For a week, O.C. jail escapees stayed a step ahead of authorities

A San Francisco police officer puts up tape not far from where Orange County jail escapees Hossein Nayeri and Jonathan Tieu were apprehended.
A San Francisco police officer puts up tape not far from where Orange County jail escapees Hossein Nayeri and Jonathan Tieu were apprehended.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

During their week on the run, Hossein Nayeri, Jonathan Tieu and Bac Duong followed a well-respected formula for fugitives: Always keep one step ahead of the authorities.

By accident, luck or design, the strategy served them well, first at Men’s Central Jail in Orange County, where hours passed before their getaway was finally realized.

It worked for them in Northern California for days as SWAT teams conducted raids in Westminster’s Little Saigon searching for a viable lead, and it helped them again in San Jose when authorities arrived more than 24 hours too late at the motel where the men had holed up.


But it came to a conclusion Saturday morning near a Whole Foods market in San Francisco when a passerby spotted the van that the trio had stolen from South Los Angeles.

As officers approached, Nayeri started running and was caught after a brief chase. Tieu was found hiding inside the van. Their accomplice, Duong, had turned himself in on Friday.

The eight-day manhunt for the fugitives, which had drawn in dozens of law enforcement agencies throughout the state, had ended, and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, responsible for holding the men in custody, is now trying to understand how the escape occurred in the first place.

Nayeri, Tieu and Duong met in prison. The three had been awaiting trial and were housed on the fourth floor of the jail across from the Civic Center in downtown Santa Ana.

Nayeri, 37, was charged in the 2012 kidnapping of a wealthy marijuana dispensary owner and his housemate’s girlfriend. Nayeri and unnamed accomplices allegedly drove the man to the desert, and in an attempt to extort $1 million, burned him with a blowtorch, doused him with bleach and severed his penis.

Left for dead, the man survived when the woman who had been taken with him managed to alert police.


Tieu, 20, a member of a Vietnamese gang, was awaiting retrial in connection with a 2011 murder, and Duong, 42, had been charged last month with attempted murder.

At minimum, Nayeri, Tieu and Duong faced life sentences, leading some experts to wonder why the inmates, who had nothing to lose if they were to commit additional crimes, were not being held in closed cells. Instead, they circulated among 65 other prisoners.

They were first reported missing Jan. 22 after an 8 p.m. head count came up short by three. Jail personnel had last conducted a bed check that morning at 5 o’clock.

Authorities are not speculating on how long the men had been working on the particulars of their escape — which probably took only minutes to execute — but the details that emerged revealed a plan as bold as any Hollywood might imagine.

Cutting through a metal screen in the back wall of their fourth-floor cell, they crawled through a plumbing tunnel and, with a rope made of bedsheets, hoisted themselves into a ventilation shaft.

Removing multiple louvers in the duct, they stepped through a trap door onto the roof, which doubles as a recreation area for inmates. They cut through the concertina wire that lined the parapet and lowered themselves to the ground.


It was the first jailbreak in nearly 30 years at the facility, which was built in 1968.

Investigators have not recovered the tools that were used to cut through the steel and rebar, and they have not explained how the inmates could have covered up the noise they were making.

Sheriff’s officials allege that a teacher who provided English-language instruction to inmates gave Nayeri access to a Google Maps view that showed the jail’s rooftop.

The teacher, Nooshafarin Ravaghi, 44, is being held on suspicion of being an accessory in the jailbreak. She will appear in court Monday.

Soon after the getaway, officials began reviewing videos around the jail — one shows a figure shining a flashlight on the roof — and the civic center to determine which direction the inmates fled, and the FBI put up a $20,000 reward for information leading to their arrest. Before the week was over, that amount would grow to $200,000.

The day after the escape, Duong met with the owner of a 2008 white GMC Savana panel van in South Los Angeles that had been listed on Craigslist, took the vehicle on a test drive and never returned, according to Sheriff’s Capt. Jeff Hallock.

By then, law enforcement agencies had begun searching Westminster and Garden Grove — Little Saigon — believing that Tieu’s street gang, the Tiny Rascals, might have provided assistance to the men. Tieu and his family live in the neighborhood, and Duong is a Vietnamese national who entered the U.S. legally in 1991.


Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens was interviewed on local Vietnamese radio and television stations, asking for help in locating the suspects, and an award was issued for information leading to their arrest. The warnings, urging the community to stay vigilant, dominated talk in local cafes.

By midweek, the three men had left Southern California, and on Tuesday they checked into the Alameda Motel in San Jose. The motel’s manager, who asked not to be identified, said they paid $200 in cash for two nights. They asked for a smoking room and checked into No. 14 with a full-size bed and a twin.

During their stay, Duong took the time to wash the van in the parking lot, and when the manager asked him to stop, he complied.

“I just can’t believe it,” the manager told The Times. “There are crazy things going on in life, but these guys were quiet, nice and no drama.”

Sheriff’s deputies began to conduct sweeps in Little Saigon, executing search warrants and taking as many as 10 people into custody. On Thursday evening, SWAT teams with armored vehicles and deputies in combat gear raided a residence and a commercial building on Westminster Avenue.

Then late Friday morning, authorities received a phone call from an auto body shop on North Harbor Boulevard in Santa Ana. The caller said that Duong, who had returned to Southern California, was ready to turn himself in. He stepped outside to smoke a cigarette, and within 20 minutes law enforcement agencies from across Orange County had descended upon the store.


Less than four hours later, police in San Jose surrounded the Alameda Hotel. When they showed the manager mug shots of the suspects, he identified the three men, but Room 14 was empty. Nayeri and Tieu had fled more than 24 hours before.

By then, police were investigating leads that placed the fugitives in the Fresno area, where Nayeri had attended high school.

Where they spent Thursday and Friday night is uncertain, but by early Saturday morning, they had driven into San Francisco, parking the van across the street from Golden Gate Park near Haight and Stanyan streets.

San Francisco officers with the Park District Police Station were aiding a person with a medical emergency when they were approached by a man who thought that a white van parked near the neighborhood Whole Foods belonged to the suspects.

When officers began looking in the area and identified Nayeri, he took off into the park, circling Kezar Stadium adjacent to the police station.

“Officers broadcast there was a foot pursuit,” said San Francisco Police Officer Grace Gatpandan, “and officers came out of the park station to assist.”


Cornered by officers, Nayeri was apprehended without resisting. Searching the van, officers discovered Tieu hiding inside. Handgun ammunition was found, but no weapons, Gatpandan said.

Speaking at a noon news conference in Santa Ana, Hutchens said the two men will be returned to Orange County. She also described her relief upon hearing the news of their capture.

“It is a sheriff’s worst nightmare,” she said, repeating a comment she had made earlier in the week, “especially as dangerous as these individuals were. My fear was that someone in the community would get hurt, because they really had nothing to lose.”

Now, she added, her agency can begin to look at how the system failed.


Do reported from San Francisco and San Jose, Goldenstein from Santa Ana and Curwen and Stevens from Los Angeles.

Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.


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