L.A. Now

Orange County jail escapees may have fled to San Jose or Fresno, one fugitive has been captured

Two fugitives who escaped from an Orange County jail last week are now believed to be in the San Jose area and may be headed to Fresno, authorities said Friday.

UPDATE: The three fugitives are back in custody. Officials say the men kidnapped a cab driver and argued over whether to kill him.

The third escapee, Bac Duong, surrendered Friday. Duong had traveled north with the men but later returned alone to Santa Ana, according to Lt. Jeff Hallock, a spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff's Department.

Hossein Nayeri, 37, and Jonathan Tieu, 20, remain at large and are believed to be driving, and possibly living, in a white 2008 GMC Savana that was stolen in South Los Angeles the day after the jail break, Hallock said.

Nayeri grew up in the Fresno area and graduated from West Clovis High School, according to court documents and an attorney connected to one of his previous criminal cases.

Tony Botti, a spokesman for the Fresno County Sheriff's Office, said patrol officers have been made aware that Nayeri and Tieu may be in the area and a flier with their mugshots has been distributed. The agency, however, has no information to confirm that either man is in Fresno County, Botti said.

A San Jose police spokesman referred all questions back to the Orange County Sheriff's Department.

Duong, 43, turned himself in to Santa Ana police at 11:21 a.m. in the 1400 block of North Harbor Boulevard after a friend called police, Santa Ana police Sgt. Don Humphrey said.

Television footage showed officers clad in body armor sweeping a business called Auto Electric Builders near the place where Duong surrendered. Moving with their rifles and handguns aimed, the officers could be seen peering into vehicles on the lot.

Tri Nguyen, a friend of the business owner, said Duong walked into the business about 11 a.m. and told Nguyen's girlfriend, who worked there, that he wanted to turn himself in. The girlfriend called police, and soon, the business was swarmed by authorities, he said.

Nguyen and his girlfriend had known Duong for many years before he went to jail, Nguyen said.

"I feel good for him because he did the right thing," Nguyen said. "He doesn't have to run around anymore." 

Duong has been cooperating with investigators, but Hallock would not say if he tipped police off to Nayeri and Tieu's whereabouts.

"We are coming after you … we will take you back into custody," Hallock said, addressing the remaining fugitives directly.

Police believe the men are wearing civilian clothes rather than prison jumpsuits.

The arrest comes after law enforcement made its most public show of force yet in the now weeklong hunt for the fugitives. Armored vehicles and deputies in tactical gear descended on Westminster Avenue on Thursday night, executing a pair of search warrants that were filmed by television news cameras.

The searches, which focused on a residence and a warehouse, did not result in any arrests, Hallock said.

Officials also revealed new details about the relationship between one of the fugitives and an English-language teacher who is accused of aiding in the jail break.

The teacher, 44-year-old Nooshafarin Ravaghi, exchanged handwritten letters with Nayeri, and formed a bond with him that was “much closer and much more personal than it should have been,” Hallock said.

Ravaghi is being held on suspicion of being an accessory to a brazen jailbreak plot that had left police scrambling to find the three men for the last eight days. She will appear in court on Monday and is currently ineligible for bail, Hallock said.

The teacher's arrest came as police continued to hunt frantically for the escapees, all of whom were awaiting trial in violent crimes ranging from torture and kidnapping to murder.

Duong looked scared and sickly when he entered the Santa Ana auto body shop where he surrendered, witnesses said. Wearing a white shirt and jeans, with his hair shaved into a buzz cut, Duong “did not look anything like his picture,” on the wanted posters, said Tim Tran, the owner of the auto body shop.

He had rented rooms for about 10 years, until his recent arrest, according to Tri Nguyen.

Duong surrendered as police continued to lean on Vietnamese criminal organizations that operate in the area. Detectives have filed dozens of search warrants and arrested several members of a gang Tieu was affiliated with in recent days. 

The trio escaped from the Santa Ana lockup sometime after 5 a.m., cutting through four layers of steel, metal and rebar as they moved through the jail's plumbing tunnels and an air duct. They ascended to the roof, one floor above the dormitory area where they had been housed, and used a rope of knotted bed sheets and cloth to rappel down the side of the building.

The escape went undetected for at least 16 hours, and the Orange County Sheriff's Department has come under fire for allowing the escapees to gain such a head start. 

As the manhunt entered its eighth day, police seemed to be splitting their focus between Nayeri’s relationship with Ravaghi and Tieu and Duong’s connections to the local Vietnamese community and organized crime.

Hallock said Friday that there is a "Vietnamese organized crime element" to the escape, but he declined to elaborate. Several people were detained at a home Thursday night during one of the searches, but they were not arrested.

Earlier in the week, police arrested several people who either knew the escapees or were members of a street gang that Tieu is affiliated with.

The department has not identified the gang, but court records show that Tieu was a member of the Tiny Rascals -- a large Southeast Asian gang known to operate in Orange County and Long Beach. The gang was charged in a 2011 murder.

Ravaghi, a English-as-a-Second-Language teacher, met Nayeri while teaching a course at the jail.

Police have said she developed a bond with Nayeri that went beyond a student-teacher dynamic. The two had exchanged letters outside of class, some which were mailed from outside the jail, Hallock said. 

"The correspondence that they had in writing was of a personal nature," he said of the handwritten letters.

Ravaghi has cooperated with police, admitting she allowed the inmates to view a map, possibly a printed Google Earth image of the jail, which would have allowed them to see the roof of the facility. She has denied giving the men the cutting tools they would have needed to actually reach the roof.

Earlier this week, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens described Nayeri as the "mastermind" of the escape.

Ravaghi began teaching English courses in Orange County's jails in July 2014, Hallock said. Nayeri speaks English fluently, so it was not clear why he attended the class.

"That is our concern. Mr. Nayeri speaks English. ... Why then was he attending that class? It is very much a concern of ours. It leads us to believe she played a significant role in the planning,” Hallock said.

If Nayeri had asked Ravaghi to provide him any information, like the maps, she should have notified jail staff immediately. Ravaghi, who taught in the jails as part of the Rancho Santiago Community College District’s inmate education program, had passed a background check and attended a three-hour course warning her that inmates would attempt to manipulate civiliains, Hallock said.

She is no longer employed by the school system, according to a district spokeswoman. Ravaghi was not fired, according to the spokeswoman, who said her assignment at the jail was set to expire Jan. 25.

Ravaghi grew up in Tehran and spent her formative years traveling with her father, according to her personal website. She studied French literature overseas and was fluent in several languages before she moved to California in 1997.

Asked if the relationship between the two was romantic, Hallock said that remains a possibility.

Join the conversation on Facebook >>

A former classmate of Ravaghi’s described her as a sweet, loyal and impressionable girl who didn’t have many friends.

“She was quiet. She didn’t have that many close friends and she never talked about her family much,” said Sepideh Safavi, who attended middle school with Ravaghi in Tehran.

Safavi, 46, said other students would bully Ravaghi and tease her. She said she lost contact with the teacher for more than a decade, but reconnected with her on Facebook.

“This is a shock. I’m still trying to understand what’s going on. It’s just impossible,” Safavi said. “I don’t know how much she changed after middle school, but from what I know, she was never looking for trouble. She wanted to be helpful.”

Ravaghi seemed lonely, she added. Her Facebook posts were never about family. She didn’t have siblings and never spoke of her mother, Safavi said.

Ever since she heard about Ravaghi’s arrest, Safavi said, she’s had dreams about her old classmate. She wonders how this could have happened to “Nooshin,” her nickname for Ravaghi.

“Her, of all people?” Safavi said. “If any of my other friends got caught up in this I would believe it. But her? I can’t believe it.”

Follow @lacrimes, @JosephSerna, @sarahparvini @JamesQueallyLAT and @newsterrier on Twitter for crime and police news in Southern California.

MORE ON THE O.C. JAILBREAK

Orange County jail escapee fled the law before, fleeing to Iran

How did they do it? Court papers offer a look into the early investigation

Experts dissect why it took the O.C. jail so long to detect the escape

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

6:01 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from the Fresno County Sheriff's Office.

5:16 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information about Nayeri's connections to the Fresno area.

5:06 p.m.: This article was updated with information about the whereabouts of the other suspects.

12:06 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information about jail teacher Nooshafarin Ravaghi.

11:59 a.m.: This article was updated to add that one of the escapees, Bac Duong, had surrendered to police.

2:16 p.m.: This article was updated with new information on who Duong surrendered to.

This article was originally published at 11:01 a.m.

Loading
61°