Woman arrested on suspicion of helping trio escape from Orange County jail

A 44-year-old woman who worked as an English teacher at a Santa Ana jail was arrested Thursday on suspicion of helping three inmates mount a daring escape last week, officials said.

The arrest comes after police and security experts suggested that fugitives Hossein Nayeri, Jonathan Tieu and Bac Duong received outside help when they broke out of the Men's Central Jail on Jan. 22.

The woman, Nooshafarin Ravaghi, a Lake Forest resident, was an English as a Second Language teacher and had been working as a contracted employee at the jail for the last six months, according to Lt. Jeffrey Hallock, a spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff's Department.

Nayeri had been attending one of the woman's classes, and they developed a friendly relationship from there, according to Hallock, who said police believe she "directly contributed to the escape and provided credible planning tools."

Ravaghi has been speaking with police, and denied providing the escapees with anything beyond maps. But Hallock said investigators "absolutely could not rule out" the possibility that she provided the physical tools the men used to cut their way into the jail's plumbing tunnels.

"We continue to get information from her," Hallock said."We have a certain amount of information she has provided thus far. But again she has denied bringing in any tools to this point. She did provide some tools for planning such as maps."

Ravaghi may have allowed the fugitives to access Google Maps, which would have provided "them with opportunity to look at the roof" of the jail, he added.

She was arrested at approximately 3:30 p.m., Hallock said. Ravaghi was a part-time English as a second language teacher with Rancho Santiago Community College's Inmate Education Program, according to a statement issued by the school district. 

Ravaghi passed a Sheriff's Department background check and began working with the program in the fall of 2014, the school district said. She began teaching courses at Men's Central Jail six months ago, Hallock said.

Hallock also said police believe the fugitives are living out of a White 2008 GMC Savana Utility Vehicle that was stolen from South Los Angeles earlier this week. The vehicle was reported stolen to Los Angeles police at 4:40 p.m. on Saturday, according to an Orange County Sheriff's Department news release.

The suspect in the vehicle theft matches Duong's description, according to the release.

Hallock said investigators were "extremely encouraged" by the new leads.

The trio escaped from the Santa Ana lockup sometime after 5 a.m last Friday, 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 makeshift rope of knotted bedsheets and cloth to rappel down the side of the building.

They haven't been seen since.

Police do not believe the men fled the country, or even the state. Hallock said Thursday that police still believe the men are hiding somewhere in Southern California, and investigators "feel very strongly" that the men have not split up since the escape.

Ravaghi was born in Iran and grew up in Tehran, and spent much of her youth traveling around the world with her father, according to her personal website.

She moved to California in 1997, after studying French literature in Tehran and Paris.

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Ravaghi earned a graduate degree in education from Cal State Fullerton, the website said. She had taught English, Farsi and French in Orange County to both adults and children since moving to the U.S., she said on the Web page.

Ravaghi also worked as a book editor and wrote an eponymous series of “multicultural books” for children, The Noosha Collection.

“The main character of this collection, Noosha, is a little girl who, in the first seven books, discovers new aspects of her Persian heritage,” she wrote on the website. The book series aimed to foster tolerance, her site said.

A former colleague of Ravaghi, who asked not to be identified, described her as a hard-working tutor who rarely interacted with her students outside of the classroom. “She was very kind to the students, a good tutor, but she didn’t really socialize with the students. She treated them like a teacher does,” the colleague said. “She seemed to be very ethical.” The colleague, who hadn’t spoken to Ravaghi in about four years, also said the teacher was “kind of a loner.”

At least 10 other people have been arrested since Wednesday as part of the escape investigation. Some were gang members, while others were detained because of probation violations.

Hallock said some of those arrested were part of the same gang as Tieu. The department has not identified the gang, but court records show Tieu was one of several members of the Tiny Rascals, a large South Asian gang known to operate in Orange County and Long Beach, charged in a 2011 murder.

Tieu was set to be retried in that killing next month, prosecutors have said.

Nayeri was awaiting trial in a brutal 2012 torture plot. Prosecutors allege he and several accomplices kidnapped a man, beat him, burned him with a blowtorch and severed his penis in an attempt to extort $1 million.

Duong was arrested and charged with attempted murder in late 2015, prosecutors said.

Ravaghi's involvement bears a striking similarity to another jail break that gained national attention in upstate New York last summer.

Convicted killers Richard Matt and David Sweat sparked a three-week manhunt after they used power tools to cut through steel pipes and plates inside the aging Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y., break through a brick wall and climb out through a manhole cover.

An investigation later revealed that a prison employee who had tutored one of the men as part of an "honor program" smuggled in hacksaw blades and other tools the men used in their escape.

Matt was shot and killed 20 days after he escaped, and Sweat was shot and captured two days after that.

Follow @lacrimes @JamesQueallyLAT and @MattHjourno for breaking news and crime stories in Southern California.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

7:18 p.m.: The story has been updated with interview with friend.

 6:31 p.m.: This story was updated with comments from the Rancho Santiago Community College District.

4:54 p.m.: This story was updated with additional information about Ravaghi's background and a vehicle police believe was stolen by one of the escapees.

4:38 p.m.: This story was updated with additional information from the Sheriff's Department press conference.

4:10 p.m.: This story was updated with additional information about the arrest.

This story first published at 4:03 p.m.

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