Man tipped police to jail escapees’ stolen van in S.F. parking lot near Whole Foods
The two Orange County jail escapees who remained at large after a daring escape eight days ago were arrested in San Francisco after a citizen noticed a van matching the description of the one they had allegedly stolen parked in a lot near a Whole Foods Market, officials said Saturday.
Authorities said police were attending to an unrelated medical emergency when a man flagged down officers. The man told them he suspected that a white van parked near the market at Haight and Stanyan streets was “the one wanted in the Orange County jail escape,” said San Francisco police Officer Grace Gatpandan.
Officers began looking in the immediate area for the man -- later identified as Hossein Nayeri -- and found him near Waller and Stanyan streets, Gatpandan said. Police chased and arrested him after a short pursuit.
When the officers went back to the van, they found the second suspect, Jonathan Tieu, hiding inside. He did not attempt to resist or escape, Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said.
Police said they recovered ammunition but no weapons inside the van. The pair were taken to the San Francisco police’s Park Station and will eventually be moved to the county jail.
“I can say this morning that the entire state can breathe a sigh of relief,” the sheriff said at a noon news briefing.
The arrests unfolded just before 9 a.m. Saturday, when San Francisco police said the citizen approached officers about a suspicious person and vehicle. (The Orange County sheriff initially identified the tipster as a woman, but San Francisco police clarified later that the citizen was a man.)
Officers quickly found Nayeri, who took off running when he caught sight of the officers, Gatpandan said. Nayeri ran toward a lake and around Kezar Stadium and then back toward the Park District Police Station, she said.
“Officers broadcast there was a foot pursuit and officers came out of the park station to assist,” Gatpandan said.
The van was discovered near Haight and Stanyan streets, authorities said. Tieu was concealed inside and taken into custody. Investigators believe the men lived out of the van for days.
Police patrols stood outside the Whole Foods as well as inside the entrance near an oil skincare display Saturday afternoon. With the transient population across the street at Golden Gate Park, locals said they were not surprised the fugitives wandered into this area.
“This is the perfect spot to blend in,” said Lauren Bowen, a mother of two who lives near the store. “They see a whole group of people finding refuge and they can try to do the same.”
Bo Allen, a San Francisco resident on a Saturday morning walk, said he saw “a commotion with someone running and police behind him.”
“They were yelling at him to stop but he didn’t,” Allen said. “I had no idea this was the inmate in the news.”
As of Saturday afternoon, Hutchens said she was not aware of anyone who was hurt by the escapees.
A third escapee, Bac Duong, surrendered to authorities in Santa Ana on Friday, a week after the three broke out of the Santa Ana lockup.
The arrests ended a massive manhunt for the men, who all were charged with violent crimes.
“This is one of a sheriff’s worst nightmares,” said Hutchens, adding that she did a “big whoop in the air” upon learning of the arrests.
At first, the fugitives were believed to be in Southern California.
The white van -- a 2008 GMC Savana -- was stolen last Saturday in South Los Angeles by Duong, Orange County sheriff’s Capt. Jeff Hallock told The Times. Duong had responded to a Craigslist ad listing the white panel van for sale, met with the seller and took the van on a test drive.
Duong never returned, Hallock said, and the theft was reported to authorities. Orange County sheriff’s detectives became aware that the suspect looked like Duong, Hallock said.
The three escapees then managed to drive up to Northern California in the stolen white van and check into a motel in San Jose.
Nayeri, 37, Tieu, 20 and Duong, 43, checked into the Alameda Motel in the 100 block of The Alameda on Tuesday, according to the motel manager who did not want his name used.
The men asked for a smoking room and pre-paid $200 in cash for two nights, he said.
At one time during their stay, the manager saw the “oldest guy,” later identified as Duong, washing the white van in the parking lot, he said.
The motel manager told Duong that he could not wash his vehicle in the parking lot and he immediately stopped.
The manager said the checkout time was 11 a.m. Thursday. He said he went to Room 14 to tell the men it was time to leave.
He said he knocked on the door and there was no answer. When he opened the door, he discovered that the men were gone.
Duong surrendered to police at 11:21 a.m. Friday at a business in the 1400 block of North Harbor Boulevard after a friend called police, Santa Ana police Sgt. Don Humphrey said.
Hutchens said she did not have information about how Duong was able to get to from San Jose to Santa Ana.
Tri Nguyen, who identified himself as an acquaintance of Duong’s, said the escapee walked into the business about 11 a.m. and told Nguyen’s girlfriend, who worked there, that he wanted to turn himself in. The woman called police, he said, and soon the business was swarming with law enforcement agents, guns drawn.
Nguyen and his girlfriend had known Duong for many years before he went to jail, Nguyen said.
“I feel good for him because he did the right thing” in turning himself in, Nguyen said. “He doesn’t have to run around anymore.”
Duong has been cooperating with investigators, authorities said, though they would not say whether Duong tipped police off to Nayeri and Tieu’s whereabouts.
A few hours later, San Jose police showed up at the Alameda Motel and showed the manager mug shots of the three escapees, whom he recognized and identified.
“I just can’t believe it,” the manager told a Times reporter Saturday. “There are crazy things going on in life. But these guys were quiet, nice and no drama.”
The arrests came after law enforcement made its most public show of force in the hunt for the fugitives, which had been in its second week. Armored vehicles and deputies in tactical gear descended on Westminster Avenue on Thursday night, executing a pair of search warrants that were filmed by television news cameras.
The searches, which focused on a residence and a warehouse, did not result in any arrests, officials said.
Officials also revealed new details about the alleged relationship between one of the fugitives and an English-language teacher who is accused of aiding in the jailbreak.
The teacher, 44-year-old Nooshafarin Ravaghi, exchanged handwritten letters with Nayeri, and formed a bond with him that was “much closer and much more personal than it should have been,” Hallock said.
Ravaghi is being held on suspicion of being an accessory in the brazen jailbreak. She will appear in court on Monday and is ineligible for bail, Hallock said.
The teacher’s arrest came as the police continued to hunt frantically for the escapees, all of whom were awaiting trial for violent crimes ranging from torture and kidnapping to murder.
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 rope of knotted bedsheets and cloth to rappel down the side of the building.
The escape went undetected for at least 16 hours, and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department has come under fire for allowing the escapees to gain such a head start.
When all the escapees eventually return to Orange County, “because of the escape risk, they will be housed in a different area and in a different manner,” the sheriff said Saturday. Hutchens would not describe those cells. The trio had been kept in a dormitory holding more than 60 prisoners when they escaped.
Hutchens acknowledged that now that all three escapees have been captured, the focus will move to “to where the system failed” and what can be done to prevent it from occurring again.
“That will take some time,” she said. “We do not want another escape from an Orange County jail.”
The sheriff said the department has already made a number of changes to tighten security and “will continue to make changes,” but did not elaborate. She also said no disciplinary action has been taken against sheriff’s personnel.
Hutchens acknowledged the department had some information suggesting a tie between the escapees and San Francisco, but investigators had said they believed the pair were in San Jose and possibly heading to Fresno as of Friday. She credited the citizen for the tip about the white van and said he deserves whatever reward is available.
“No sheriff wants to have an escape,” Hutchens said, “especially as dangerous as these people were.”
Times staff writer Do reported from San Francisco and San Jose, Goldenstein from Santa Ana, Stevens and Winton from Los Angeles.
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