By Paul Anderson
The man prosecutors call the mastermind of a 2016 escape by three inmates from the Orange County jail in Santa Ana was convicted Thursday of felony counts of escaping custody and car theft.
Jurors, however, acquitted Hossein Nayeri, 44, of kidnapping during a carjacking and other lesser-included offenses of simple kidnapping, carjacking and false imprisonment. Jurors began deliberating late Wednesday and reached a verdict before lunch Thursday.
The kidnapping charge would have mandated a life sentence, but now he’s facing three years and eight months, according to Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer.
The county’s top prosecutor defended his office’s pursuit of a conviction of Nayeri in the escape case, even though he is already serving two consecutive terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole for his role in the sexual mutilation of a marijuana dispensary owner in a kidnapping- extortion scheme. He was in custody awaiting trial in that case when the jail escape occurred.
“This was not a waste of government resources,” Spitzer told reporters after the verdicts.
Spitzer said that given recent changes in criminal justice law in the state he fears lawmakers will scrap the term of life without parole.
“I literally have no confidence that the convictions Nayeri has already suffered will necessarily be upheld on appeal or the legislature will not change the laws and retroactively apply them to Nayeri,” Spitzer said. “So while this sentence does not add significant additional time to the time he’s already serving I want the parole board to be able to consider this additional case.”
Spitzer said prosecutors in his office had recommended just scrapping the escape case against Nayeri altogether, but he rejected the idea because he wants a potential future parole board to consider the breakout.
“Nayeri needed to be convicted of that escape,” Spitzer said. “He masterminded it. He was up in those plumbing tunnels for months. He was able to get tools to cut through rebar. … Mr. Nayeri, in my personal opinion, is one of America’s most dangerous criminals. He is conniving, manipulative and a mastermind. He knows how to get inside people’s heads.”
Nayeri’s eyes welled up when he heard the verdict.
“He was emotional,” his attorney Michael Goldfeder said.
Sentencing was scheduled for March 24.
Nayeri’s co-defendant in the jail escape, Bac Tien Duong, 50, was convicted in April 2021 and sentenced to 20 years in prison in July. Duong, who was in custody at the time of the escape in an attempted murder case, resolved that case as well when he was sentenced.
Co-defendant Jonathan Tieu, 27, is awaiting trial in connection with the escape. Tieu was in custody in a murder case, but jurors in his trial deadlocked. A retrial was scheduled, but he was referred to juvenile court, where he was ultimately convicted of assault with a deadly weapon because a change in state law redefined liability in murders and Tieu was not considered a major participant in the gang-related killing.
The trio escaped from Central Men’s Jail on Jan. 22, 2016. Authorities said that with the help of Loc Ba Nguyen, a longtime friend of Duong’s, the three inmates were able to obtain supplies they needed to escape.
They sawed through obstacles, wriggled through an air vent in the dormitory-style housing and worked their way through plumbing tunnels to the roof of the jail. They then rappelled down with makeshift ropes, and Nguyen picked them up and drove them to a contact of Duong’s in Westminster.
They called unlicensed cab driver Long Ma, who took them first to motels in Rosemead and later San Jose, where Duong and Nayeri got into a fight. Duong decided to part ways and brought Ma back with him to Orange County and surrendered on Jan. 29. The next day, Nayeri and Tieu were arrested in San Francisco.
Nguyen pleaded guilty in June 2017 for his role aiding the inmates in the escape and was sentenced to a year in jail, but he served his time in home confinement because he said he had a stroke on his sentencing date.
In closing arguments of Nayeri’s trial Wednesday, Deputy District Attorney David McMurrin argued that Nayeri masterminded the breakout.
The prosecutor argued that 537 pages of phone usage records point to Nayeri as the mastermind. The three inmates used smuggled-in phones to document the escape and to aid in it after they broke out, McMurrin said.
The phones showed evidence of searches for how to send money internationally, McMurrin said. Nayeri testified he got money sent to him by family in Iran.
After Duong surrendered, Nayeri used his phone to look up a news report on it, McMurrin said.
McMurrin also referred to a video the escapees created in a motel room after the escape, showing Duong putting a cigarette out on his shoulder, allegedly at the direction of Nayeri.
“It shows a dynamic,” McMurrin said. “He’s saying to Mr. Duong, are you loyal to me? Are you going to step in line? Did I save your life?”
The prosecutor also disputed Nayeri’s claim that none of the crew had a gun, saying that a cab driver the trio kidnapped, Long Ma, “was held at gunpoint in an abandoned parking lot, forced to hand over his wallet and phone.”
He scoffed at the claim that Ma willingly went along with the escapade.
“A willing person at that time who didn’t even know they were escapees,” McMurrin said of Ma, who was ordered to turn over his Honda Civic, wallet and phone to the escapees. “It wasn’t in the news yet.”
McMurrin showed jurors photos of facial injuries Duong suffered in a motel room fight with Nayeri, saying that when Duong ultimately surrendered to authorities, it showed he “would rather be in custody and turn himself in than be with that man (Nayeri). It’s also reasonable to conclude he didn’t want to get beat anymore.”
“They all had a role to play but Nayeri was the planner, and Mr. Duong had his connections,” McMurrin said, adding that Tieu was the “muscle.”
The three took Ma along with them after the escape because they needed to use his ID to check in to motels and had him fetch money wired to them, McMurrin said.
The prosecutors said Nayeri “couldn’t let Ma go and call police. He didn’t consent. He wasn’t a willing participant.”
Ma testified during the trial that he did not take advantage of multiple opportunities to ask for help because he was afraid of the men.
Goldfeder tried to portray Duong as the mastermind of the jail escape, saying he roped in his longtime friend, Loc Ba Nguyen, to help the three smuggle in materials used in the escape and then pick them up when they broke out.
“That’s who the mastermind is. Bac Duong,” Goldfeder said.
Ma was contacted because he was known in the Vietnamese community for his cab driving services, Goldfeder said.
Goldfeder emphasized Ma’s “inconsistent” testimony in the trials of Duong and Nayeri. When Ma testified two years ago in Duong’s trial he had an immunity agreement with prosecutors that shielded him from implicating himself, Goldfeder noted.
“When you’re not telling the truth it’s hard to remember what you said,” Goldfeder said. “That’s why things are all over the map.”
The defense attorney said Ma has told investigators he was threatened with the gun in the car and later testified it was outside the car.
Goldfeder claimed Ma got $5,500 from the escapees.
“Not bad for a few days of work,” the attorney said.