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O.C. jail escape: As search for inmates intensifies, Little Saigon is left on edge

Residents in Orange County's Little Saigon awoke Monday to a troubling warning from authorities.

The grim faces and names of three escaped convicts were splashed on the front pages of Vietnamese-language newspapers as well as on local TV and radio broadcasts.

Orange County authorities made a direct appeal to the Vietnamese community to help in the search for three inmates who'd escaped from the Men's Central Jail in Santa Ana: Jonathan Tieu, 20, Bac Duong, 43, and Hossein Nayeri, 37, might be hiding in the area.

Tieu was described as a "documented Vietnamese gang member," and the official in charge of the search for the three men said he believes they "may be embedded somewhere in the community."

Those comments sparked concern and a bit of bemusement in the bustling Vietnamese immigrant communities of Garden Grove and Westminster, where bets on the escapees' hideouts dominated talk in local cafes.

Discussion of their whereabouts took place between servings of iced coffee and gelato, as puffs of smoke swirled in the languid afternoon air.

 

"If their motive is to fit in — and I think it would be — this is the perfect place to hang out," said Evelyn Dang, a junior at Fountain Valley High School.

As she munched on sweets at the Creamery Pop, a dessert bar in Westminster, she and her friends said they hoped news of the inmates would not reach their parents quickly.

"If my dad heard this, I don't think he would allow me to go out," Dang said. "Things could get dangerous."

Radio announcers explained the workings of the Orange County jail system in Vietnamese, repeating the phone numbers of law enforcement agencies, urging their audience to stay vigilant and to focus their energy on helping authorities capture the former prisoners.

There's no need "for fear," disc jockeys said on air, as members of the public were urged to share anonymous tips.

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"How do we know they're not in Mexico?" asked Anh Nguyen, owner of the Creamery Pop and the nearby Coffee Factory, where Vietnamese Americans have gathered to share the latest Little Saigon happenings for years.

"This is a situation unheard of in our community," she added. "We have our safety and our reputation to protect. If we see them, we need to alert the right people. We don't want these guys around and I would hope that they make posters for us to hang everywhere."

Lt. Dave Sawyer, who is overseeing the escape investigation, said Monday that police have no evidence to suggest the men fled the state, much less the country. 

A few residents expressed concern that some people might hesitate to call the police if they spotted one of the men.

"Imagine we saw them walking around. Some people would be afraid to report" the escapees "because they're uncomfortable with calling the police — or they feel they wouldn't have proof it's the real guys," said Emily Pham, a junior at La Quinta High School in Westminster.

On the outskirts of Little Saigon, residents of an Edwards Street apartment complex where Tieu's family lives said they are on alert and they are familiar with the physical descriptions of the escapees.

"If they need money, they could take us hostage," said Joy Navongsak. "They are capable and especially if they need to go somewhere fast. Still, I feel most of the time, they would just run to Bolsa" Avenue — the main artery of Little Saigon — "where they could just duck and hide."

Times staff writer James Queally contributed to this report.

Follow @newsterrier for news about Orange County.

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