Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens called the escape of three men from the Central Men's Jail an “embarrassment” and acknowledged that the maximum-security lockup appears not to have followed proper policies to keep track of inmates.
In an interview Monday, Hutchens said she was extremely troubled by the lengthy delay in discovering the escape by the three inmates, each accused of violent crimes. The delay gave the trio a head start of up to 15 hours before jailers noticed their absence.
Hossein Nayeri, Jonathan Tieu and Bac Duong broke out Jan. 22 sometime after the day’s first head count at 5 a.m. They cut through four layers of metal and rebar and burrowed through the jail’s plumbing tunnels to reach the roof. They rappelled down the building with a rope made of knotted bedsheets.
Deputies in the jail did not notice their absence until the nightly head count, which occurs about 8.
Hutchens said that in the hours between the two daily head counts, tracking the movements of the 1,433 inmates at the Santa Ana facility can be complicated. Inmates may have court appearances, may move to visiting rooms or classrooms, and may be transferred to medical facilities.
“They are not just sitting in the dorm and you cannot just count,” she said.
In addition to the two physical counts, deputies are supposed to conduct three “administrative counts” in which they review records to determine the location of inmates. Hutchens' department is reviewing whether that policy was followed, but she was skeptical.
“Apparently, it does not appear to be that way, because they went undetected as missing for quite a while,” Hutchens said.
Since the escape, deputies are now required to confirm that inmates have actually moved to new locations during the day.
The head of the union representing Orange County deputies, Tom Dominguez, has publicly criticized the jail leadership and called for the removal of the captain overseeing the facility. Dominguez said the department’s policy on counting inmates was ignored in the months leading up to the escape.
Hutchens has said that no disciplinary action has been taken against department personnel.
She suggested that the trio were able to access their escape route for several days before they broke out of the jail, which was built in 1968.
“I don’t think this was a one-day thing. This took awhile to defeat the security systems, to defeat these metal grates, to defeat their one-inch-thick bars took some time, in my opinion,” she said.
The plan escalated after Duong was arrested in December and placed in the module where Nayeri and Tieu were also housed, Hutchens said.
Loc Ba Nguyen, an associate of Duong, visited the jail a few times and is believed at some point to have helped smuggle in the tools the men used to cut through the metal and rebar that fortifies the jail, according to the department’s spokesman, Capt. Jeff Hallock.
Neither Hutchens nor Hallock detailed what Nguyen smuggled into the lockup. Prosecutors allege Nguyen smuggled a knife and two other items used in the escape sometime between Jan. 12 and Jan. 15, according to a criminal complaint filed Monday.
Nguyen drove to the jail about 5:15 a.m. on the morning of the escape, shortly after the trio rappelled down the side of the facility, Hallock said. He then drove them to a residence in Westminster, and the men began moving between homes in Santa Ana and Huntington Beach, Hallock said. They collected cash from friends, hailed a taxi and headed toward Rosemead, where they shopped at a Target and spent three nights at a hotel.
Hutchens said that an English instructor at the jail, Nooshafarin Ravaghi, provided a view of the rooftop to the inmates, printed from Google Maps. The sheriff insisted that her department was correct to arrest the 44-year-old teacher. The Orange County district attorney’s office declined to file charges against Ravaghi, citing insufficient evidence.
“Based on the evidence, we felt she was a co-conspirator,” Hutchens said. She said there was no rift or acrimony with the district attorney’s office.
The sheriff expressed relief at the recapture of the three men and said the department’s staff worked through the night for more than a week while they were on the lam.
“Three dangerous individuals got out of a maximum-security jail. That would be an embarrassment for anybody,” Hutchens said. “That is why we worked so hard around the clock.”
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Times staff writer James Queally contributed to this report.
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