Hossein Nayeri does not deny that he escaped from the Orange County jail with two other inmates in January 2016, going from one hotel to another and hiding in a stolen van before police caught him in San Francisco after a manhunt for one week.
There were signs that he took unabashed pride in the company: He documented escape preparations on a smuggled iPhone, sometimes flashing a grinning thumbs up at the camera.
But when Nayeri finally went to trial this month for the escape, he denied what authorities maintained all along: that he controlled his fellow fugitives — and the taxi 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 was not just a one man show.”
Jurors on Thursday convicted Nayeri of hit and run, a charge his attorney had not contested, and of stealing a pickup truck during his getaway. But the jury acquitted him of kidnapping a taxi 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 gruesome kidnapping and torture scheme when he escaped on January 22, 2016, with two other men facing charges of unrelated violent crimes, Bac Tien Duong, 43, and Jonathan Tieu, of 20.
The men climbed through a cell grate, ascended through an air vent on makeshift steps and descended five stories to the pavement outside the Santa Ana jail facility.
Duong had arranged for a driver to meet them nearby and quickly get them out of the immediate area, though they soon needed another car. Duong called a 71-year-old freelance taxi driver, Long Ma, who was advertising in Vietnamese-language newspapers.
Ma picked up the three men in his Honda Civic outside a Garden Grove restaurant and drove them to Target in Rosemead. In a nearby parking lot, he said, the fugitives held him at gunpoint and seized his car.
He was with them for the next week. She said the men used her identification to check into motels, where she slept next to them. He said the men headed to a hotel in San José and then to Santa Cruz, where he was forced to pose for portraits with the men for reasons he did not understand.
He said that Duong told him that Nayeri wanted to kill him. Duong took the cabbie back to Southern California and turned himself in. Soon after, the two remaining fugitives, Nayeri and Tieu, were caught in San Francisco, where they were living in a stolen white van.
Testifying in his own defense, Nayeri said his original plan was to find a driver who would take him to Los Angeles International Airport to catch a flight to Turkey. He said the driver never showed up and was forced to accompany Duong and Tieu.
“My plan fell apart,” Nayeri said. During cross-examination, he repeatedly refused to name the original getaway driver, with the prosecutor arguing that the man did not exist.
Nayeri insisted that neither he nor the other fugitives had a weapon and that Ma stayed with them because they paid her for her time. She was free to leave the hotels if she wanted, Nayeri said.
“Ma could move like anyone else,” Nayeri said. “(He was) alone, smoking, outside, walking.”
Nayeri’s attorney, Michael Goldfeder, pointed to what he called inconsistencies in Ma’s account on the witness stand, such as whether the weapon pointed at him was a semi-automatic or a revolver, and whether it was Duong or Tieu who did so. He said Ma ignored multiple opportunities to flee and contact the police.
“He was part of the whole trip,” Goldfeder said. “He was a willing participant. … There was never a carjacking.”
Goldfeder said his client was also not responsible for the theft of a white pickup truck from a Los Angeles man the day after the getaway, saying Duong stole it on his own without Nayeri’s prior knowledge.
But Deputy Dist. Attorney David McMurrin argued that Nayeri drove the truck, helped change its license plates and tinted the windows to alter its appearance.
Insisting that the fugitives had a gun, the prosecutor pointed out that police found bullets in the van and that a phone in the fugitives’ possession showed that they had Googled “shooting 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.” Although Nayeri denied the notes were his, the prosecutor said a handwritten term, “old man’s story”, meant that Nayeri planned to make up a story to make it appear Ma came with them willingly.
Nayeri’s lawyer argued that “the true mastermind of this case” was Duong and not Nayeri, but the prosecutor argued that video of the two men in a hotel room, taken during their escape, clearly showed who was in charge.
In the video, which Nayeri admits was taken just after he had punched Duong so hard he feared he had broken his jaw, a muscular Nayeri stands over the other man. Duong, skinny, tattooed and shirtless, hunches over the side of a bed in what appears to be a cautious and subservient position.
Nayeri offers him a cigarette, but pushes it away as Duong reaches for him. Instead, she puts it in Duong’s mouth and lets him blow on it. Nayeri asks Duong if she considers him a “real brother” and reminds him that he saved her life, an apparent reference to helping Duong while he was hanging from a rope during the jailbreak.
Nayeri wraps her hand around the nape of Duong’s neck and kisses him on the head. She orders Duong to put out the cigarette on her right shoulder and Duong complies.
On the stand, Nayeri maintained that it was Duong’s idea to put out the cigarette on his own skin — a “crooked thing of honor” — and that Duong had made a habit of leaving scars with cigarettes. Nayeri’s attorney described the cigarette gesture as a kind of “gift” to show his appreciation to Nayeri, likening it to a cat bringing its owner a dead mouse.
Nayeri is already serving multiple life sentences for his role in a grisly scheme to kidnap and torture the owner of a medical marijuana dispensary. In 2012, Nayeri and two accomplices kidnapped the man from a Newport Beach home, burned him with lye, cut off his penis and left him tied up in the desert.
The escape, four years later, was a humiliation for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jail. It triggered a week-long manhunt and drew scrutiny of security protocols.
Duong was convicted for his role in the escape and is serving a 20-year sentence 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.