.
Nayeri wanted to kill the cabdriver and "bury his body," Hallock said. Duong refused.
The two got into a fight, according to Hallock. The next day, Nayeri and Tieu left the motel to have tints placed on the stolen van. Duong and the cabdriver got into the stolen taxi and fled back to Southern California.
Duong released the cabdriver. On the morning of Jan. 29, he walked into a friend's auto body shop and asked her to call police so he could surrender. Nayeri and Tieu were spotted outside a Whole Foods market in San Francisco less than 24 hours later by a bystander who flagged down police officers.
Nayeri took off on foot but was arrested within minutes. Tieu was found hiding in the van.
Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens has promised a thorough investigation to determine what measures could have been taken to prevent, or more quickly discover, the escape.
While the men slipped out of the jail at 5 a.m. on the day of the escape, their disappearance went undetected for 16 hours. The jail was conducting only two physical head counts of its inmates each day, a practice that has drawn criticism from corrections experts and the union that represents county sheriff's deputies.
In a letter issued Friday, the union called for the removal of the captain who oversees the Men's Central Jail and said the facility's staff had been ignoring the proper policy on counting inmates for months before the three men escaped.
In an interview with The Times on Monday, Hutchens said the delay gave the escapees a distinct advantage over their pursuers.
"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, but eventually we did," she said.
Three administrative checks are supposed to be conducted between the two physical checks. Those records checks are meant to track prisoner 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.
Investigators have not said how Nguyen smuggled the tools into the jail, or what specific items were used in the escape. It also remains unclear how the inmates were able to conduct what was a lengthy construction project that allowed them to burrow through several layers of metal while remaining undetected.
Prosecutors allege Nguyen snuck a knife and two other items used in the escape into the jail sometime between Jan. 12 and Jan. 15, according to a criminal complaint filed on Monday.
Hutchens said she believes the men were digging their way out of the jail for several days, and said their undetected flight was an embarassment to her agency.
"Three dangerous individuals got out of a maximum security jail," she said. "That would be an embarrassment for anybody."
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