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O.C. sheriff, defending jail escape probe, says it’s too early to conclude staffing was a factor

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, left, at a news conference Jan. 29 in Santa Ana, said the escape of three jail inmates was an embarrassment for her department.

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, left, at a news conference Jan. 29 in Santa Ana, said the escape of three jail inmates was an embarrassment for her department.

(Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens has asked to meet behind closed doors with county supervisors next week to discuss the department’s investigation into the escape of three prisoners accused of violent crimes from a maximum-security jail last month.

News of the Feb. 23 closed session follows sharp criticism of the department by its own unionized deputies. On Thursday, Hutchens responded to claims that the department was dragging its feet on the investigation.

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“Assertions that the department is not moving quick enough are blatantly false,” Hutchens said in a letter to Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett.

In a lawsuit filed last week, the Assn. of Orange County Sheriff’s Deputies argued that staff cutbacks at the Central Men’s Jail in Santa Ana played a role in the breakout. The job cuts, they said, meant there was no one guarding the roof or patrolling a jail utility tunnel that the prisoners used to escape.

Hutchens told supervisors Thursday that the investigation had not yet “reached a point” where officials could attribute the escape to “a lack of staffing.”

She also took issue with the lawsuit’s mention of saw blades being found in the jail prior to the escape.

“It is unfortunate that this discussion is taking place before all the facts are known,” Hutchens wrote. “The department will not make any allegations or comment on such information until we are ready to do so from an informed point of view.”

Hossein Nayeri, Bac Duong and Jonathan Tieu escaped from their fourth-floor dormitory on Jan. 22 by cutting through metal grating and steel bars and making their way down a plumbing shaft, authorities said. They eventually emerged on the jail’s roof and descended five stories on braided bedsheets. Within eight days there were all back in custody.

Fifteen hours passed between the last time the three prisoners answered roll call and when guards discovered their absence.

A friend of one of the inmates was arrested and charged with providing tools used in the escape. A teacher at the jail was also arrested on suspicion of aiding the prisoners, but prosecutors declined to charge her, citing lack of evidence.

Hutchens has acknowledged since the escape that that the jail was not following protocol regarding checking prisoners’ whereabouts throughout the day.

For SoCal crime and investigations follow me on Twitter @lacrimes

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