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Trial begins for alleged mastermind behind Calif. jail escape

Prosecutors described Hossein Nayeri as a “psychopath” and a “truly diabolical criminal”


Hossein Nayeri listens to opening statements in superior court in Santa Ana, CA. Nayeri is accused of kidnapping and vehicle theft following his escape from an Orange County jail in 2016.

Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG

By Sean Emery
The Orange County Register

ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — More than six years after three men’s audacious escape from an Orange County jail, trial began Monday for the accused mastermind of the jailbreak: a Newport Beach pot grower and former international fugitive who since has been convicted and sentenced to life in prison for kidnapping and torture.

Hossein Nayeri, 44, already has publicly admitted to taking part in the 2016 break-out from the Central Jail Complex in Santa Ana and even recorded the escape as it happened on a smuggled cell phone. An intensive week-long manhunt ended with Nayeri and his fellow escapees back in custody.

On Monday, as Nayeri’s latest trial began in a Santa Ana courtroom less than a block away from the scene of the jailbreak, his defense attorney denied allegations by prosecutors that Nayeri also was involved in the kidnapping of a cab driver or the theft of a van following the headline-grabbing escape.

At the time of the escape, Nayeri — whom prosecutors have previously compared to the fictional Hannibal Lecter and described as a “psychopath” and a “truly diabolical criminal” — already was accused of masterminding one of the most violent and shocking Orange County crimes in recent memory.

In 2012, Nayeri and two high school friends abducted and brutally tortured a marijuana dispensary owner they wrongly believed had buried a non-existent $1 million in the Mojave desert. The dispensary owner was beaten with plastic tubing, shocked with a taser and burned with a blowtorch before his penis was cut off and he was left bound in the desert.

A woman abducted along with the dispensary owner was able to escape and flag down help. The missing body part was never located.

Nayeri quickly fled the country, traveling to his native Iran before he was identified as a suspect in the kidnapping and torture.

Unbeknownst to Nayeri, his then-wife agreed to work with law enforcement to persuade him to travel to another country where he was arrested and extradited to the United States.

[EARLIER: Calif. officials: Staffing issues aided inmates escape]

Once he was in local lockup, Nayeri allegedly teamed up with two other inmates — Bac Tien Duong and Jonathan Tieu — and spent months cutting through half-inch steel bars in order to access plumbing tunnels within the Central Jail Complex.

During a jailhouse visit, Duong provided Loc Nguyen, an old friend, with a list of items needed in the escape, including cell phones, ropes, a utility knife and civilian clothes.

During testimony Monday, Nguyen said he agreed to bring the items “out of fear.” He described twice going to the outside of the jail in the early morning hours, where he placed backpacks filled with the items on ropes outfitted with hooks, which the inmates apparently used to pull the bags onto the jailhouse roof.

“What did you think the items were going to be used for?,” Deputy District Attorney David McMurrin asked Nguyen.

“Definitely he was going to use it to try to leave, to escape the jail,” Nguyen answered, adding that at one point Duong mentioned having met another inmate who “had come up with this fantastic plan” for a jailbreak.

On Jan. 22, 2016, Nayeri, Duong and Tieu allegedly climbed rungs inside the plumbing tunnels in order to access the roof of the jail, where they used a makeshift rope of bedsheets to rappel five stories down the side of the building. Nguyen admitted picking the three men up a short distance away and driving them to a Westminster residence.

The prosecutor said the three men were in high-spirits following their escape.

“They were laughing, they said they were famous, that Mr. Nayeri had planned this for seven and a half months,” McMurrin told jurors.

According to prosecutors, the men then contacted Long Ma, an allegedly unsuspecting, independent taxi driver who advertised in local Vietnamese newspapers. Ma picked the men up and drove them to Rosemead, where he said they pulled a gun on him.

“He didn’t want to be there,” McMurrin said of the cab driver. “He was afraid for his life.”

The three escapees and Ma — who has said he was being held against his will — spent several nights in hotels around Rosemead, as a massive law enforcement dragnet searched for them. The escapees then stole a van in Los Angeles, according to prosecutors, and drove to San Jose.

Prosecutors previously have alleged that the “honeymoon phase” between the escapees “soured” in the Bay Area, culminating with Nayeri and Duong coming to blows during a heated argument in a hotel room over what to do with the cab driver. Nayeri wanted to kill Ma, prosecutors have alleged, while the cab driver has said that Duong fought to keep him alive.

Nayeri and Tieu ultimately left the hotel room, McMurrin told jurors, and Duong decided to leave with Ma and drive back to Santa Ana, where Duong turned himself in to authorities. Nayeri and Tieu were found in San Francisco a day later, ending the weeklong manhunt.

During an earlier trial, Duong’s attorney painted Nayeri as the mastermind behind the escape, arguing that Duong simply wanted to get out of jail, meet some women and then flee to Vietnam. The cab driver credited Duong with saving his life, and asked a judge to show mercy on him. Duong was ultimately sentenced last year to 20 years in prison for both the jail escape and the attempted murder case that landed him behind bars in the first place.

Nayeri, in his own testimony during the torture and abduction trial in 2019, admitted to escaping the jail, explaining that he felt he was being railroaded by law enforcement.

“Mr. Nayeri is accepting responsibility for the escape,” Defense attorney Michael Goldfeder told jurors on Monday.

Goldfeder described Duong, not Nayeri, as the actual mastermind behind the escape, and said Nayeri wasn’t present when Duong stole the van in Los Angeles.

The defense attorney also alleged that Ma wasn’t kidnapped, arguing that the taxi driver was going to be paid $10,000 for his role in helping them elude the manhunt. The defense attorney said Ma picked up wire transfers for the escapees and checked them into motel rooms. He also showed the jury pictures of a smiling Ma and Tieu standing on a pier in Northern California in the midst of the manhunt.

“Mr. Ma is a willing, consenting participant in driving these individuals around,” Goldfeder said. “This is just four individuals who were working together in unison.”

Tieu is being tried separately for his alleged role in the escape.

Nayeri is already serving two consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole for the abduction and torture case, regardless of the outcome of the jail escape trial.

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PREVIOUSLY: One year later, Calif. jail escape remains a fresh wound