SANTA ANA (CNS) - A 44-year-old man masterminded a daring escape from Orange County Jail seven years ago and held a cab driver against his will for about a week as the escapees remained at-large in a stolen van, a prosecutor told jurors Monday, while the defendant's attorney admitted his client escaped but insisted the driver went along willingly.
Hossein Nayeri, 44, is charged with escaping custody, car theft and kidnapping for carjacking, all felonies. A charge of kidnapping to commit robbery was dismissed, according to court records.
Co-defendant Bac Tien Duong, 50, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in July. Duong, who was in custody at the time of the escape on attempted murder, resolved that case as well when he was sentenced.
Duong was convicted in April of 2021 for the escape. He was acquitted of felony kidnapping for robbery, but convicted of the lesser charge of simple kidnapping. A mistrial was declared when jurors could not reach a verdict on the car theft.
Co-defendant Jonathan Tieu, 27, is awaiting trial.
The trio's daring Jan. 22, 2016, escape from the Central Men's Jail in Santa Ana was made possible when they obtained cutting tools to saw through metal gates and then used smuggled cell phones to communicate with co- conspirators outside the lockup. They were loose for a week before authorities caught up with Nayeri.
"This escape wasn't just some jumping out of a van," Deputy District Attorney David McMurrin said.
"They cut through air vents" while making use of plumbing tunnels and "makeshift pulleys" and rope to "get down from the third floor roof," the prosecutor added.
"The defendant planned this for 7 1/2 months," McMurrin said. "And everything had to be perfect, but they couldn't do it alone."
Duong contacted an old friend for help in the escape. Loc Ba Nguyen, Duong's friend, was the first witness in Nayeri's trial. He said he suffered a stroke which affected his memory so McMurrin had to show him portions of his previous testimony to refresh his recollection.
Nguyen said he met Duong about 20 years ago when he hired him to help in a furniture store he opened, and they remained in touch over the years, occasionally meeting for lunch. He said he later heard that Duong was in jail, and he went to visit him.
During the Jan. 9, 2016, visit, Duong pulled out a sheet of paper from under his shirt and pressed it up against the plexiglass shield between them. The note, which was written in English, contained a list of items Duong said he needed and a map of the jail neighborhood, Nguyen said.
Nguyen "sensed" someone else wrote the note because Duong had trouble speaking and writing English.
The items included a "cell phone, utility knife, rope, clothes, shoes," and a map of 10th and Olive streets near the jail, Nguyen said.
"All he told me was look at (the note) and just leave the stuff there," Nguyen said.
A couple of days later, Duong called Nguyen from the jail.
"He mentioned did I get the items?" Nguyen said. "`I told him I bought the items.. At some point he gave me directions to bring the items in a bag, hook the bag onto a rope that was hanging down."
Nguyen did as he was told and "turned around and left," he said. Nguyen said he aided Duong "out of fear" because he was "contacted by another" man who "made sure what Mr. Duong had instructed me to do" was done.
Nguyen understood he was assisting a jail break.
Duong told Nguyen he "met someone who came up with a plan to escape." That man went by "Adam," a nickname for the defendant, Nguyen said.
Nguyen then received another call -- this time from the smuggled-in cell phone -- and Adam requested another cell phone, Nguyen testified.
"I remember buying another used phone," he testified.
He was also told to bring more rope and a hoodie, Nguyen said.
Nguyen returned with another bag with a phone that this time had a charger, because the other phone did not have the charger, Nguyen said.
Nguyen went on a trip to Palm Springs and received another call from one of the contraband phones, and this time he was asked about an old white work van he no longer had, Nguyen said.
"He asked me how to get money wired from Iran or Iraq to America," Nguyen said.
Nguyen recommended they call a friend of his from Lebanon, he said.
Nguyen, who lived in Costa Mesa at the time, drove over to the jail early the day of the escape to pick them up but when no one showed after awhile he returned home, he said.
Duong called back again about 4 or 4:30 a.m. and "He said please come back to that corner," Nguyen said.
"I said, no, I can't come back," he testified. "But he had kind of begged and cried so I went back."
Nguyen parked his pickup truck on a dead-end street about 4:30 a.m. and "waited for about 40 minutes, 30 minutes," he said.
Then the three "very happy" trio got into the pickup and he drove off, he said.
Duong told him to drive through the "very, very foggy" night to Westminster "where his aunt lived," Nguyen said.
Duong gave Nguyen directions to the home of Tung Nguyen, who pleaded guilty in November 2018 to being an accessory after the fact and was sentenced to 40 hours of community service. Tung Nguyen is no relation to Loc Nguyen.
When they arrived, the three shed their orange jail jump suits and since it was trash day they dumped the uniforms into a can on the street, Nguyen said.
"I told (Duong) I'm leaving and he told me to wait," Nguyen said.
Nguyen waited for about a half an hour with Nayeri and Tieu, and Duong returned "with a couple of bottles of beer. I didn't drink so I said, nah, I don't need one," Nguyen said. "He had some cash with him so I said, `OK, I'm leaving.' "
McMurrin told jurors in his opening statement that the trio "needed further help, and that's where Long Ma comes in."
Ma was an unlicensed cab driver the trio called for transportation, the prosecutor said. Ma drove them to a Walmart in Santa Ana and they asked him to drive them to Rosemead for $100, McMurrin said.
Ma was told the three wanted to "borrow" Ma's car, and when he refused they "pulled a gun" on him and demanded his phone and wallet and keys, McMurrin said.
"He's no longer the driver," McMurrin said. "He was not free to leave."
The escapees needed Ma to sign into motels and help them retrieve wired cash from Nayeri's mother, McMurrin said.
Later, they responded to an ad for a GMC van for sale in Los Angeles and stole that man's vehicle while Duong was test-driving it, McMurrin said. They kept going with the two vehicles, the prosecutor said.
When the three got to San Jose a dispute broke out between Duong and Nayeri over what to do with Ma, McMurrin said. Duong wanted to protect Ma, so he got into a fight with Nayeri, McMurrin said.
Duong and Ma drove back to Orange County, where Duong turned himself in Jan. 28, McMurrin said.
Nayeri and Tieu were apprehended in San Francisco the next day when a transient who recognized them flagged down passing officers, McMurrin said. Tieu was caught in the van, which they were living out of, and Nayeri tried to run away but was tracked down. Police found $601 in cash in the van with multiple phones, McMurrin said.
Nayeri's attorney, Michael Goldfeder, said, "We wouldn't be here today if this was just about the escape charge. He's been open about accepting responsibility for that."
Nayeri is only challenging the kidnapping and car theft charges, he said.
Nayeri wasn't with Duong when the van was stolen, Goldfeder said.
"Mr. Duong is the mastermind outside the jail," Goldfeder said.
He said it was unclear whether Duong and Ma were acquainted before the escape.
"Bac Duong and Mr. Ma made a financial deal" to aid in the escape, Goldfeder said.
Ma was to be paid $10,000 for the transportation, Goldfeder said.
"Mr. Ma is a willing participant in driving these individuals around," the defense attorney said.
Ma had been paid about $500 for the trips to Walmart and the Target store in Rosemead, Goldfeder said.
Goldfeder also pointed out how Ma, Tieu and Nayeri went to the Santa Cruz pier while on the run as he showed jurors a photo of Tieu with his arm around Ma's shoulder.
"There's a lot more where that came from," Goldfeder said of the evidence.
Nayeri was in custody at the time awaiting trial for the sexual mutilation of a marijuana dispensary owner in a kidnapping-extortion scheme. Nayeri was convicted in that case in August of 2019 and was sentenced in October 2020 to life in prison without parole.
Nguyen pleaded guilty in June 2017 and was sentenced to a year in jail, but served his time in home confinement because he said he had a stroke on his sentencing date.