‘Truly diabolical criminal’ gets more time for breaking out of California jail


A convicted torturer and former international fugitive accused of masterminding an audacious 2016 escape from an Orange County jail was sentenced Friday, March 24, to two years and eight months behind bars for his role in the headline-grabbing jailbreak.

A week after an Orange County Superior Court jury convicted Hossein Nayeri of taking part in the brazen break-out from the Men’s Central jail in Santa Ana and also found him guilty of stealing a van while on the lam, Nayeri’s lengthy legal journey appears to have come to an end.

This case won’t likely affect Nayeri much — he was already sentenced to a life in prison.

Over the past decade Nayeri, now 44, has become one of Orange County’s most notorious inmates, a man District Attorney Todd Spitzer recently described as “one of America’s most dangerous criminals,” who past prosecutors have called a “psychopath,” a “truly diabolical criminal” and compared to the fictional Hannibal Lecter.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Larry Yellin, just a block away from where escape occurred, cited the sophisticated nature of the jailbreak while handing down what was effectively the maximum sentenced available under current state law. Yellin also dismissed several remaining drug-related cases filed against Nayeri while he was behind bars.

“‘Shawshank Redemption’ had nothing on you guys,” Yellin told Nayeri, referring to a tenacious jail escape in the 1994 film. “It played out like a movie.”

Nayeri did not speak during Friday’s hearing. He kept his eyes downcast while seated next to his attorney, keeping his hands in his suit’s pockets as he was led in and out of the courtroom.

Nayeri has freely admitted to breaking out of the jail with two fellow escapees, kicking off an intense weeklong manhunt that ended with all three men back in custody. But, during his trial, Nayeri repeatedly denied abducting and holding against his will an independent taxi driver who drove the three to various hotels in Southern California and the Bay Area while on the run.

Nayeri, prior to his most recent trial, was already serving multiple prison terms of life without the possibility of parole for masterminding one of the most violent and shocking Orange County crimes in recent memory.

In 2012, Nayeri and two high school friends abducted a marijuana dispensary owner and brutally tortured him as they tried to get him to turn over a non-existent $1 million they had come to believe he had buried in the Mojave Desert. They beat him with plastic tubing, Tased him and burned the man with a blowtorch before cutting his penis off and leaving him bound in the desert. A woman who was also abducted escaped and found a law enforcement officer, likely saving both of their lives. The missing body part was never found.

Nayeri fled to his native Iran before police identifed him as a suspect. His then-wife — who unbeknownst to Nayeri was cooperating with police — persuaded him to travel to another country where he could be arrested and extradited back to the United States.

Once in local custody, Nayeri was housed in a dorm-style unit within the Men’s Central Jail, part of the Central Jail Complex located alongside the Sheriff’s Department’s headquarters in the Civic Center near downtown Santa Ana.

Nayeri spent months working with other inmates — including his eventual fellow escapees Bac Tien Duong and Jonathan Tieu — on a plan to break out. Nayeri would film it on a smuggled cellphone.

The inmates cut through half-inch steel bars to access plumbing tunnels. They crafted makeshift ropes out of bedsheets to access the jail’s roof. On at least two occasions they made their way to the roof so they could use the makeshift ropes to pull up backpacks full of supplies that included actual rope and cellphones. Duong had gotten a friend to bring the contraband to just outside the jail.

On Jan. 22, 2016, in the early-morning hours, the three men used the ropes to rappel down the five-story jail and then slipped away into a Santa Ana neighborhood.

Nayeri continued to call the shots, prosecutors have said.

The escapees were scooped up by a friend of Duong’s. Then, prosecutors say, they contacted an unsuspecting, unlicensed taxi driver named Long Ma, who would testify to driving the men to Rosemead before they pulled a gun on him.

Ma described the escapees holding him against his will for five days as they moved from a series of hotels, first in Rosemead and then moving to San Jose in both Ma’s vehicle and a van Duong had stolen in Los Angeles. Tension between Nayeri and Duong exploded in a violent confrontation in a Bay Area hotel room over whether to kill the taxi driver, Prosecutors say. Ma credited Duong with saving his life, and said he persuaded Duong to drive the two of them back to Orange County so Duong could turn himself in.

A day later, Nayeri and Tieu were arrested in San Francisco.

Nayeri, in testimony, described the taxi driver not as an unwilling kidnap victim — but as accomplice who agreed to ferry the escapees away from Southern California and house them as they tried to elude law enforcement for $10,000.

In his telling, Nayer’s initial plan to have an unnamed man pick him up outside the jail and take him to Los Angeles International Airport with a passport and a plane ticket to Turkey fell apart when the would-be accomplice “ghosted” him. Nayeri said he had no choice — he would stick with Duong and Tieu.

Nayeri denied that the escapees had a gun, and alleged that they made the trip to the Bay Area so that Ma could talk to family members and see if they could house the three men. Nayeri said his fight with Duong occurred after he learned that Duong had stolen the van in Los Angeles rather than purchasing it, potentially bringing more attention to the escapees. Nayeri’s attorney told jurors that the cab driver decided to leave with Duong after realizing that he could make more money collecting part of a reward for the escapees’ capture that had swelled to $200,000.

In court, Deputy District Attorney David McMurrin repeatedly challenged Nayeri’s story — pointing to internet searches for gun ranges at least one of the men made in the Bay Area. The prosecutor also noted that 17 bullets were found in a plastic bag within the van after Nayeri and Tieu’s arrest, with the van’s owner saying he had fully cleared out the vehicle before it was stolen.


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