The cab driver picked up the three men outside a restaurant in Garden Grove about 9:30 p.m., around the time that panicked Orange County Sheriff’s officials realized they had a jailbreak on their hands.
The driver, Long Hoang Ma, 71, had received a phone call on Jan. 22 summoning him to the location. This was not unusual; he advertised in the Vietnamese-language papers.
He picked up three passengers. Authorities — who identified the men as Hossein Nayeri, 37, Bac Duong, 43, and Jonathan Tieu, 20 — say the three had rappelled from the roof of the nearby county jail in Santa Ana, where they were awaiting trial on charges of violent felonies.
For the next week, Ma said, he was their captive. They chain-smoked together in a tiny motel room. He slept beside them. He accompanied them across the state. He listened to them argue about whether to kill him. He wondered whether he would survive.
“Dead or alive — it’s up to God,” Ma said. “I know I have no control over what happens to me.”
Ma told his story Tuesday as he drove his leased Honda Civic around Little Saigon, trying to make up for a week’s lost fares. He picked up a sixth-grade girl from a Westminster school and drove her to her grandmother’s house. Evidence stickers were still affixed to his car, and he apologized that he hadn’t had time to clean the cab.
Ma said he drove the three fugitives to a Walmart in Santa Ana, and then to a Target in Rosemead, where they bought cellphones, and then to a nearby strip mall. There, he said, they held a gun to his ribs and confiscated his phone and keys.
“They would laugh gleefully,” he said.
During the weekend, he said, Duong showed up with a van he had stolen.
They were still hunkered down in the hotel room by Sunday, Ma said, when Nayeri punched Duong in the face.
Ma speaks only a few words of English so he didn’t understand the argument, he said, but Duong told him it was about whether he should be killed.
“He really wants to get rid of you, but I’m trying to help you,” the cab driver recalled Duong saying. Duong has been in jail on charges of attempted murder, assault with a firearm and residential burglary.
Through it all, the cab driver said, Nayeri — whom he referred to as “the Iranian guy” — was the clear leader of the trio.
Nayeri, who authorities allege was the mastermind of the jailbreak, is facing charges in connection with a gruesome 2012 attack on a pot-dispensary owner, who was abducted from a Newport Beach home, taken to the desert and tortured, his penis cut off.
Ma said Duong was cordial to him and solicitous. He called him “Uncle.” “He would ask what I wanted to eat, he said he would buy it,” Ma recalled.
He said Duong went out to buy him Capri cigarettes and Marlboros for himself. All four men smoked constantly, he said.
During his week as a captive, Ma said, his cellphone would ring with people asking to be picked up, but his captors forced him to lie about his whereabouts. “I would tell customers that I’m at the airport, I’m not available, or that I’m in Vegas and not coming back soon,” he said.
On Tuesday, four days after the escape, the men drove to San Jose and rented a tiny, spare room at the Alameda Motel, where the fugitives drank beer and whiskey, Ma said.
Sneha Mistly, who manages the motel, said records show that Long Ma rented Room 14 that Tuesday and Wednesday. Authorities and motel staff have said Room 14 was where the fugitives stayed.
Ma said he slept on the twin bed while Nayeri claimed the other bed. Duong and Tieu slept on the floor, Tieu stretched in front of the doorway to block escape.
Ma thought of his fiancee, in Vietnam, and whether he would ever see her again.
Once, they stopped at a Ross Dress for Less store to buy clothes, and the cabbie touched a cotton shirt. He said Duong bought it for him.
Duong also took him to a Western Union in San Jose to collect $3,000 that he said Nayeri’s mother had sent him.
On Wednesday, he said, the fugitives drove him to Santa Cruz. He said Duong told him that Nayeri “wanted to toss him into the ocean.” He said Nayeri forced him to pose for portraits with the other fugitives, for reasons he didn’t understand.
On Thursday morning, he said, Nayeri and Tieu left to tint the windows of the van. He said Duong, worried that Nayeri would kill someone, asked Nayeri to leave his gun behind. He agreed, the cab driver said.
With the other two fugitives away, the cab driver said, Duong drove him back to Southern California. He said Duong allowed him to sit beside him with his hands unbound. He said Duong cried, worried that Nayeri would become violent, and talked about wanting to surrender.
Then they drove to Auto Electric Rebuilders in Santa Ana, where Duong contacted a friend who called 911 to summon authorities.
The other two fugitives were captured Saturday in San Francisco.
Authorities on Monday provided a detailed chronicle of the fugitives’ week on the run. They reported the abduction of a cab driver, the path north and the threats to kill him. But officials did not identify the driver.
Ma said he was a captain in the Vietnamese army and came to the United States in 1992 with his wife and four children. He said he is divorced and estranged from the children. He now lives in a rented room in Garden Grove, a solitary man with few friends.
During the week he was gone, no one reported him missing. He said he has been driving a cab for about nine months and before that stood on the street begging with a sign that said, “Homeless.”
He was back at work in his cab Tuesday, his hands shaking on the wheel.
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