Sheriff’s officials Monday appealed for public help in their search for three “very dangerous” detainees who escaped from the Central Men’s Jail in Santa Ana roughly 16 hours before they discovered missing.
The men cut through a steel grate, half-inch steel bars and plumbing tunnels early Friday before making their way to an unsecured part of the jail’s roof and using makeshift ropes to rappel several floors to the ground.
A reward of up to $20,000 has been offered by the FBI, and up to $30,000 has been offered by the U.S. Marshals Service for information leading to the capture of the suspects, Orange County sheriff’s Lt. Jeff Hallock said at a mid- morning news conference.
One or two of the suspects are believed to be involved with Vietnamese gangs, and they may be “embedded” with the Vietnamese community in the area, sheriff’s investigators said.
“We think that there’s obviously ties, based on the fact that one of the individuals is a documented Vietnamese gang member,” Hallock said. “We think it’s a strong possibility that he may have connected with those fellow gang members in the Vietnamese community.”
Authorities restated their warning that the suspects should be considered armed and dangerous — and potentially desperate.
“We’re over 48 hours that we know this escape occurred,” Hallock said. “Yeah, they could be very desperate. We don’t have any information to indicate that they are together. But time would tell you they get to a point where they become desperate, whether they need money or somebody to help facilitate their well-being on a day-to-day basis. But obviously the concern is that they are desperate. They are facing some very serious charges. That’s why we’re pleading for the public’s help because we know somebody out there knows something.”
Authorities were tight-lipped on the details of their search, but said around 30 warrants had been served since the escape was discovered.
The jail was operating normally today, while an investigation continued into how the inmates managed to pull off such an elaborate escape — cutting their way through four or five metal barriers to access plumbing tunnels and make their way onto the roof of the jail.
On Sunday, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens told reporters on that the suspects “had some tools.”
“Where they got those tools and how they got them, we do not know that,” Hutchens said.
Hallock said the men, who were awaiting trial on charges ranging from murder to attempted murder to torture, are believed to have escaped shortly after a 5 a.m. physical body count, one of two that take place each day at the facility.
They weren’t found to be missing until about 9 p.m. Friday, during the second daily headcount, which was to have started at 8 p.m. but was delayed by an altercation possibly staged to help delay discovery of the escape, Hallock said.
Jail guards do five counts throughout the day in Mod F, but only two of them are physical body counts, Hallock said. The other three are a comparison of computer records with a “mod card,” which is essentially a jail ID card that lists a detainee’s charges and other information, Hallock said. When an inmate is sent to court or elsewhere outside the jail the card stays in possession of a guard, Hallock said.
Hossein Nayeri, 37, of Newport Beach, was in custody on kidnapping and torture charges for the abduction of a marijuana clinic owner who Nayeri allegedly drove to the desert and burned with a blowtorch. The victim was also sexually mutilated, prosecutors said.
Nayeri fled the United States to Iran. Authorities do not have extradition agreements with Iran, where Nayeri has family, so investigators used a ruse to get him to the Czech Republic, which is more cooperative with the U.S. for extraditing fugitives, according to Senior Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy. Nayeri was arrested in Prague while changing flights from Iran to Spain to visit family, Murphy said.
Jonathan Tieu, 20, of Fountain Valley, faces a murder charge in connection with a gang hit, prosecutors said, and Bac Duong, 43, of Santa Ana, faces an attempted murder charge and was being held without bail on an immigration hold pending a possible federal deportation hearing.
Tieu’s mother and sister went on ABC7 to beg him to surrender to authorities.
“Please just turn yourself in,” said sister Tiffany Tieu. “Don’t let this drag on.”
The relatives said he did not kill anyone and that they believed he did not take part in planning the escape.
“I feel he was manipulated or tricked into during this,” Tieu said.
At least two of the escapees had spent enough time at the jail to engineer a sophisticated escape, Hallock said, describing the breakout as “well thought out” and possibly the result of weeks or even months of planning.
Authorities were continuing to investigate whether other inmates had a hand in the escape, most notably through the altercation that occurred in the jail and delayed the usual 8 p.m. body count.
“There was a disturbance among the inmates … where a deputy was assaulted,” Hallock said. “At this point we preliminarily believe it may have been planned as to divert attention of staff toward that disturbance so it would delay that 8 p.m. body count, which it did for a short time.”
Steps have been taken since the escape to harden the facility against any more breakouts, Hallock said.
The sheriff’s department released photos and a video that show, among other things, a cut quarter-inch steel grate inside the dormitory-style “tank” of about 60 inmates from which the inmates escaped, one of several makeshift ropes — this one found inside the tank after the escape — and what’s believed to be at least one of the suspects on the jail roof in the pre- dawn darkness.
After reaching the ground, the suspects fled on foot, investigators believe.
The jail complex — which dates to 1968 and lacks some in-house services that are features of more secure modern jails and prisons — consists of three facilities housing about 900 inmates. The body count today is about 960 in the Central Men’s Jail, with a maximum capacity of about 1,200, Hallock said.
“That tank in Mod F is a maximum security jail that has inmates with similar, very serious charges,” Hallock said.
Attorney Michael Molfetta, who represents Nayeri’s co-defendant, Ryan Kevorkian, blasted sheriff’s officials, saying they should have had a more watchful eye on Nayeri.
“If anyone is to be red-flagged, a let’s-keep-an-eye-out-for-this-guy, it’s Nayeri,” Molfetta said. “I don’t understand how the Nayeris go relatively unsupervised in jail, never mind foster such a plan, but to get such a big jump — it doesn’t make sense to me.”
Hallock said it wasn’t immediately clear why Nayeri was housed in the manner he was because officials have not had time for an internal review of the escape, since they are more focused on apprehending the escapees.
Conducting numerous head counts during the day is not possible because detainees are in and out of the jail for various reasons, including court appearances and medical checks and treatment, Hutchens said.
The entire complex is maximum security. There have been two prior escapes from the jail, most recently in 1989.
The sheriff’s and probation departments, Orange County District Attorney’s Office, U.S. Marshals Service and the FBI are involved in the search, which Hallock called “a 24-7 operation until these three individuals are caught.”
Anyone who sees any of the suspects should call 911 immediately, and anyone with information regarding their possible whereabouts was urged to call a special hotline at (714) 628-7085.
Anonymous tips can be provided by calling Orange County Crime Stoppers at (855) TIP-OCCS.
—City News Service