Orange County prosecutors on Monday charged three men with escaping from jail as the massive dragnet aimed at capturing them continued for a third day.
Jonathan Tieu, 20, Bac Duong, 43, and Hossein Nayeri, 37, were discovered missing at the Central Men's Jail in downtown Santa Ana around 9 p.m. Friday, after they apparently cut through at least four layers of steel and rebar to reach the facility's roof, from which they rappelled down and escaped.
All three were charged with felony escaping counts Monday.
If convicted of the escape, "Nayeri and Tieu face a maximum sentence of three years in state prison for this case. Duong faces a maximum sentence of nine years in state prison for this case," prosecutors said in a statement.
Law enforcement officials called on the local Vietnamese community to aid in the hunt after an investigator said he believed the escapees may be hunkered down in the area.
On Monday, the man spearheading the investigation identified Tieu as a documented Vietnamese gang member and called on community leaders to help police flush him out.
"We sincerely need input from the community to help us put these three dangerous individuals back into custody," said Orange County Sheriff's Lt. Dave Sawyer, who is leading the probe into the escape.
Investigators don't believe the escapees have fled the country or state. Based on Tieu and Duong's connections to the area, Sawyer said investigators believe the escapees "may be embedded somewhere in the community."
Sheriff's officials made pleas for public assistance in English and Vietnamese on Monday morning, more than 60 hours after the men were discovered missing.
Jail staff were conducting a count of inmates Friday night when they came up three short. A search of the facility revealed the makeshift rope, made from bedsheets and spare cloth, and a rectangular hole cut into a steel screen behind some beds.
It remains unclear how the inmates obtained the tools needed to cut through layers of rebar. No staff have been suspended and officials said they had not turned up any evidence that jail personnel played a role in the escape.
Hallock said Monday that the trio would have needed to cut through steel, metal or rebar at least four times as they moved from unsecured plumbing tunnels to the roof, from which they ultimately escaped.
The inmates were being held in a 68-inmate area known as module F, one floor below the jail's roof, Hallock said.
"We do believe this was a well-planned, well-thought-out escape attempt," Hallock said.
Sheriff's officials were also peppered with questions about the gap in time between the actual escape and the moment when jail staff noticed the men were missing.
The jail conducts two physical body counts each day, one at 5 a.m. and the other at 8 p.m., according to Lt. Jeffrey Hallock, a sheriff's department spokesman. Hallock also said jailers will walk through prison areas and conduct random searches throughout the facility every hour, but the prison-wide body counts are only conducted twice a day.
Investigators are trying to determine whether a prison brawl that broke out around the time of the second bed check on Friday was intended to delay the review and help cover the inmates' escape. A deputy was injured during the brawl, which helped delay the 8 p.m. head count.
Experts have warned that the 15-hour gap in daily head counts can be easily exploited by inmates.
"Procedures may have been in place, but were they followed? The bed check in morning and afternoon isn't unusual but what happens in between is important," said Merrick Bobb, who once oversaw reforms of the Los Angeles county jail system and now serves as executive director of the police assessment resource center in L.A. "They are meant to walk through every hour. Did that in fact happen?"
Bobb also questioned how the inmates obtained the tools necessary to cut through numerous metal barriers between their holding area and the roof.
"These aren't tools that can be made out of dental floss," Bobb said. "Such cutting creates a lot of noise and it would have to be covered up."
Tieu, Duong and Nayeri are each accused of extremely violent crimes. Nayeri has been in custody since September 2014 on charges of kidnapping, torture, aggravated mayhem and burglary, after he was charged in a plot to kidnap a California marijuana dispensary owner in 2012.
Sawyer said Nayeri drove the man to a desert, set him on fire, covered him in bleach and severed his penis before leaving him to die. After the crime, Nayeri fled the U.S. to his native Iran, where he remained for several months. He was arrested in Prague, Czech Republic, in November 2014 while changing flights from Iran to Spain to visit family.
Tieu, who had been in custody since October 2013 on charges of murder and attempted murder, is a "documented Vietnamese gang member," according to Sawyer, who refused to say what faction Tieu belonged too. Duong is also a known gang member, Sawyer said.
"I can't emphasize enough to the community that these inmates are extremely dangerous and presumed to be armed," he said.
Orange County law enforcement agencies have already carried out 36 search warrants in connection with the search for the escapees, Sawyer said.
The escape was the third jail break since the facility's construction in 1968, according to Hallock, who said the last escape occurred in 1989. Escapes statewide have been in decline for years, according to data tracked by the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation, plummeting to a low of just 11 cases in 2011.
Between 1993 and 1997, an average of 62 inmates escaped from state prisons each year, records show. From 2008 to 2012, the last years for which data were available, that average dipped to about 18 escapes annually.
Bobb said the escape highlights the problem with holding violent inmates awaiting trial in jails, which, unlike prison facilities, are not designed to contain inmates for lengthy stretches of time.
"If you give them enough time, they will learn your systems," he said.