The kidnappers plotted for months. They used disguises and a rented van, burner phones and surveillance cameras.
The target: a gregarious 28-year-old marijuana dispensary owner who lived a block from the ocean in Newport Beach.
The myth: He had $1 million in cash buried in the Mojave Desert that, faced with enough pain, he would lead them to.
They came for him at his 25th Street home before dawn on Oct. 2, 2012, blindfolded him and dragged him and a housemate, Mary Barnes, into the back of the waiting van.
He could not see their faces as they took him on a 142-mile journey into the desert, beat him, tortured him with a stun gun and a blowtorch, doused him with bleach and laughed as they severed his penis.
Prosecutors said Kyle Handley, a Fountain Valley pot dealer, had acted as the driver. Jurors deliberated less than two hours Thursday before convicting the 38-year-old of kidnapping, aggravated mayhem and torture in connection with the crime.
During Handley’s trial, which began in mid-December, Barnes testified that after the attackers left her and the dispensary owner in the desert, she staggered to a highway and was spotted by a Kern County sheriff’s deputy. She led authorities to the dispensary owner, who survived and testified at Handley’s trial. The Times, according to policy, does not identify sexual assault victims.
Prosecutors described the dispensary owner as “a genuinely nice man” who had no criminal history. He had been known to carry large amounts of cash, however, in part because marijuana remains a business that legally cannot use the banking system.
The kidnappers never found a stash of money in the desert, which Senior Deputy District Atty. Matt Murphy compared to “Ali Baba’s treasure.”
Murphy said that Handley, a pot grower, had sold the dispensary owner some of his marijuana and had accompanied him during jaunts to Las Vegas, but had vanished from his life during the months he helped plot the crime.
Following the kidnapping, Newport Beach detectives found a neighbor of the victims who reported having seen Handley’s dented white pickup truck at the scene. Police found the truck, reeking of bleach, at Handley’s house — along with zip ties that resembled those used on the victims.
Police also discovered that cameras used to surveil the dispensary owner had been sent to Handley’s home, and law enforcement license-plate readers repeatedly had registered Handley’s truck near the victim’s home in the months preceding the abduction.
Key to the prosecution’s case was the testimony of Cortney Shegerian — the former wife of Hossein Nayeri, the alleged mastermind of the plot. Shegerian testified that she heard Nayeri and Handley playing with a blowtorch two weeks before the abduction, and that Handley was one of the few people Nayeri trusted.
Shegerian testified that surveilling the dispensary owner became Nayeri’s “100 percent focus.” Days before the abduction, she said, she bought four burner phones at Nayeri’s direction, and helped Handley set one of them up.
Shegerian said she was aware Nayeri was watching the dispensary owner, as well as the owner’s parents, who had a dog that barked. Shegerian — who was a law student at the time and is now a lawyer — testified that Nayeri wanted to kill the dog with a poisoned hamburger patty and that she acquired meat for the purpose. She said Nayeri wore gloves while handling the skillet that cooked it.
During cross-examination by defense attorney Robert Weinberg, Shegerian said she did not recall some details of the poisoned-patty episode. “I personally do not remember if I’m the one that made the patty and put it on the skillet,” she said. Weinberg argued that her vagueness on that point undermined her credibility.
The dog, a pit bull mix, was unharmed.
Murphy argued that authorities only knew about the poisoned patty because Shegerian had volunteered the information. The prosecutor said she had been in “a long, twisted, emotionally abusive relationship” with Nayeri.
The prosecutor said that Shegerian initially was “totally uncooperative” with detectives and had lied to police to protect Nayeri after he led Newport Beach police on a high-speed chase. To avoid prosecution, Shegerian agreed to cooperate with authorities and had helped lure Nayeri out of Iran so they could arrest him. “From our perspective, she’s a hero,” Murphy said.
Weinberg said prosecutors had presented the evidence against Handley from “a myopic point of view.” He raised the possibility that Nayeri had been driving Handley’s truck on the days it was spotted near the victim’s house. Weinberg said Nayeri specialized in shifting blame to others and had selected Handley as “a perfect fall guy.”
Murphy described Nayeri as a “psycho” and a “human parasite,” but said that Handley freely participated in the abduction plot. “When was the last time you loaned your car to somebody 14 times in the space of five or six months and didn’t know what it was used for?” Murphy asked jurors.
Handley’s conviction carries a life term, and Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregg Prickett is expected to sentence him on March 23.
Nayeri and co-defendant Ryan Kevorkian, along with Kevorkian’s ex-wife, Naomi Rhodus, are awaiting trial in the case.
7:p.m.: This article has been updated throughout
5:25 p.m.: This article was updated to add the name of a defendant.
This article originally published at 4:55 p.m.