Jurors heard opening statements Wednesday in the case of Hossein Nayeri, who is accused of torturing a medical marijuana dispensary owner after kidnapping him and his roommate from their Balboa Peninsula home in October 2012.
Heather Brown, an Orange County senior deputy district attorney, argued that Nayeri and his co-conspirators were motivated by their belief that the victim had buried $1 million in the Mojave Desert. The Daily Pilot is not identifying the dispensary owner because he is the victim of a sex crime.
“After you hear the evidence in the case, there will be no doubt that the acts we’ve charged and alleged were committed,” Brown said. “There will be no doubt that the victim suffered horrible, unspeakable acts at the hands of the defendant.”
Nayeri, 40, is charged with two counts of kidnapping for extortion, torture, aggravated mayhem and burglary.
Prosecutors allege that after a high-rolling Las Vegas trip together in May 2012, Kyle Shirakawa Handley mistakenly believed the dispensary owner had a large amount of money buried in the desert.
Both Handley and Nayeri supplied marijuana to the victim’s dispensary, Brown said.
Handley, a Fountain Valley resident, allegedly hatched a plan to steal the money with two other men he grew up with in Fresno: Nayeri and Ryan Kevorkian.
After installing video cameras to surveil a residence on 25th Street, where the dispensary owner rented a room, the three men are suspected of entering the home wearing black ski masks as the housemates slept, Brown said.
The dispensary owner was allegedly slammed in the head with a 12-gauge shotgun, repeatedly beaten and choked before being restrained with zip-ties and loaded into a cargo van with his landlord’s girlfriend.
The captors allegedly threatened to shoot the dispensary owner in the head and burn his body if he didn’t hand over the $1 million they believed he was hiding.
“He would have gladly given them a million dollars if he had it,” Brown said.
The victims testified previously that they were dropped off, still bound, in the desert about 150 miles from Newport Beach. Once they arrived in the desert, the captors cut off the dispensary owner’s penis. Afterward, they poured bleach over his body.
One of the captors then tossed a knife into nearby bushes and the woman was told that she could cut herself free if she could find it. She managed to release herself, but her roommate’s hands were too swollen, according to earlier testimony.
After walking barefoot through the desert for more than mile to a nearby highway, a Kern County deputy sheriff found the female victim with her hands still bound behind her back and a blindfold pushed over forehead, Brown said.
Newport Beach police were able to identify Handley as a suspect because a neighbor wrote down his truck’s license plate number the day before the kidnapping. Authorities believe the suspects were masquerading as construction workers doing maintenance on the dispensary owner’s home.
While serving a search warrant at Handley’s Fountain Valley home, Newport Beach officers located the truck and found a blue glove on the passenger seat with DNA that matched Nayeri’s, Brown said.
Nayeri’s attorney, Salvatore Ciulla, said Wednesday that the defense plans to scrutinize how the DNA on the glove was collected and analyzed.
“That glove is really the centerpiece of evidence in this case because it’s the only physical evidence the shows he was involved,” Ciulla said. “It’s like the holy grail in this case. It connects him to the crime, they think.”
Ciulla sought to distance his client from Handley, who was sentenced in July 2018 to spend the rest of his life behind bars for his role in the kidnapping.
“They weren’t the best of friends through high school,” Ciulla said. “Mr. Nayeri for a period of time, for about a year, did help him set up his [marijuana grow] operation in Long Beach.”
One of the prosecution’s key witnesses will be attorney Cortney Shegerian, who cooperated with Newport Beach police to lure Nayeri, her ex-husband, out of hiding in his birth country of Iran — which has no extradition treaty with the United States.
With detectives’ help, Shegerian planned a trip to Spain with Nayeri’s sister to celebrate passing the bar exam. Nayeri was arrested in November 2013 after his connector flight to Spain landed in Prague. He was later extradited back to the United States.
Nayeri again grabbed headlines in 2016 when he escaped from Orange County Jail and evaded authorities for eight days before being captured in San Francisco.
“After listening [to] the prosecution’s opening statement, you’re thinking the Nayeri explanation sounds sensible,” Ciulla said. “But in this case, it would be a huge mistake to accept something as true just because it sounds obvious at the start. I guarantee you, in this case, nothing is as it seems.”
Daniel Langhorne is a contributor to Times Community News. Los Angeles Times staff writer Hannah Fry contributed to this report.