Ex-wife says she was ‘terrified’ of her husband, who is accused of kidnapping, torture and mutilation

Hossein Nayeri, seen here on the first day of his trial, is charged with two counts of kidnapping for extortion plus torture, aggravated mayhem and burglary.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

By the time Cortney Shegerian started telling police the truth, she’d been wrapped up in then-husband Hossein Nayeri’s web of secret schemes.

Securing him pay-as-you-go “burner” phones. Driving him around so he could tinker with GPS trackers and secret cameras. Buying hamburger meat, later poisoned and fed to a yappy dog (who survived). Shuttling cash and clothes to Turkey and Dubai.

These were just some of the things Shegerian did at her husband’s direction, she testified Wednesday in a Newport Beach courthouse.

Nayeri, 40, is on trial for charges of kidnapping for ransom, aggravated mayhem, torture and burglary. Prosecutors paint him as the mastermind behind a plot to kidnap, torture and extort a Newport Beach man who was mutilated and left in the desert with a female victim.

Prosecutors allege Nayeri and his co-conspirators — including Fountain Valley resident Kyle Shirakawa Handley, who was already convicted in the case — sought $1 million they mistakenly believed that one of the victims, a marijuana dispensary owner, had hidden in the Mojave Desert.

On Sept. 26, 2012, just six days before the kidnapping, Nayeri left the Newport townhouse that Shegerian rented in a gray Chevrolet Tahoe.

In the middle of the night, police knocked on Shegerian’s door, inquiring about the Tahoe, which was registered in her name. It had been involved in a high-speed chase.

Nayeri later returned, soaking wet. She testified that he was mad that she hadn’t lied to police and told them the SUV was stolen.

So, at her husband’s insistence, she filed a police report the next day stating the vehicle had been stolen, she said, and the Tahoe was impounded.

On the stand, Shegerian testified that her ex-husband emotionally estranged her from her family and simultaneously pressured her to extract money from her parents to support his lifestyle.

“He would tell me things like ‘You can’t trust your parents,’ and used things I told him against me to put a wedge between my family,” Shegerian said. “In addition to that, unbeknownst to them, they were supporting us.

“From an emotional perspective they had no idea what was going on in my life,” Shegerian said. “I was talking to them but not being honest.”

Shegerian said that the marriage eventually turned violent.

Nayeri’s attorney, Salvatore Ciulla, pushed back on the claim that Nayeri isolated Shegerian from her family, referencing phone records that included over 100 calls with her parents in one particular month.

“I needed to talk to them,” she said. “I had so many lies to tell them in order to keep these things going.”

Sometime in early 2012, Shegerian said that Nayeri asked her to use databases she had access to as a law student in order to research one of the victims and started seeing GPS tracking equipment around their home.

“I would see Hossein put recorders into a laptop and was looking at maps all day. It was very unusual,” she said.

Shortly before the kidnapping incident, Nayeri pulled up a map of one of the GPS trackers that showed a vehicle in the desert.

“He said, ‘Why would someone be out in the desert circling a certain area?’” Shegerian said. ‘“I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘Seems like a perfect place to bury some cash.’ I said, ‘Probably.’ ”

On Oct. 6, 2012 — four days after the dispensary store owner and a woman were kidnapped from a Balboa Peninsula home — Nayeri returned from visiting Handley’s residence, which had been searched by police.

He “began destroying things in the apartment,” Shegerian testified.

She flushed the sim card from a burner phone down the toilet, got rid of bloodied socks and went to a 76 station on Pacific Coast Highway to discard other items, she said.

In the days after Handley’s arrest, Nayeri’s demeanor turned “totally frantic scared, nervous,” she testified.

He stopped sleeping at their townhouse, opting for hotels, she said.

At her husband’s instruction, Shegerian attended Handley’s Oct. 10, 2012 arraignment. When she reported back the charges that Handley was involved in a kidnapping that left the male victim dismembered, she described her husband as “terrified.”

He “became paranoid” and “urgently frantic,” Shegerian said.

He bought a plane ticket to Iran, where he held a passport, and left on Oct. 14, 2012. Iran does not have an extradition arrangement with the United States.

Shegerian took three trips to see Nayeri, one to Turkey in late 2012 and two to Dubai in early 2013. She brought him clothes, medicine and, over the course of the three trips, $50,000 to $60,000 in cash, she said.

When asked why by prosecutor Matt Murphy, she said, “I was terrified of Hossein.”

“There was this nice, charming, manipulative, draw-you-in part and this angry, crazy, temper-driven, scary part,” Shegerian testified. “And it could just go from zero to a thousand in a minute, and at that point I didn’t feel like I could tell him no.”

Shortly after the thrid trip, Shegerian went to the Newport Beach police station to retrieve the impounded Tahoe and was confronted by a detective.

“‘Do you realize that the fact that you showed up here to collect these items mean you are taking responsibility for these items?’” she remembered the detective asking her, referring to the GPS tracking equipment in the vehicle.

Shegerian remained uncooperative with police but days later, on April 12, 2013, a police detective, Ryan Peters, contacted her parents. Her father called and offered help. With her family’s support, Shegerian got a lawyer and began intensive therapy.

“Spending so long being in a particular mental state, it’s like a fog that began to lift,” Shegerian said.

On May 7, 2013, Shegerian sat down with Newport police and gave them a detailed account of the events.

It “made me see things for what they really were and not this delusional, fearful state that I was in,” she said. “I realized what had happened. I realized, ‘Oh my God, I need to tell the truth I need to make this right.’”

Shegerian described her relationship with Nayeri, whom she met when she was 16 and he was 23, as “off-the-charts dysfunctional.” They married in 2010, a secret she kept from her parents, and moved to Orange County, where Shegerian enrolled in law school.

Shegerian later cooperated with police in an elaborate plan to stage another overseas meeting with the couple, where Nayeri would be lured to travel through a country where he could be arrested and extradited.

She attended a funeral for Nayeri’s uncle, obtained fake green cards at her husband’s direction, and even brought his sister and another friend along on a staged trip to Spain to put him at ease, Shegerian recounted.

Authorities arrested Nayeri in November 2013 in Prague, Czech Republic. In 2016, he escaped from Orange County Jail and was captured eight days later in San Francisco.

In 2017, Shegerian was granted immunity from prosecution. Her ex-husband’s trial continues Monday.