‘Actually diabolical legal’ will get extra time for breaking out of California jail

Hossein Nayeri will testify in Orange County Superior Court on March 13, 2023. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

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

A week after an Orange County Superior Court jury found Hossein Nayeri guilty of taking part in the brazen breakout from Santa Ana’s Central Men’s Penitentiary and also found him guilty of stealing a van while on the run, Nayeri’s lengthy legal process appears to have come to an end.

This case is unlikely to affect Nayeri very much – he has already been sentenced to life imprisonment.

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

Orange County Superior Court Justice Larry Yellin, who was just a block from where the escape took place, cited the sophisticated nature of the prison break while handing down the maximum sentence actually available under current state law. Yellin also dismissed several remaining drug-related cases filed against Nayeri while he was behind bars.

“‘Shawshank Redemption’ didn’t have anything against you guys,” Yellin told Nayeri, referencing a dogged prison escape in the 1994 film. “It played out like a movie.”

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

Nayeri has openly admitted to escaping prison with two fellow fugitives, starting an intense week-long manhunt that ended with all three men being recaptured. But during his trial, Nayeri repeatedly denied kidnapping and holding against his will an independent cab driver who had driven the three to various hotels in Southern California and the Bay Area while fleeing.

Nayeri was already serving multiple life sentences without the possibility of parole prior to his most recent trial for plotting one of Orange County’s most violent and shocking crimes in recent memory.

In 2012, Nayeri and two high school friends kidnapped the owner of a marijuana dispensary and brutally tortured him when they tried to get him to wire a non-existent $1 million they believed to be in the Mojave – Desert had buried. They beat him with plastic hoses, cursed at him and burned the man with a blowtorch before severing his penis and leaving him tied up in the desert. A woman who was also kidnapped escaped and found a police officer who probably saved their lives. The missing body part was never found.

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

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

Nayeri worked for months with other inmates – including his later fellow fugitives Bac Tien Duong and Jonathan Tieu – on an escape plan. Nayeri would film it on a contraband cellphone.

The inmates cut through 1/2-inch steel bars to gain access to the installation tunnels. They made makeshift ropes out of bed sheets to get to the prison roof. On at least two occasions, they made their way to the roof so they could use the makeshift ropes to haul up backpacks full of supplies, including real ropes and cell phones. Duong had tricked a friend into taking the contraband right in front of the jail.

On January 22, 2016, in the early hours of the morning, the three men used the ropes to rappel from the five-story prison and then slipped into a Santa Ana neighborhood.

Nayeri continued to call the shots, prosecutors said.

The refugees were picked up by a friend of Duong’s. Then, prosecutors say, they contacted an unsuspecting, unlicensed cab driver named Long Ma, who would testify driving the men to Rosemead before they pointed a gun at him.

Ma described the fugitives who held him against his will for five days as they moved from a series of hotels, first in Rosemead and then to San Jose, in both Ma’s vehicle and a van Duong, the Duong in Los Angeles had stolen. Tensions between Nayeri and Duong exploded in a violent altercation in a Bay Area hotel room over whether to kill the cab driver, prosecutors say. Ma credited Duong with saving his life and said he talked Duong into driving the two back to Orange County so Duong could turn himself in.

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

In his testimony, Nayeri described the cab driver not as an involuntary kidnapping victim — but as an accomplice who agreed to take the Southern California fugitives away and house them when they tried to evade law enforcement for $10,000.

Nayer’s original plan to have an unnamed man pick him up outside the jail and take him to Los Angeles International Airport with a passport and plane ticket to Turkey fell through when the alleged accomplice “ghosted” him. Nayeri said he had no choice – he would stay with Duong and Tieu.

Nayeri denied that the fugitives had a gun and claimed they made the trip to the Bay Area so Ma could speak to family members and see if they could accommodate the three men. Nayeri said his fight with Duong came after learning Duong stole the van in Los Angeles rather than buying it, potentially drawing more attention to the fugitives. Nayeri’s attorney told jurors that the cab driver decided to go with Duong after realizing he could make more money by collecting part of the reward for capturing the fugitives, which had swelled to $200,000.

In court, Assistant District Attorney David McMurrin repeatedly challenged Nayeri’s story — pointing to Internet searches for shooting ranges that at least one of the men had done in the Bay Area. The prosecutor also noted that after Nayeri and Tieu were arrested, 17 bullets were found in a plastic bag inside the van, with the van owner saying he completely evacuated the vehicle before it was stolen.

McMurrin told jurors that Nayeri and the others needed the cab driver: He had ID they could use to check into hotel rooms and pick up money orders, including cash Nayeri’s grandmother had cabled from Iran.

The taxi driver was often combative and outraged during his own testimony at Nayeri’s recent trial, sometimes contradicting statements he had made at a previous trial and during police interviews, including his description of the reported firearm.

Nayeri was acquitted of the kidnapping charge, which carried the heaviest penalty of the trial, a potentially life sentence.

But Nayeri had already been found guilty of kidnapping and torturing the owner of the marijuana dispensary that landed him behind bars in the first place, and had been sentenced to two consecutive life sentences plus an additional seven years in prison.

Prosecutors and attorneys representing Nayeri’s co-defendants in both the torture and prison escape trials have portrayed him as a master manipulator. Nayeri spent much of his testimony in both trials alternating between calmly denying he was a mastermind and verbally battling with prosecutors.

Duong had previously been convicted for his role in the prison escape, as well as the car theft and kidnapping. Ma, who credits Duong with saving his life, asked that Duong show mercy. A judge sentenced Duong to 20 years in prison last year.

Tieu is still awaiting the jailbreak trial.

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