Hossein Nayeri does not dispute that he sneaked out of the Orange County jail with two other inmates in January 2016, shuttling between hotels and hiding in a stolen van before police caught him in San Francisco after a weeklong manhunt.
There were signs that he took a brazen pride in the venture: He documented the escape preparations on a smuggled iPhone, at times flashing a smirking thumbs-up to the camera.
But when Nayeri finally went on trial this month for the escape, he denied what authorities contended from the start: That he controlled his fellow escapees — and a cab driver who took them across the state — with the force of his personality and the threat of violence.
“This was a collaborative effort,” Nayeri, 44, testified. “This wasn’t just a one-man show.”
Jurors on Thursday convicted Nayeri of the escape, a charge his lawyer had not contested, and of stealing a van during his flight. But the jurors acquitted him of the charge that he kidnapped a cab driver, Long Ma, who said the men threatened him with a gun and held him against his will.
Nayeri was in jail awaiting trial for a grisly kidnapping and torture scheme when he escaped on Jan. 22, 2016, with two other men facing unrelated violent felony charges, Bac Tien Duong, 43, and Jonathan Tieu, 20.
The men climbed through a cell grate, ascended through a vent on makeshift rungs, and rappelled five stories to the pavement outside the Santa Ana jail facility.
Duong had arranged for a driver to meet them nearby and whisk them out of the immediate area, though they soon needed another car. Duong called a 71-year-old independent cab driver, Long Ma, who advertised in Vietnamese-language papers.
Ma picked up the three men in his Honda Civic outside a Garden Grove restaurant and drove them to a Target in Rosemead. In a nearby parking lot, he said, the escapees held him at gunpoint and commandeered his car.
He was with them for the next week. He said the men used his ID to check into motels, where he slept beside them. He said the men drove to a hotel in San Jose and then to Santa Cruz, where he was forced to pose for portraits with the men for reasons he didn’t understand.
He said Duong told him Nayeri wanted to kill him. Duong drove the cab driver back to Southern California and turned himself in. Soon after, the two remaining fugitives, Nayeri and Tieu, were caught in San Francisco, where they had been living out of a stolen white van.
Testifying in his own defense, Nayeri said his original plan was to hook up with a driver who would take him to Los Angeles International Airport for a flight to Turkey. He said the driver never showed up, and he was forced to accompany Duong and Tieu.
“My plan fell apart,” Nayeri said. Under cross-examination, he repeatedly refused to name the original getaway driver, and the prosecutor argued the man didn’t exist.
Nayeri insisted that neither he nor the other fugitives ever had a gun, and that Ma stayed with them because they paid him for his time. He was free to leave the hotels if he wished, Nayeri said.
“Ma could move about just like anybody else,” Nayeri said. “[He was] by himself, smoking, outside, pacing.”
Nayeri’s attorney, Michael Goldfeder, pointed to what he called inconsistencies in Ma’s account on the witness stand, such as whether the gun pointed at him was a semiautomatic or a revolver, and whether it was Duong or Tieu who did so. He said Ma ignored multiple opportunities to flee and contact police.
“He was part of the whole journey,” Goldfeder said. “He was a willing participant. … There never was a carjacking.”
Nor, Goldfeder said, was his client responsible for the theft of a white van from a Los Angeles man the day after the escape, saying Duong stole it on his own without Nayeri’s prior knowledge.
But Deputy Dist. Atty. David McMurrin argued that Nayeri drove the van, helped change its license plates, and tinted its windows to alter its appearance.
Insisting the fugitives had a gun, the prosecutor noted that police found bullets in the van, and that a phone in the fugitives’ possession showed they had Googled “gun range” during their time on the run. The same phone showed multiple searches for Nayeri’s ex-wife, the prosecutor said, an indication of who was using it.
Also found in the van: handwritten to-do lists, including the terms “ID” and “money.” Though Nayeri denied the notes were his, the prosecutor said one handwritten term — “old man story” — meant Nayeri planned to fabricate a story to make it seem as if Ma came with them willingly.
Nayeri’s attorney argued that “the true mastermind of this case” was Duong rather than Nayeri, but the prosecutor argued that a video of the two men in a hotel room — taken during their time on the run — clearly showed who was in charge.
In the video, which Nayeri admits was taken right after he had punched Duong so hard he feared he’d broken his jaw, a muscular Nayeri stands over the other man. Duong, skinny, tattooed and shirtless, slouches on the side of a bed in what appears a wary and subservient position.
Nayeri offers him a cigarette, but pulls it away when Duong reaches for it. Instead, he puts it to Duong’s mouth and lets him puff on it. Nayeri asks Duong if he considers him a “true brother,” and reminds Duong that he saved his life — an apparent reference to helping Duong while he dangled from a rope during the jail escape.
Nayeri wraps his hand around the back of Duong’s neck and kisses him on the head. He directs Duong to put out the cigarette on his right shoulder, and Duong complies.
On the stand, Nayeri contended that it was Duong’s idea to extinguish the cigarette on his own skin — a “twisted honor thing” — and that Duong had made a habit of scarring himself with cigarettes. Nayeri’s lawyer described the cigarette gesture as a kind of “gift” to show his appreciation to Nayeri, and compared it to a cat bringing its owner a dead mouse.
Nayeri is already serving multiple life terms for his role in a grisly scheme to kidnap and torture the owner of a medical marijuana dispensary. In 2012, Nayeri and two accomplices abducted the man from a Newport Beach home, burned him with bleach, severed his penis and left him bound in the desert.
The jailbreak, four years later, was a humiliation to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jail. It set off a weeklong manhunt and prompted scrutiny of safety protocols.
Duong was convicted for his role in the jailbreak, and is serving a 20-year term for the crime and for the attempted murder charge that originally put him behind bars. Tieu is awaiting trial.
Judge Larry Yellin is expected to sentence Nayeri for the escape on March 24.