The 44-year-old mastermind of a brazen escape from Orange County Jail seven years ago took the stand Monday to tell his version of events, explaining how his initial plans to catch a flight to Istanbul fell through, so he fell in with two other inmates he broke out with.
Hossein Nayeri is charged with escaping custody, car theft and kidnapping for carjacking, all felonies. A charge of kidnapping to commit robbery was dismissed prior to trial.
Nayeri does not contest the escape, but his testifying to attempt to get acquitted on charges related to abducting an unlicensed cab driver and the theft of a van to further aid the getaway.
Nayeri’s attorney, Michael Goldfeder, attempted to put Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer to testify, but Orange County Superior Court Judge Larry Yellin rejected the request. Goldfeder wanted Spitzer to testify about the decision while he was on the Orange County Board of Supervisors to reject a portion of the reward money for the capture of the escapees for cab driver Long Ma.
Nayeri is attempting to make the case Ma was a willing participant who helped the inmates stay free.
Nayeri testified that he spent about seven months planning the escape. He said he made his way to the roof of the jail in Santa Ana about 11 p.m., Jan. 21, 2016, and the others joined him within the hours. The initial plan was they would all make their own way after rappelling down the wall with ropes.
But, Nayeri testified, his planned ride fell through.
“I tried everything I could to get my connection there and it didn’t happen,” he testified. “My plan was straight to LAX, fly out of here.”
Co-defendants Jonathan Tieu and Bac Tien Duong “waited for me for several hours… We were getting to the time where the sun was coming up.”
They couldn’t go back, he added, because the “razor wire was cut… All three of us decided we had to go together.”
Tieu “went down first and I stayed until last because I already knew how to rappel and wanted to make sure they got down safe,” Nayeri testified.
Tieu clambered down “a little too fast,” Nayeri said.
Duong, however, “got stuck about 20 feet down,” Nayeri said.
He said the ropes worked “like a seat belt” that would “lock up” if the climber did not go down correctly.
“I had to baby talk him through it,” Nayeri said. “Step by baby step he got down with a lot of struggling.”
Nayeri said he had to cut the safety rope on the roof and go down the frayed life line.
“At that point I had no choice but to tag along until I could see what’s next,” Nayeri said.
The three caught up with Duong’s ride a couple of blocks away, Nayeri said.
Duong’s friend, Loc Ba Nguyen, testified that he went there earlier in the night and when no one showed he went back to his home in Costa Mesa, but Duong called him and implored him to return.
Nguyen, who had provided phones and other supplies to the inmate before they escaped, pleaded guilty in June 2017 and was sentenced to a year in jail, but served his time in home confinement because he had a stroke on his sentencing date.
Nguyen drove them to the home of Tung Nguyen in Westminster. Tung Nguyen, who is no relation to Loc Nguyen, pleaded guilty in November 2018 to being an accessory after the fact and was sentenced to 40 hours of community service.
While the others waited in the car, Duong went in and emerged with “a couple of beers and money,” Nayeri said. Loc Nguyen then went home.
The escapees then got a ride in a BMW to a Vietnamese coffee shop, which he said was more like a lounge. The unnamed driver “ate with us,” Nayeri testified while he “was making phone calls” trying to salvage his escape plan.
Duong, meanwhile, was also “making phone calls” as was “the old man at the coffee shop,” Nayeri testified.
The escaped inmates then went to Duong’s stepmother’s home and his biological mother showed up and gave her son money, Nayeri testified.
While they were making plans for finding them a place to stay Duong was “itching” to go to a nearby “slap house” gambling den, Nayeri testified. It was the beginning of a source of friction between the two as Nayeri said he resisted Duong’s pleading for “partying and girls.”
Duong’s mother took them to a few car lots to try to help them buy a vehicle, Nayeri testified.
“It seemed like the prices were a little too high,” Nayeri said.
“I remember being exhausted, trying to figure out my situation” as he made calls in a parked car at the lot, Nayeri said.
Some friends of Tieu’s picked them up and they rested there for awhile and Tieu decided to stay with them, Nayeri said.
But Nayeri said he was “surprised” a short time later when Tieu’s friends brought him back with the explanation, “Big homie says there’s too much heat and we can’t handle it.”
Duong called Ma, who picked them up, Nayeri said. The two appeared to know each other, he added.
“All the way from A to Z it was a warm relationship,” Nayeri said of Duong and Ma.
“He knew somebody, he was going to call him and make a deal with him,” Nayeri said.
He took them to a Walmart, but “the place was a mess,” and Nayeri didn’t think it was a good idea to remain in Orange County.
Ma was a “heavy smoker” with a persistent cough that affected his driving, Nayeri said.
“He was swerving every time he coughed,” Nayeri said.
The four ended up at a Target store where Nayeri said he spent about an hour shopping for food, clothes and necessities. Just as he was about done Duong came in and told him he had reached a deal with Ma to keep driving them, Nayeri testified.
“They settled on $500 for the night and were going to negotiate” further on future use of Ma’s Honda Civic, Nayeri testified. Ma wanted double the amount, but seemed “content” with the deal, Nayeri said.
The three decided that Ma couldn’t be behind the wheel or “we would be pulled over,” Nayeri testified. Duong said he couldn’t see well enough at night to drive, so Nayeri took the wheel, he testified.
They went to a motel and Ma and Duong got out to check in, Nayeri testified. The room had two beds and Duong and Ma slept in one and Nayeri bunked with Tieu, he said.
Ma testified he was forced to give up his keys, wallet and phone at gunpoint, but Nayeri testified, “Nobody had a gun.”
They decided the next morning, “We needed to find a new place,” so they “went to a better motel” in Rosemead, Nayeri testified.
They then went shopping online for a utility van because they wanted a vehicle that no one could see inside of while passengers were in the back, Nayeri testified. And if they had to they could live out of it, too, he said.
“We weren’t sure it would pan out” with using Ma’s car, Nayeri testified.
They called a man selling a GMC van in Los Angeles and Duong stole it during a test drive.
Before that, Duong and Ma returned to Ma’s home to pick up his medicine, Nayeri said. The two took the opportunity to shower and Ma paid his car insurance bill while there, Nayeri testified.
When Duong returned to the motel and Nayeri found out the van was stolen the two got into a fight, he testified.
“When I found out he paid nothing there was a bit of an argument between us,” Nayeri said. “The van was the straw that broke the camel’s back… It was a build-up to that point.”
Duong had been drinking beer and hard liquor, “which might have brought it out, but there were other issues,” Nayeri said. “He constantly wanted to party and get girls.”
Nayeri said he slugged Duong so hard, “I thought I might have fractured his jaw so I asked Jonathan to get some ice.”
The two recorded a video together as Nayeri attempted to tamp down the flared tempers.
“We didn’t have any altercations after that,” he testified. “`It was me trying to calm the situation down.”
He reminded Duong, “I saved your life” when rappelling down the jail wall, but, he added, Duong and Tieu let him tag along with their ride, he said.
“I wanted to remind him I wasn’t his enemy and they were taking care of me,” Nayeri testified.
Nayeri will continue testifying Tuesday.
Duong, 50, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in July. Duong, who was in custody at the time of the escape on attempted murder, resolved that case as well when he was sentenced.
Duong was convicted in April 2021 for the escape. He was acquitted of felony kidnapping for robbery, but convicted of the lesser charge of simple kidnapping. A mistrial was declared when jurors could not reach a verdict on the car theft.
Tieu, 27, is awaiting trial.