Hossein Nayeri, accused in the violent abduction of two Newport Beach residents in an alleged attempt to extort $1 million, was convicted Friday of kidnapping and torture.
An Orange County Superior Court jury deliberated four days before making its decision in the roughly month-long trial in Judge Gregg Prickett’s Newport Beach courtroom.
Nayeri will return to court for sentencing Oct. 11. He glanced at the ceiling as the verdict was read but had no visible reaction.
He could face two consecutive sentences of life in prison without possibility of parole, according to Orange County Senior Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy.
“Nayeri is maniacal, sadistic, egotistical, narcissistic, manipulative and very smart,” District Attorney Todd Spitzer said during a news conference after the verdict.
Nayeri’s attorney Salvatore Ciulla declined to comment.
Prosecutors alleged that Nayeri, 40, masterminded a plot in which masked intruders abducted a medical marijuana dispensary owner and his female roommate from their Balboa Peninsula home on Oct. 2, 2012, and brutally beat, tortured and sexually mutilated the man before the victims were left bound in the Mojave Desert. The motive, authorities said, was to steal $1 million the kidnappers thought the dispensary owner had buried in the desert.
The man was attacked with a Taser and a blowtorch, was doused in bleach and his penis was severed. The Daily Pilot is not identifying him or his roommate because he was the victim of a sexual assault.
“It’s hard to look at the case and imagine a more horrific one than this,” Murphy said.
Nayeri had been charged with two counts of kidnapping for ransom or extortion or to commit robbery or a sex crime, one count of aggravated mayhem, one count of torture with a sentencing enhancement allegation of inflicting great bodily injury and one count of first-degree burglary.
He was found guilty on the kidnapping and torture counts, but not on the enhancement. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on the mayhem charge.
The burglary charge was dismissed Monday after prosecutors motioned to do so to “streamline” the process, Murphy said. “We chose to simplify that,” he said.
Jury forewoman Beth Burbage said in an interview that the jurors were deadlocked 11-1 on whether Nayeri personally participated in severing the victim’s penis, and thus agreed that they could not affirm the sentencing enhancement allegation.
“There wasn’t enough evidence that he personally participated in the torture,” Burbage said. However, “because of aiding and abetting, we could find him guilty” of the count of torture, she said.
Burbage described the four days of deliberations as “intense,” saying, “People cried.”
During the trail, jurors and spectators heard testimony from, among others, the dispensary owner, the roommate, the defendant and Nayeri’s ex-wife Cortney Shegerian, who was granted immunity in 2017 as a result of her cooperation with investigators, including an elaborate plan to lure Nayeri from Iran so he could be extradited.
Prosecutors portrayed Nayeri as the link that connected all four people who have been charged in the case and as the only one smart enough to have hatched the kidnapping plan.
Murphy described another, Kyle Handley of Fountain Valley, as a “moron” and a third, Ryan Kevorkian, Nayeri’s best friend from high school in Fresno, as an “idiot.”
Murphy surmised that the fourth defendant, Naomi Rhodus (formerly Kevorkian) — another close friend of Nayeri and Shegerian who was in the middle of a divorce from Kevorkian — was in love with Nayeri and was someone he trusted and manipulated.
Attorneys for Nayeri rejected the notion that he was at the helm of the operation. They presented a scenario in which Handley was desperate for money due to a bad marijuana transaction with the dispensary owner and Nayeri was simply carrying out surveillance at his business partner’s request.
Nayeri testified that he had been tracking the dispensary owner for nine months before the kidnapping and was being paid $1,000 a week by Handley, who he said ordered the surveillance.
Nayeri denied any involvement in the kidnapping and alleged that Newport Beach police planted a glove with his DNA on it in a truck belonging to Handley that was tied to the crime.
Handley was found guilty in January 2018 and later sentenced to life in state prison.
Days before the kidnapping, Nayeri was involved in a high-speed pursuit involving Newport Beach police. Nayeri abandoned the Chevrolet Tahoe he was driving on Balboa Island and returned home soaking wet, according to Shegerian, leading prosecutors to believe Nayeri dodged police by jumping in the bay.
The Tahoe, which was registered in Shegerian’s name, was impounded.
After Handley’s arrest on Oct. 6, 2012, Shegerian said, Nayeri became scared, worrying that the surveillance equipment left in the Tahoe could connect him to the kidnapping. He began avoiding the couple’s Newport Beach home and destroyed electronic devices he had been using in the surveillance, Shegerian said. He bought a plane ticket to Iran and left the country shortly afterward.
After he left, Shegerian made three trips abroad to visit and ferry him cash totaling about $60,000.
Shegerian found herself connected to the crime when she tried to recover the Tahoe from police, which included taking responsibility for the property inside.
After retaining a lawyer, Shegerian — who described Nayeri as manipulative and hot-tempered — began cooperating with police. She disclosed everything she knew about Nayeri’s activities in the months before the kidnapping.
She testified that Nayeri instructed her to do research on the dispensary owner using the database access she had as a law school student, and she accompanied him to check on the GPS devices Nayeri used to track vehicles. At one point, Shegerian said, Nayeri showed her a map of the man’s car driving in circles in the Mojave Desert and suggested it would be a good place for someone to hide money.
Shegerian told investigators that she even bought ground beef and helped Nayeri prepare a tainted hamburger in an attempt to poison the victim’s family dog. The dog survived.
Shegerian planned another trip to see Nayeri in Spain, taking Nayeri’s sister and a friend. In November 2013, Nayeri was detained during a layover in the Czech Republic and was later arrested by waiting FBI agents.
A Los Angeles judge annulled the couple’s marriage in 2015 on grounds that Nayeri was already married to a woman in Iran. Nayeri testified that he had documents showing his divorce in Iran had been finalized in 2009, more than a year before he and Shegerian wed.
Kevorkian and Rhodus have been charged with six felony counts each and pleaded not guilty to all charges in 2014. Both are scheduled back in court Sept. 6, according to court records.
Kevorkian and Rhodus cooperated with the investigation, Murphy said, and “additional evidence was found because of that.”
“We anticipate each of these will resolve before trial,” he said.
Nayeri will face additional charges and enhancement allegations related to the extradition from the Czech Republic, but prosecutors “believe they will resolve before sentencing,” Murphy said.
Nayeri made headlines in June 2016 when he escaped from Orange County Jail with two other inmates. He was captured eight days later in San Francisco. A homeless man in the city’s Haight-Ashbury district identified the fugitives and earned a $100,000 reward, Spitzer said.
Prosecutors said charges also are pending against Nayeri related to the jail escape, which also involved the kidnapping of a cab driver.
“A man was kidnapped, and it’s important that he gets his day in court,” Murphy said.