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Why an ESL teacher might have helped 3 O.C. inmates escape

Their friendship blossomed under unusual circumstances, officials say.

The teacher, Nooshafarin Ravaghi, had traveled the world, spoke three languages and wrote a collection of children's books about a young girl's discovery of her Persian heritage, according to her website.

The student, Hossein Nayeri, had fled the United States twice to escape prosecution and was awaiting trial in a brutal torture plot that left a man burned, bleeding and near death in the Mojave Desert.

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But in recent months, Ravaghi, 44, and Nayeri, 37, became friendly as he attended language courses she taught at Men's Central Jail in Orange County, authorities said.

At some point, Orange County sheriff's officials allege, Ravaghi provided Nayeri with access to Google Maps, which would have allowed him to view the roof of the jail.

The bond between teacher and student is now at the center of the weeklong manhunt for three men who broke out of the maximum-security jail in Santa Ana.

Ravaghi, who taught English-as-a-second-language classes at the jail through a community college inmate education program, was arrested at 3:30 p.m. Thursday on suspicion that she aided the men in their escape, said Lt. Jeffrey Hallock, an Orange County Sheriff's Department spokesman.

"Ravaghi directly contributed to the escape of the three inmates and provided critical planning tools that aided in their preparation for the escape," Hallock said.

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Ravaghi has cooperated with law enforcement, Hallock said, but she has denied giving Nayeri, Jonathan Tieu, 20, and Bac Duong, 43, the cutting tools necessary to burrow into the jail's unsecured 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 had been teaching in the jails since fall 2014 and passed a Sheriff's Department background check, according to a statement released by the Rancho Santiago Community College District. She had been teaching at Men's Central Jail for at least six months, Hallock said.

The trio escaped from the Santa Ana lockup sometime after 5 a.m. Jan. 22, 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.

Ravaghi 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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She earned her graduate degree in education from Cal State Fullerton, the website said, and has taught English, Farsi and French to adults and children in Orange County. She also wrote an eponymous series of "multicultural books" for children, titled "The Noosha Collection." The book series aimed to foster tolerance, she wrote on the website.

A former colleague of Ravaghi, who asked not to be identified, described her as a hardworking 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."

Investigators believe the men have been living out of a van that was stolen in South Los Angeles the day after the escape. A man matching Duong's description stole a white 2008 GMC Savana around 4:40 p.m. Saturday, police said. Duong is believed to have responded to a Craigslist advertisement attempting to sell the vehicle, Hallock said.

Investigators were "extremely encouraged" by the new leads, he said.

At least 10 other people have been arrested since Wednesday as part of the escape investigation. Some were members of a Vietnamese street gang that Tieu is affiliated with, while others were detained because of probation violations.

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. Duong was charged with attempted murder in a shooting late last year. Nayeri was one of several people charged in the kidnapping and torture of a wealthy marijuana dispensary owner. The victim in that case was taken into the desert, beaten, burned and had his penis severed in an attempt to extort $1 million.

Ravaghi's involvement bears some similarities to another jailbreak, at the aging Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y., that gained national attention 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, break through a brick wall, then remove a secured manhole cover and climb out.

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.hamilton@latimes.com Twitter: @MattHJourno | james.queally@latimes.com Twitter: @JamesQueallyLAT | richard.winton@latimes.com Twitter: @lacrimes

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 29, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Jail teacher accused of assisting in O.C. escape - Nooshafarin Ravaghi, who taught one of the fugitives, is suspected of giving him access to Google Maps." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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