One of three men who busted out of Orange County Jail in Santa Ana seven years ago brushed off a prosecutor’s questions about being the mastermind behind the escape Tuesday, denied he was searching his ex-wife’s name online and insisted none of the crew had a gun despite web searches on one of their smart phones for a gun range.
Deputy District Attorney David McMurrin grilled Hossein Nayeri, 44, about inconsistencies between his narrative of the breakout and the unlicensed cab driver who claimed in testimony last week that he was held against his will. Nayeri admitted his part in the January 2016 escape, but has denied kidnapping cab driver Long Ma and having any part of the theft of a van while the trio of inmates were on the lam.
Nayeri claimed that one of the iPhones found after his arrest in the van was a “universal” one that the others also used.
Nayeri testified that Ma’s relatives visited them in their motel in San Jose to discuss giving them a hideout while they eluded authorities. They headed north because a reward for their capture was increasing and getting more attention on the local news, Nayeri said.
“I drove the (stolen) van with (co-defendant Jonathan Tieu) in the passenger seat and (co-defendant Bac Duong and Ma) driving in front of us in Ma’s Civic,” Nayeri said.
They went to a Ross clothing store in San Jose to buy some jackets for Ma because “it was chilly up there,” and Ma did not pack a coat when he and Duong went back to his apartment to get clothes and medication, Nayeri said.
The discussion with Ma’s relatives was about whether to put them all up in the same place or split them up, Nayeri said, adding that they told the relatives they needed money for “five days or so maximum” to keep working on a plan to finally elude authorities, Nayeri testified.
Nayeri said he was still working on his plan to get the plane ticket he bought from LAX to Istanbul. He said they also settled on the Santa Cruz area because, “I used to have an operation out there in Boulder Creek so I’m familiar with the area.”
Nayeri disputed Ma’s assertion that he was “forced to smile” in pictures when Nayeri, Tieu and Ma went to a local beach. Duong stayed at the motel because he did not feel like going and after the two had gotten into a fist fight “we needed a break from each other,” Nayeri testified.
He said the three drove back on the 101 Freeway so they could admire the sunset together.
They were keeping up with the news on TV and on social media so they knew authorities were looking for the stolen white van. Nayeri said he took it to a detailing business to get the windows tinted and have some back window stickers removed. Tieu, meanwhile, was left at a laundry to wash their clothes, where Nayeri had an employee show Tieu how to do it since he had never operated a washer or dryer before, he said.
When they got back to the motel they saw Duong and Ma had left, Nayeri said. He tried to call them but no one answered, he said.
“For the first few minutes I sat on the edge of the bed trying to digest what does this mean, try to wrap my head around what happened,” Nayeri testified. “Half hour into it ten thousand thoughts go through your head.”
Nayeri and Tieu kept going up north to San Francisco to “reach out to family there,” he testified.
He chose not to try to stay with relatives in the city because, “They had already raided their house,” he testified.
Nayeri said a bag of bullets found in the van was left there by the owner they had stolen the vehicle from.
When asked if he had any hard feelings toward Ma for his testimony, Nayeri said, “I don’t want to talk bad about someone who was helping us… This is an awkward position to be in.”
Nayeri added, “I know everything fell apart… but he came through. So I don’t know about all this stuff… I can’t say anything bad about the guy.”
Nayeri agreed with McMurrin’s characterization as the escape being something out of a movie.
“You’re right on,” he said. But, he added, “In reality it was not how it looks like in a movie.”
The inmates had acquired cutting tools in the jail and used them to saw through an air vent and other obstacles in plumbing tunnels that led to the roof, he testified.
Despite documenting the escape with smuggled-in phone cameras, Nayeri parried McMurrin’s questions about his role as a mastermind of the breakout.
“This was a collaborative effort,” Nayeri said. “I was lucky enough to have a mechanical engineer in there. There was a lot of this I couldn’t figure out … There were parts somebody else did.”
Nayeri denied “kicking out” another inmate and substituting Duong. He also disputed the allegation that he made Duong put a cigarette out on himself after their fight. He said Duong would do that to mark eventual moments in his life and asked Nayeri to do the same, but he declined.
“You didn’t punch him to put him in his place?” McMurrin asked.
“He’s not a kid. Both of us, there was a build-up,” Nayeri replied. “We were both drinking and he’s taunting me, doing the gangster thing — `try me, try me.”’
Nayeri also claimed it wasn’t his handwriting on a note pad with a to-do list, but he admitted when pressed that he helped put a stolen license plate on the van to help them conceal it from authorities.
Nayeri denied that he or the others had a gun and disputed Ma’s assertion that they pointed a weapon at him when they demanded his wallet, phone and keys.
“Why don’t we take a polygraph!” Nayeri shouted. “Why don’t we take a polygraph! I’ll pay for it!”
The prosecutor said there were multiple searches for a gun range on one of the phones found with Nayeri when he was arrested with Tieu in San Francisco.
McMurrin also confronted him about multiple searches for his ex-wife, Cortney Shegarian, who helped authorities capture Nayeri while he was on the lam out of country for what landed him in jail in the first place — the sexual mutilation of a marijuana dispensary owner.
Jurors will hear closing arguments Wednesday.