SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — Three inmates who pulled off an intricate getaway from a California jail had outside help from a man who slipped them escape tools and gave them a ride to safety before they kidnapped a taxi driver at gunpoint and held him captive for a week while arguing over whether to kill him, authorities said Monday.
The details emerged at news conferences by prosecutors and the Sheriff’s Department that answered many of the remaining questions surrounding the escape and eight-day manhunt that ended with the capture of all three fugitives.
Hossein Nayeri, who was awaiting trial on charges of torture and kidnapping, planned the escape for five months before co-conspirator Bac Duong was booked into Central Men’s Jail in Orange County in December and helped with an outside contact who smuggled in a knife and other items, authorities said.
Jonathan Tieu, who was awaiting trial on a gang-related murder charge, also joined the plot, authorities said.
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“This took a while,” Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said. “To defeat these security systems, to defeat these metal grates, to defeat these 1-inch bars, it took some time.”
Once out, the three were picked up by an accomplice and driven to safety.
That night, Duong kidnapped a taxi driver at gunpoint and stole a van the following day in Los Angeles, authorities said.
The fugitives and the cab driver spent three nights at a motel in Southern California before they drove 400 miles north to the San Francisco Bay Area in the taxi and van.
Nayeri and Duong later had a fist fight in a San Jose motel room over whether to kill the taxi driver, sheriff’s Lt. Jeff Hallock said. Nayeri wanted to kill the cab driver and Duong did not, authorities believe.
When Nayeri and Tieu left to get the van’s windows tinted later the next day, Duong drove back to Southern California with the cab driver and surrendered Friday at an auto repair shop in Orange County just miles from the jail.
Nayeri and Tieu were arrested Saturday in San Francisco after a man spotted the stolen van near a Whole Foods Market parking lot.
Prosecutors said Monday they would not charge a teacher at the jail who sheriff’s investigators suspect of helping Nayeri, an Iranian-born former Marine.
As part of his plan, Nayeri cultivated a relationship with 44-year-old Nooshafarin Ravaghi, an Iranian-born woman who taught English as a second language to jail inmates, authorities said.
At some point, she provided him with a Google Earth map that showed an aerial view of the entire jail complex, Hallock said.
Ravaghi was arrested last week and booked on suspicion of being an accessory to a felony, but District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said Monday there wasn’t enough evidence to hold her and said he’s asked investigators to keep digging. She was released late in the day.
Loc Ba Nguyen, who knew Duong, visited the jail several times and provided the men with items to aid their escape, including a knife authorities said. He also picked them up after they escaped, Hallock said.
It wasn’t immediately clear what tools Nguyen might have provided or what his relationship was with Duong, but authorities said he did not work inside the jail.
Nguyen has been charged with felony counts of possession of a weapon in a place of custody, carrying or sending a useful aid to escape from a jail or prison and aiding escape, with a criminal enhancement for being in possession of a dangerous or deadly weapon.
He will be arraigned later this month and has not entered a plea. He is free on $300,000 bail.
In their detailed account of the escape, authorities said the trio waited until after a 5 a.m. head count on Jan. 22 then slipped through a hole they had sawed in a metal grate that led to a plumbing tunnel.
From there, they crawled through piping inside the jail walls to reach the roof, pushed aside barbed wire and rappelled down four stories to freedom using a rope made of bed linens.
By 5:15 a.m., they were outside and picked up. They bounced from one home to the next that day, moving among three different Orange County cities.
At 9:30 p.m. — as guards realized they were missing — the trio took a cab to a Target in suburban Los Angeles. They shopped for unknown items then kidnapped the taxi driver, authorities said.
The next day, Duong stole the white GMC van during a test drive and the inmates got haircuts before checking into a hotel in Rosemead with the cab driver still a hostage.
It was the first escape in nearly three decades from the California facility built in 1968.
The three men were all housed together in a holding tank with 65 other inmates when they escaped and were awaiting trial on separate charges.
Hallock said the three inmates will now be held in isolation cells.
This story corrects to say that Duong, not Nayeri, held a gun on the taxi driver; that the men spent more than two nights in Southern California before heading north; that the men stayed in San Jose; that Duong and the taxi driver first returned to Rosemead, and then Santa Ana. It also corrects the spelling of Loc Ba Nguyen’s name.