By R. Nicanor Santana
A weeklong manhunt for three inmates that began with a brazen escape in Orange County ended Jan. 30 when a homeless man spotted a white van that authorities believed the men used to drive to San Francisco, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said at a news conference.
Matthew Hays-Chapman saw the white GMC van parked in a Whole Foods lot near Golden Gate Park, and flagged police officers after recognizing one of the inmates, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. The tip led to the arrest of the two remaining fugitives, 37-year-old Hossein Nayeri and 20-year-old Jonathan Tieu, 400 miles from the Men’s Central Jail in Orange County.
A third inmate, 43-year-old Bac Duong, turned himself in a day before in a Santa Ana autoshop owned by one of his friends, Hutchens said.
“We cooperated with the police, they asked for surveillance footage and I gave it to them right away,” auto shop owner Tim Tran said.
“This street has always been known for being a busy street full of activity and lately it had been calm until this happened.”
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department launched an aggressive media-saturation drive, flooding TV, newspapers and social media with the mugshots of the three men, all violent offenders accused of crimes including torture, murder and attempted murder, in separate incidents.
The nature of the inmates’ crimes led to a public safety scare that turned out to be justified.
“I think this is very bad for the community. It makes me feel unsafe and like the police aren’t doing their job correctly,” Lee Tran, the shop owner’s son said.
After using Google Maps to case out vulnerable spots on the rooftop of the jail, the three used cutting tools and makeshift ropes obtained from Tieu’s gang affilliate, Loc Ba Nguyen, who also served as the getaway driver, the Sheriff’s Department said.
From there, sheriff’s deputies say Duong kidnapped a 74-year-old cab driver at gunpoint. The fugitives used cab driver Long Hoang Ma’s ID to cash checks obtained from family members and friends, and check into motels, dragging him along for several days as they drove to Northern California. Ma suspected that Nayeri may have wanted to kill him, though he was not sure because he spoke limited English, he told the Westminster-based Vietnamese-language newspaper Nguoi Viet.
Duong saved his life, Ma said. The two found an opening and drove back to Santa Ana Friday after Nayeri and Duong got into an argument that led to a fistfight. Later, Duong told Ma that Nayeri wanted him dead.
Sheriff’s deputies believe Nayeri masterminded the escape, and manipulated an ESL teacher working part-time as an instructor for the Rancho Santiago Community College District’s inmate education program into helping them by showing them bird’s-eye view images of the jail.
Nooshafarin Ravaghi was arrested Jan. 29 on suspicion of helping the inmates escape. The 44-year-old may have developed an unprofessional relationship with Nayeri, which may have been romantic in nature, sheriff’s Capt. Jeff Haddock said. Ravaghi and Nayeri share roots in Iran.
Citing insufficient evidence, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rauckackas refused to file charges. Ravaghi was released Feb. 1.
“It’s unfortunate that she was so quickly labeled as a conspirator,” Rauckackas said.
Before the escape, Nayeri was awaiting trial after being suspected of kidnapping a Newport Beach marijuana dispensary owner, burning him with a blowtorch and severing the man’s penis. Tieu is accused of murder with a gang-related special enhancement. Both are facing life in prison.
Duong, who cooperated with law enforcement after surrendering, was awaiting trial for attempted murder and firing a gun inside a residence. He had an immigration hold, and was first ordered deported in 1998. The Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement refused to provide details.
Now that the manhunt is over, sheriff’s deputies are looking into how it took 16 hours to find out that the three men were missing.
“I am deeply concerned about the length of time it took to recognize that three maximum security inmates were unaccounted for,” Hutchens said.
Additional reporting from Itzel Quintana