A man involved in a daring escape from the Orange County Jail in Santa Ana schemed the breakout and was fully in control of his two partners as they carjacked a cab driver and held him captive, a prosecutor argued Wednesday, but the defendant’s attorney claimed a co-defendant was the actual mastermind.
Hossein Nayeri, 44, is charged with escaping custody, kidnapping during a carjacking and car theft, all felonies. Jurors may also consider lesser charges of simple kidnapping, carjacking and false imprisonment.
Co-defendant Bac Tien 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 of 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.
Co-defendant Jonathan Tieu, 27, is awaiting trial in connection with the escape. Tieu was in custody in a murder case, but jurors in his trial deadlocked. A retrial was scheduled, but he was referred to juvenile court, where he was ultimately convicted of assault with a deadly weapon because a change in state law redefined liability in murders and Tieu was not considered a major participant in the gang-related killing.
In closing arguments of Nayeri’s trial Wednesday, Deputy District Attorney David McMurrin argued that Nayeri masterminded the Jan. 22, 2016, breakout from Central Men’s Jail. McMurrin hammered away at details in Nayeri’s story that conflicted with the testimony of witnesses.
The prosecutor disputed Nayeri’s claim in testimony that he wasn’t involved in Duong’s decision to steal a cargo van in Los Angeles to aid in their escape. The van, which was acquired at auction by its owner, only had paper plates on it but a stolen license plate was found in it when Nayeri was arrested, the prosecutor said.
McMurrin also noted that even after he became aware the van was stolen Nayeri was driving it around.
“He’s still trying to escape when he testified yesterday,” McMurrin said.
The prosecutor directed jurors to consider 537 pages of evidence of phone usage records. The three inmates used smuggled-in phones to document the escape and to aid in it after they broke out, McMurrin said.
While still in custody, Nayeri “searches himself,” McMurrin said.
“You’re not going to see a search for Bac Duong and Jonathan Tieu,” McMurrin said. “He searches for his ex-wife and that’s interesting. He’s planning what to do when he escapes.”
Nayeri’s ex-wife helped prosecutors with a ruse that led to the defendant’s capture while was eluding authorities in the case that landed him in jail in the first place.
The phones also show evidence of searches for how to send money internationally, McMurrin said. Nayeri testified he got money sent to him from family in Iran.
After Duong turned himself in, Nayeri looked up a news report on it, McMurrin said.
McMurrin also referred to a video the escapees created in a motel room after the escape, showing Duong putting a cigarette out on his shoulder.
“It shows a dynamic,” McMurrin said. “He’s saying to Mr. Duong are you loyal to me? Are you going to step in line? Did I save your life?”
Nayeri told Duong to put the cigarette out on his own skin, McMurrin said.
“Mr. Nayeri controls and directs … what to do and how to do it,” he said. “This is about control and putting Duong in his place.”
The prosecutor also disputed Nayeri’s claim that none of the crew had a gun, saying that a cab driver the trio kidnapped, Long Ma, “was held at gunpoint in an abandoned parking lot, forced to hand over his wallet and phone.”
He scoffed at the claim that Ma willingly went along with the escapade.
“A willing person at that time who didn’t even know they were escapees,” McMurrin said of when Ma was ordered to turn over his Honda Civic, wallet and phone to the escapees. “It wasn’t in the news yet.”
McMurrin showed jurors Duong’s injuries on his face four days after a fight in a motel room with Nayeri. Duong had swelling on the cheek and eye and wounds to his neck, the prosecutor said.
Duong “would rather be in custody and turn himself in than be with that man,” McMurrin said, pointing to Nayeri. “It’s also reasonable to conclude he didn’t want to get beat anymore.”
McMurrin also discounted Nayeri’s story of having his own plan and get-away driver who never showed up to help him get to LAX where he planned to catch a flight to Istanbul, Turkey. The prosecutor reminded jurors Nayeri refused to say the name of the driver who failed to show up to pick him up at the jail the night of the escape.
“He couldn’t give you a name because that person doesn’t exist,” McMurrin said.
Nayeri claimed that when his plans fell through, Tieu and Duong waited hours with Nayeri as he scrambled to piece together his escape plan.
“They all had a role to play but Nayeri was the planner, and Mr. Duong had his connections,” McMurrin said, adding that Tieu was the “muscle.”
But McMurrin added, “It doesn’t really matter who the mastermind is — they were all in on it.”
The three took Ma along with them because they needed him to use his ID to check in to motels and fetch money wired to them, McMurrin said.
Also, “He couldn’t let Ma go and call police,” McMurrin said. “He didn’t consent. He wasn’t a willing participant.”
Ma testified that he did not take advantage of multiple opportunities to ask for help because he was afraid of the men.
Nayeri’s attorney, Michael Goldfeder, noted how Duong roped in his longtime friend, Loc Ba Nguyen, to help the three smuggle in materials used in the escape and then pick them up when they broke out.
“That tells me something about Mr. Duong to compel people to do these activities,” Goldfeder said. “That’s who the mastermind is. Bac Duong.”
Ma was contacted because he was known in the Vietnamese community for his cab driving services, Goldfeder said.
“He greats him with a warm handshake, a kiss on the cheek,” Goldfeder said. “I don’t think anyone does that when their Uber driver shows up.”
Goldfeder emphasized Ma’s “inconsistent” testimony in the trials of Duong and Nayeri. When Ma testified two years ago in Duong’s trial he had an immunity agreement with prosecutors that shielded him from implicating himself, Goldfeder noted.
“When you’re not telling the truth it’s hard to remember what you said,” Goldfeder said. “That’s why things are all over the map.”
The defense attorney said Ma has told investigators he was threatened with the gun in the car and later testified it was outside the car.
Goldfeder argued Ma got $5,500 from the escapees.
“Not bad for a few days of work,” the attorney said.
Goldfeder also questioned why when Duong and Ma returned to Orange County so Duong could surrender they didn’t stop at any police station along the way. But instead they waited a day before doing it, he said.
The defense attorney also argued that the two discussed splitting the reward money so Duong’s mother could get some of it. The man whose van was stolen received $20,000 of the reward money, but Ma got none of it, Goldfeder said.
The defense attorney also faulted prosecutors for not providing video surveillance footage from the motels and stores the escapees went to if they wanted to show how Ma was being held against his will.
“The reason it wasn’t done is … those videos will show there was no coercion, no stress, no strain,” Goldfeder said. “If there was anything bad happening I’m sure we’d see those videos front to back. Where’s the gun? Whatever happened to the gun?”
Prosecutors point to a Ziplock bag of bullets found in the van, but they weren’t dusted for fingerprints or checked for DNA, Goldfeder said.
“Prosecutors could have completed those circles, but they decided to run with Mr. Ma’s story,” Goldfeder said.
The defense attorney said Duong had multiple scars on his body from cigarette burns because it was one of his bizarre rituals and denied Nayeri forced him to do it.
“This was some kind of gift, some kind of honor,” Goldfeder said, comparing it to when one of his cats brought a mouse into his home and dropped it at his feet.