Combative and seething with contempt, the Newport Beach pot dealer accused of masterminding a gruesome 2012 kidnapping scheme sat on the witness stand last week and tried to convince a jury that he is the innocent victim of lying witnesses and planted DNA.
The Newport Beach courtroom has been filled with spectators throughout the trial, which began in mid-July and marks the climax of a bizarre crime saga involving a grisly mutilation, a law enforcement effort to trick a fugitive out of hiding in a country from which he could not be extradited, and a brazen escape from the Santa Ana jail that left embarrassed jail officials reevaluating security measures.
Testifying at his trial in Orange County Superior Court, Hossein Nayeri admitted that he fled to his native Iran to avoid the law, and later — as he awaited trial — escaped from the Orange County jail. He insisted he did so not because he was guilty but because he believed authorities would railroad him.
Nayeri could face life in prison if convicted on charges of kidnapping, aggravated mayhem and torture. The charges stem from the abduction of a 28-year-old marijuana dispensary owner and a female housemate from a Newport Beach home on Oct. 2, 2012.
Masked men forced the pair into a van at gunpoint and drove them to the Mojave Desert, demanding that the dispensary owner reveal the whereabouts of $1 million they believed he had hidden there. The attackers beat the man severely, doused him with bleach and severed his penis.
Prosecutors say the attackers were Nayeri and two friends from high school he enlisted to do his bidding, pot dealer Kyle Handley and former prison guard Ryan Kevorkian. An alert neighbor spotted Handley’s dented pickup truck at the abduction scene, and when police searched the driver’s cab, they found a blue latex glove containing Nayeri’s DNA.
Nayeri claimed police must have planted the glove, a contention the prosecutor called “absurd.”
Nayeri admitted that he spent nine months in 2012 watching the pot dispensary owner, using cameras to monitor his residence and GPS trackers to follow his cars.
But in what the prosecutor described as a “cartoon fantasy,” Nayeri insisted he did this because Handley was paying him $1,000 a week to do so. Nayeri said the dispensary owner owed Handley $300,000, and Handley wanted to keep tabs on him in case he skipped town.
Nayeri also admitted that he believed the dispensary owner was burying money in the Mojave Desert because tracking devices showed that he was traveling in the area repeatedly.
Nevertheless, Nayeri insisted he was in the dark about the abduction scheme.
“Nine months of surveillance to kidnap and rob somebody?” Nayeri said. “Never. There’s no reason for it.”
Days before the kidnapping, Nayeri led police on a high-speed chase through Newport Beach, ditched the Chevrolet Tahoe he had been driving, and escaped.
Inside, police found evidence that he had been monitoring the dispensary owner. When Nayeri learned what had happened to the dispensary owner, he said, “It was like a wrecking ball just hit my guts.”
And when he learned that Handley had been implicated, Nayeri testified, he believed the evidence in the Tahoe would falsely connect him to the crime.
He said that “utter fear” prompted his flight to Iran.
Under cross-examination from Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Matt Murphy, Nayeri repeatedly lost his temper, drawing rebukes from Superior Court Judge Gregg Prickett.
“Are you gonna start telling the truth once in a while?” Nayeri snarled at the prosecutor.
Murphy asked the defendant why he and one of his co-defendants used an alias to buy surveillance equipment if it wasn’t in the service of a crime. “What is with the cloak and dagger?” the prosecutor said. “You planned this whole thing. You set up this whole kidnapping.”
Nayeri, who grew up in Fresno, said he started cultivating pot in his 20s as a hobbyist who found it “soothing” but soon went “straight to the big leagues” as a professional.
He bragged that he knew the business from “A to Z,” raking in more than $1 million a year at times. In the era of medical marijuana spawned by Proposition 215 in 1996, he testified, he sold to pot dispensaries that operated under a nonprofit collective model that was just a facade for bigger, backdoor deals.
“Most of the money is made through the back door,” Nayeri said. “I don’t think I’ve ever gone through the front door.”
He said he stashed $1.9 million in vacuum-sealed stacks in the walk-in closet of a house belonging to his in-laws, a contention apparently intended to undercut the prosecution’s claim he had financial motive to commit a robbery.
While Nayeri was awaiting trial in the kidnapping case in the Orange County jail in early 2016, he tunneled out of his cell, rappelled from the roof and remained free for eight days.
Asked why he had escaped, Nayeri replied: “Wouldn’t you, if you got railroaded as bad as I have?”
A key witness against Nayeri was his former wife, Cortney Shegerian, who testified under a grant of immunity that she helped him conduct surveillance on the dispensary owner, obtained four burner phones for him and bought hamburger meat intended to poison the dispensary owner’s family dog.
A student at Whittier Law School at the time, she said she used school resources to research the dispensary owner at her husband’s direction.
“He asked me to use my Lexis account,” she said.
Nayeri and Shegerian met at a Mimi’s Cafe in Fresno when she was 16 and he was 23, and they started dating. She described the relationship as “off-the-charts dysfunctional,” admitted that she embezzled money from her parents’ company to fund his pot operation, and brought him $60,000 while he was hiding from the law overseas.
She described Nayeri as “extremely intelligent,” but said he could quickly morph into an “angry, crazy, temper-driven, scary” personality.
Operating under police supervision, Shegerian ultimately lured Nayeri out of Iran to the Czech Republic, where he was arrested in November 2013 and returned to the United States to face trial in the abduction case.
Nayeri grew particularly enraged when confronted with the fact that in 2015 a Los Angeles County judge annulled his marriage to Shegerian because he was still married to a woman in Iran.
“Cortney lied on the stand!” he shouted. “Bull!”
In one of the trial’s tensest clashes, the prosecutor asked Nayeri why he took the victim’s severed penis with him, preventing doctors from attempting to reattach it.
“Why couldn’t you just leave it there?” Murphy asked.
Animosity blazed from Nayeri’s eyes.
“You’re done,” he said.
The prosecutor kept pressing. “Why’d you take it with you? You want to give us an answer to that?”
“You don’t deserve an answer.”
During his closing argument Wednesday, Murphy read the exchange with Nayeri, noting what he called his “menacing” tone. If the defendant is capable of behaving that way in court, Murphy said, “What’s he doing in the back of a van when he’s not getting what he wants?”
Assailing Nayeri’s contention that he had good reason to fear the American system, the prosecutor argued that Nayeri had a long history of benefiting from lenient deals.
When Nayeri deserted his post from the U.S. Marines in 1998, he received only a few weeks in the brig. When he killed his friend in Madera County while driving drunk in 2005, he fled the country to avoid punishment and then returned to receive a suspended prison sentence. When Irvine police arrested him for domestic violence soon after he married Shegerian in 2010, he received a batterer’s treatment program.
“That is the great oppressed Hossein Nayeri?” Murphy said, and added: “Can you think of a person that’s had more breaks from the American justice system, more opportunity, than Hossein Nayeri? But he wants you folks to believe he ran because he’d been a victim of that same system.”
In his closing argument to jurors Friday, Salvatore Ciulla, the defense attorney, said, “Mr. Nayeri is a flawed person, but it doesn’t mean he’s guilty of this crime.”
Ciulla said Shegerian had made up her account of Nayeri’s involvement in the crime to escape legal jeopardy.
“Her only value is if she can nail Nayeri,” Ciulla said. “Otherwise she thinks, ‘I’m gonna be arrested, I’m gonna be prosecuted, my life is over.’”
Jurors are expected to begin deliberating Monday.
Nayeri’s co-defendant, Handley, was convicted last year of participating in the abduction and torture of the dispensary owner and is serving a life term. Other alleged accomplices, Ryan Kevorkian and his ex-wife Naomi Rhodus, are awaiting trial in the case.