4 tipsters might split $150,000 reward in jail escapees’ recapture

It was a random tip from a couple of Rosemead Target employees that doomed three escaped Orange County inmates’ week on the lam, launching a chain of events that eventually led to their recapture.

Those Target workers and two other tipsters, the owner of a van stolen by the fugitives and a homeless man who spotted two of them in San Francisco, are in line to split a $150,000 reward for their help. However, a taxi driver who was kidnapped by the escapees wouldn’t get any under the proposal.

The Board of Supervisors is set to vote Tuesday to award that cash.

New details that emerged Friday about the superstore employees’ roles describe a trail of clues that led authorities from Santa Ana to Rosemead to Los Angeles to San Francisco, where two of the three inmates were apprehended a week after they escaped in January.

The first clue came on the evening of Jan. 22, only a dozen or so hours after Bac Duong, Hossein Nayeri and Jonathan Tieu rappelled from the roof of Santa Ana Central Men’s Jail using a rope made of bed sheets and fled into the predawn darkness.

That night, Hazel Javier, manager of a Target store in Rosemead, “observed two subjects acting suspiciously in the store … monitored their activity and interacted with the subjects,” according to a report to the Board of Supervisors. The next day, Javier showed surveillance footage of the incident to Jeffrey Arana, the store’s loss-prevention officer, who thought the men bore a striking resemblance to the escaped inmates he had seen in a news report, the report says.

The employees called police and were interviewed by Orange County Sheriff’s Department investigators, who learned the men had purchased two prepaid cellphones – the second clue.

The detectives obtained the phones’ call records and scoured them for days, finally coming across a lead. One burner phone had called a Los Angeles man, Armando Damian, who reported his van stolen Jan. 23. Three or four days after the van was stolen, Damian said, investigators showed up at his door, and he told them what had happened.

“Somebody called me for the van, and one old man came to my house, but two other people were down the street, on the corner,” Damian said Friday. “I sat in the passenger seat and we drove around the streets. … When we got back to my driveway, this guy said, ‘Let me see the key.’ And he was gone (with my van).”

Before the investigators left, Damian supplied them with photos of the stolen white 2008 GMC Savana – clue No. 3.

By Jan. 28, those photos were all over the state – posted on fliers, in newspapers and in television reports – and were seen by millions and, most important, were remembered by Matthew Hay-Champan.

Hay-Champan, a 55-year-old San Francisco homeless man and self-described news junkie, said he immediately recognized the van parked at the side of the Whole Foods Market, and that’s why, he said, he was paying attention when Nayeri opened its door and stepped out. Within minutes, Hay-Champan flagged down police, who apprehended Nayeri and Tieu, ending the weeklong manhunt. Duong had turned himself in a day before.

Now, Orange County officials are proposing to reward $15,000 each to Target store manager Javier and loss-prevention officer Arana, $20,000 to Damian and as much as $100,000 to Hay-Champan. The Board of Supervisors previously authorized a reward of up to $150,000 for information leading to the inmates’ recapture.

The board’s allocation of that reward money leaves none for Long Hoang Ma, 71, a taxi driver who the inmates captured and held hostage for a week, and who said he deserves a reward for persuading Duong to turn himself in. Ma has filed a $2 million complaint against the county, blaming it for failing to secure its inmates and saying his kidnapping had given him post-traumatic stress disorder.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer previously said he thought Ma may have been eligible for reward money, but said Friday that Ma was not ultimately recommended “based on information provided by the sheriff’s department.”

“Ma did not provide information that led to their apprehension,” Spitzer said. “I feel bad for him, because he’s a victim of the crime. But a reward is not to compensate a crime victim.”

On Friday, Damian said the $20,000 would improve his life. He was selling his van because his work installing carpet had been light lately, he said.

“I need to pay bills and put away a little something to keep it,” Damian said. “But more important, I feel good that I’m safe and that these guys are in jail.”

Contact the writer: 714-796-7960 or jgraham@ocregister.com

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