As they cut, crawled, climbed and rappelled their way to freedom, the first inmates to bust out of the Orange County Central Jail in more than a quarter-century were nothing if not audacious.
First they carved a heavy steel ventilator grill into a human-sized doggie door next to one of their bunks – sawing away inside a crowded jail dormitory overseen by a secure, glassed-in guard corridor that was supposed to deter just such mayhem.
Bolder still was the three inmates’ next move: a covert exploration of the archaic jail’s catacombs of plumbing and ventilation tunnels on the other side of that homemade hatchway. Moving like rats in the walls, the inmates sawed through one set of bars after another as they followed dusty old airshafts upward to freedom.
But the most audacious element of the escape had to be their choice of landing zones as they emerged on the jail roof, then climbed down five stories on a flimsy rope of hoarded bed sheets: They alighted next to the main public entrance of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
Then maximum-security inmates Hossein Nayeri, Jonathan Tieu and Bac Tien Duong vanished in the predawn darkness on Jan. 22.
Even the man in charge of the jails, who thought he had seen it all in his 30-year career at the department, grudgingly assessed the elaborate escape plan as an extraordinary criminal enterprise – not to mention a wake-up call for the entire jail staff, bottom to top. Never underestimate the ingenuity of inmates with nothing but time on their hands and a grim future behind bars looming ahead, says Assistant Sheriff Steve Kea.
“You’d be amazed what they can do.”
The audacity of the inmates, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens promises, will be matched by her own bold response once the investigation, analysis and soul-searching is complete.
“We’re terribly embarrassed and frustrated by what occurred. But we’re going to learn from it,” she says. “This sheriff’s big audacious goal is to never have another escape. This is going to be our mindset.”
After a week of investigation, the Sheriff’s Department has pieced together a partial picture of how the escape succeeded through a combination of daring, luck, the shortcomings of an outdated and understaffed jail, and betrayal from within.
That last piece fell into place with Thursday’s arrest of an alleged helper on the inside: an English-as-a-second-language teacher at the jail who allegedly passed on Google maps that helped the escapees scout such locations as the jail rooftop. But the teacher has denied knowing what sort of cutting tool the escapees used to overcome so many thick steel bars and grates, or where it came from.
“I look forward to asking them about that when we bring them in,” Kea says.
With the re-arrest Friday of one escapee, and the capture in San Francisco of his two compatriots on Saturday, Kea could get that chance. One of the biggest manhunts in Orange County history has now morphed into one of the most intensive investigations ever of the strengths and weaknesses of Orange County’s only maximum-security lockup.
As the department assembles a team of local and outside jail experts to undertake that review, many questions remain. What kind of cutting tools were used, and how did the inmates get them and use them inside a maximum-security dormitory without being detected? The dorm – a “tank” in jailhouse terms – holds 68 inmates in a jail riddled with informants. Yet none of their tank-mates ratted out the escapees. Just as perplexing, none of the other inmates tried to join the exodus, even though the escape route could have accommodated more than three.
“Jail politics are an interesting thing,” sheriff’s public affairs manager Carrie Braun says by way of explanation, as other jail personnel nodded in solemn agreement. The catchall term “jail politics” is often cited to explain otherwise baffling behavior at the lockup.
The department has held back many details for fear of tipping off other would-be escapees. But interviews and court records offer a breakdown of the twisting, dangerous and ingenious route used in the breakout – and how it exploited the weaknesses inherent in a jail nearly a half-century old.
Opened in 1968, the Central Men’s Jail in Santa Ana may have excellent “curb appeal” due to its deceptively modern-looking façade. But on the inside, the jail holding 900 of the county’s most dangerous inmates is thoroughly old school, right down to its brass keys and locks, and its 19th-century design principles that U.S. corrections professionals abandoned decades ago.
Visitors who cross the barred double doors and bulletproof guard station known as the sally port, then enter the secure inmate living areas of the jail, are often surprised by what they see: movement, and lots of it.
H. Lorren Au, file photo
For the most part, this jail is not a place of stationary men locked in individual cells. It’s a place where inmates are in constant motion, often unescorted, as they walk from their crowded, noisy dormitories to classes, to meals, to the infirmary or to religious services. In modern jails, the services come to the inmates, or are built into their living areas. In old jails, it’s the other way around.
The consequence: During a typical day, Kea says, about half the inmates are out of their dormitories and somewhere else in the jail at any given time. Keeping track of them can be a challenge, he says, as demonstrated by the early morning escape of the three inmates. No one realized they were missing until 8 p.m., about 15 hours after they vanished into the jail’s hidden service tunnels.
At the core of the jail building stands the main engine of movement: a pair of escalators, one up, one down. They move a mix of staff and inmates between the first-floor visitor and attorney rooms, the second-floor medical, pharmacy and treatment wings, the main housing areas on the third and fourth floors, and the rooftop exercise area.
As Kea steps onto the up escalator, he positions himself sideways, his back against the black moving railing. He faces the down escalator and the wire-metal fencing that separates the two moving staircases. The posture is a cop instinct, like never sitting with one’s back to the door at a restaurant. Never ride a jail escalator shopping mall style, facing forward, Kea cautions. That leaves you too vulnerable to attack. Sideways you can easily glance at who is above of you on the escalator, who is below you, and who is on the other escalator coming at you.
“Sometimes they spit at you,” Kea says, nodding toward the other escalator. “After 30 years, this is the only way I can ride an escalator. Even at the mall.”
While walking the corridors, visitors are cautioned not to let passing inmates brush by – any seemingly incidental contact could be a ploy to grab a stray pen or other small personal item. A civilian’s pockets carry plenty of weapons potential, Kea says. He has found stilettos made of hard candy and spears fashioned from layers of tightly rolled paper hardened by repeated wetting and drying.
The corridors are built of cinder block walls painted off-white, with steel doors and barred doors in a cheery royal blue. But the color scheme turns sickly where the escapees were housed inside Module F, Tank 28 on the fourth floor, the bars a grimy beige and the setting grim.
The tank is a rectangle with three solid walls and one long “wall” made of jailhouse bars. The layout is linear. A dayroom occupies one end with a TV, censored newspapers and chess sets. A middle area holds toilets, sinks and showers, with a bank of finger-smudged pay phones set in the wall to the right. And the main dormitory occupies the largest part of the tank. It’s crowded, with 68 bunks double-decked in rows and welded to the floor, their cracker-thin mattresses, rumpled sheets and tattooed occupants milling and sitting.
The tank is one of an identical pair, stacked like shoe boxes, out of sight of one another, but not out of earshot. The place is loud, filled with the sound of talk and shouts and shuffling.
The barred walls of the tanks are paralleled by a glassed guard corridor that overlooks the entire setting, bathroom area and all. Jail staff can observe the tanks from here. They also can use electronic door controls mounted in the corridor to let inmates in and out of the tank – not every door requires a manual key in this jail, though many do, including access to fire escapes.
Between the sealed guard corridor and the tanks is a kind of no-man’s land, a path next to the bars that the jail staff calls “The Beach.” No one knows the origin of this pleasant term for a distinctly unpleasant space – it’s older than any current employee’s tenure at the jail – but it may be because of all the paper and other debris that inmates hurl through the bars and that collect on this narrow strip, like flotsam washed up at the seashore. Deputies assigned to “prowler” duty periodically walk the beach, looking for trouble that might not be spotted from the elevated guard corridor.
But neither location provides constant surveillance. There are no video cameras there. Even when deputies are staring into the tanks, bunks and milling inmates obscure some spots.
One such spot was a ventilator grate at floor level next to one of the escapees’ bunks. These vents are spaced every five feet. Every tank and holding area, even the relatively few individual cells where the most dangerous or endangered inmates are kept, have such thick steel ventilator grates.
And on the other side is a tunnel. This is where the escape began.
This setup of tanks married to long observation corridors is based on centuries-old linear design principles. Think of a hospital corridor with many separate rooms strung out along its length, and how long it can take a busy nurse to check in on any room full of patients. Then replace the nurses with guards and people in hospital gowns with guys in jail-issue canvas, and the challenge of such a design is obvious.
Even so, such a jail worked well enough at the time it was built, Hutchens says, because back then 70 percent of the inmates were charged with misdemeanors, and relatively few inmates were locked up for major crimes. The risk of violence and escape was far lower then. But those days are long gone – the jail is full of felons now, many of them desperate, angry, attached to rival gangs, or mentally ill. Coping with this new mix of inmates with old jail designs and tight budgets is a challenge, Hutchens says, not just in Orange County, but throughout the state.
Because such a jail setup makes constant, direct observation of inmates by guards impossible – the staff has to patrol the corridors and look into dormitories intermittently – linear jail designs were abandoned as unsafe and inefficient by most American corrections professionals in the 1980s. Modular living “pods” are used instead in modern jails, where guards are posted at control stations in the center of each inmate living area – something like a hospital’s intensive care unit, with a central nursing station ringed by patient beds, all of them in direct view.
Wherever direct views are not possible, remote video surveillance with real-time monitoring is used in modern jails. Not only do the tanks lack such monitoring, but the cameras the jail does have in other areas are for recording, not monitoring in real time, Hutchens says. The existing cameras only recently were upgraded to digital recording from old VHS tape systems. “We ran out of tapes,” Kea says. “We had to order them from China.”
Plans to install many more cameras have been on hold for years because of budget constraints, though the first phase of modernization is now underway.
The limitations of the observation corridors gave the escapees the cover they needed to cut through one of the thick metal grates in the tank to make their “doggie door.” They also had to saw through the bunk’s welded legs because one of them blocked access to the already tight confines of the ventilator opening.
Orange County Sheriff’s Department photo
By not completely detaching the grate, the inmates could bend it shut again and restore the bunk to its correct position, avoiding detection while they worked on opening up the rest of the escape route.
Part of the archaic jail design includes the network of plumbing and ventilation tunnels that the escapees squeezed into after sawing through the grating. The jail staff uses the word “tunnel,” but they are really high-ceilinged corridors – dim and dusty passages strewn with decades of jury-rigged repairs and modifications. The floor is a metal grate, pocked with holes and bristling with wires, pipes and subsidiary ducts, sometimes constricting passage to a tight squeeze, sometimes posing a tripping hazard. Naked light bulb fixtures provide illumination in this disused space; in a somewhat jarring juxtaposition, some green-minded jail staffers outfitted the fixtures with the delicate spirals of compact fluorescent bulbs.
The sound of the inmates in the tank filters up from the ventilator openings, a background murmur in the passage.
The long tunnel runs the length of the tank, then turns and leads to a dead end wall where, twelve feet up, a barred ventilator shaft leads up toward the roof. The escapees shimmied up the pipes and, with ropes and slings made out of bed sheets, cut through the thick bars and continued up.
They had to cut through two more sets of metal barriers before emerging through an enormous sheet-metal blower exhaust fixture on the rooftop. The three inmates had to cut and crawl through a space filled with a roaring, fast-moving airstream with the help of more sheets and blankets fashioned into ropes and slings.
Kea says the inventory control of bedding, which is supposed to be tightly counted and tallied, failed to detect the hoarding. Kea noted that inmate workers often are responsible for collecting and counting the sheets, which are changed frequently.
The rooftop of the jail has fenced recreation areas for inmates that would have posed another barrier for the escapees. But they emerged from the ventilation system outside those areas. The cameras on the roof are focused on the fenced areas, not the open ones.
The last leg of the escape consisted of a dash across the dark rooftop to the northeast corner, where they cut through a section of razor wire and set it neatly to the side. Then they shimmied down a very long rope made of sheets to the ground five stories below, to the grassy courtyard in front of headquarters.
Because of the location, Kea says, the escapees had to have landed under cover of darkness, not in broad daylight.
The inmates were counted at 5 a.m. on the day of the escape during one of two full body counts the jail staff performed that day. During the count each inmate is required to be at his bunk, where he is identified by name and inmate number and matched to official photographs. All three escapees were reported counted that morning.
The next body count occurred at 8 p.m., and their absence was discovered. When questioned, none of the inmates in their tank recalled seeing them after that early body count. The evidence of their escape was uncovered within the hour that evening, though they were long gone by then.
If they left after 5 a.m. and landed on the front lawn before sunrise at 6:53 a.m, that provided an extremely short window of time for such extensive sawing and cutting through thick steel bars. When asked if investigators believed the escapees had been working inside the hidden tunnels for multiple days prior to their escape, Kea declined to comment.
Whether a marathon or a dash, they had beaten the system, Kea says, but now it’s the system’s turn to respond.
Sheriff Hutchens says the system has already responded with new procedures to foil similar attempts. She and Kea won’t detail those changes, but the long gap in time between the two daily body counts appears to be one of the first procedures addressed.
An intensive review of the escape, the jail’s policies and procedures, and the steps that can be taken to avoid a repeat will move to the front burner now that the escapees are back behind bars. Kea says a committee of experts from inside and outside the department will be assembled to make sure the review is tough, thorough and pulls no punches.
Cameras are already on their way, albeit slowly; digital systems require expensive computer servers, cooling systems and other expensive gear besides the cameras themselves, according to Kea. Hutchens says cameras overlooking the tanks might not have foiled this escape anyway, because the cutting of the ventilator grating could have been obscured by bunks and inmates.
Motion sensors are being considered for the tunnels, she says, keyed to sound an alarm if there are any breaches. Radio Frequency Identification tracking chips for the inmates (in their ID cards, not implanted) are being looked at. Beefed up staff is a priority, Hutchens says.
“When you don’t have enough staffing, safety and security suffers,” she says. “Corners get cut.”
The tunnels used by the escapees, like the overall layout of the jail, are design flaws built into the fabric of the building that modern designs would avoid. She said her immediate task is to find the best ways to use technology and staffing to compensate for those design shortcomings.
At some point, the sheriff says, the expense of fixing up an old house exceeds the cost of a new one, and she and her staff have begun to talk about the need for a new state of the art jail. Such an expense would require a bond issue or referendum, and even if the planning process were to start today, she predicts five years would pass before a new jail could be opened—at a minimum.
“Right now we’re focused on what we can do with this older facility.”
This is not a new challenge for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. Four inmate escapees similarly rappelled to the ground from the rooftop in 1968 – five days after the jail opened.
This report was written by Edward Humes, the author of 13 nonfiction books and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his Orange County Register coverage of the military.
BIOS: THE INMATES AND THE TEACHER
Background: Born in Iran and raised in the Fresno area, Nayeri was a high school wrestler. After graduation, he enlisted in the U.S. Marines, completing basic training at Camp Pendleton and later training in special operations. His life took a turn in 2005 when he was driving a car drunk and caused an accident that killed his passenger. After that incident, he jumped bail, and was captured in Washington, D.C.
Most recent case: He is accused in the kidnapping and torture of a Santa Ana marijuana dispensary owner in 2012. Nayeri and four others allegedly beat the man, burned him with a butane torch and mutilated his genitals.
Jailed since: November 2013
Background: Tieu is a member of Tiny Rascal Gang, a Vietnamese gang in Little Saigon. Tieu, a minor when he was arrested, graduated high school while in juvenile hall.
Most recent case: Tieu faces a murder charge in a 2011 gang shooting outside a pool hall in Garden Grove. He was 15 at the time, and was one of nearly a dozen people arrested in the death of 19-year-old Scottie Bui.
Jailed since: April 2011
Bac Tien Duong
Background: Duong arrived in the U.S. from Vietnam in 1991 and received a green card, making him a permanent legal resident. In 1995, he was convicted of burglary. In 1998, a judge ordered him deported, but Vietnam at that time routinely rejected deportees. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement took custody of him in 2003; he was released in 2004.
Most recent case: Duong is charged in the shooting of a Santa Ana man, the theft of a motorcycle and with resisting arrest. Other charges against him stem from alleged drug sales, possession of a firearm and receiving stolen property.
Jailed since: November 2015
Background: Ravaghi of Lake Forest is an English as a Second Language teacher. Originally from Iran, she traveled around the world, learning English, French, Arabic, Farsi, German and Spanish, according to her website. She received two master’s degrees, one in French literature from the University of Tehran and the other in education from Cal State Fullerton in 2013. Ravaghi started working at the Central Men’s Jail in 2014 through the Rancho Santiago Community College District Inmate Education Program.
Arrest: Ravaghi was jailed on suspicion of being an accessory to the escape. Deputies say she developed a relationship with Nayeri, who attended her class, and provided him with a Google Maps printout that showed a satellite image of the jail’s roof.
Status: In custody. Her arraignment is Monday.
ORANGE COUNTY CENTRAL JAIL AT A GLANCE
The Orange County Central Jail was built in 1968, using the construction style of the day. It has a multistory linear design, that is, the cells and dorms are laid out in a line, with the guard station at one end. Since 1979, jails are generally built with a guard station in the middle and dorms circling around it, allowing for better supervision.
The downtown Santa Ana jail complex now houses the men’s jail, the women’s jail and a more modern, Intake and Release Center. Other jails in the Orange County system are the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange and the James A. Musick Facility in Irvine.
Population: 974 men and 262 women in the Central Jail.
Escapes: At the Central Jail, there have been eight escapes involving 16 inmates since opening, all but one from the roof. Before this month, the last escape was in 2007, when an inmate snuck through an open gate. All prior fugitives have been caught and returned to the jail.
Comparing escapes then and now:
Then: A line placed on a photo from the archives of the Orange County Register shows the escape route at the Orange County Jail in a photo dated Dec. 10, 1968. The jail opened in 1968. Within five days, an inmate escapes by crawling under loose mesh wire and using a garden hose to climb down from the roof. Months later, two others escape using the same unrepaired opening. Register file photo
Now: In a different location of the jail, the red line shows where three inmates escaped, cutting through steel bars and using linen ropes to rappel four stories to the ground from the northeast corner of the building. Jeff Gritchen, staff photographer
Security audit: Within months of replacing former Sheriff Mike Carona (convicted of witness tampering), Sheriff Sandra Hutchens ordered an in-depth, $250,000 security report on the jails. The 2008 report came in response to the 2007 beating death of John Chamberlain by inmates at Theo Lacy jail. A grand jury investigation found deputies shirking their duties, using jailhouse “shot callers” as enforcers, playing video games, watching television and phoning their girlfriends while on duty.
Audit results: The report by Crout & Sida Criminal Justice Consultants concluded the jail system had inadequate or nonexistent safety checks to make sure inmates were alive and well and recommended such checks be done hourly.
The report found inadequate searches of inmates and their property inside the jail: “Without adequate staffing, the exercise of frequently searching inmates is too time consuming and dangerous to be performed by the few staff that are available. If essential searches cannot be performed, then it is a clear demonstration that there is not enough staff in the Orange County jail system.” In addition, the report cited an inadequate number of staff to inmates and supervisors to deputies. The report called for the addition of 450 guards systemwide to do an adequate and safe job.
Upgrades underway: Assistant Sheriff Steve Kea, who supervises the jails, said Thursday that 65 percent of the audit’s system-wide recommendations have been completed. The department has been constrained from making other upgrades due to budget limits. Some are long-term projects that are being done in phases; others were declined in favor of a better solution.
More deputies have been added, but not to the level recommended by the report. Kea said he would like to add 25 to 30 more deputies to the Men’s Jail: “We certainly didn’t meet the staffing factors they were looking at. But we did increase it. The staffing allows us to do our jobs; more staffing would allow us to do it better.”
Kea said the department tries to do a random search of the housing areas every shift to reduce contraband and also is trying secure body-scanning equipment at the jail’s entry to boost security. “It’s a constant battle.”
TOOLS OF JAILBREAKS PAST
The Sheriff’s Department declined to discuss the tools three inmates might have used to saw through steel barriers to escape the Central Men’s Jail on Jan. 22.
But since the jail opened in 1968, at least 15 inmates at the maximum security jail in Santa Ana have slashed through grates and chain-link fences and climbed down from the jail’s roof using bedsheets, electrical cords and a garden hose.
Past escapes here and elsewhere have shown that breaking out, even with help and the right tools, takes time, cunning and a bit of luck.
2015: Two convicted murderers used simple hand tools to hack through their steel cell and out of Clinton Correctional Facility in New York in the first escape in that prison’s history.
David Sweat and Richard Matt cut through steel with hacksaws, chisels and a screwdriver, which were smuggled to them in frozen meat by a prison worker turned accomplice.
Sweat would later tell investigators that it took months to methodically pick away at steel cell walls and pipes, using dummies in prison garb to duck head counts each night. The pair finally tunneled out of the prison on June 6, 2015, leading authorities on an extensive manhunt.
A demonstration by The New York Times showed how long it takes a hacksaw to cut through steel; a metal worker took one minute to cut through less than a 10th of an inch. At that rate, it would have taken 20 hours to cut a 2-foot-square hole like the one made in last year’s escape.
2010: Two cellmates at Osceola County Jail in Florida fashioned an 8-inch saw out of a metal plate from an audio speaker, held between the pages of a hardbound book, to chisel off a metal piece of their bunkbed. With a makeshift saw, crowbar and other tools, Michael Rigby and David Sanders tore out a toilet and sink and tunneled out of the cell, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
The pair worked on the escape for two weeks. Jail guards, who were posted 12 feet from the cell door and skipped mandatory cell checks, didn’t notice.
2000: Sicilian mobster Vincenzo Curcio became notorious for escaping an Italian prison using dental floss to saw through the bars of his cell’s window. The decaying iron took days to cut through.
He then scaled down the prison walls on a ladder made out of bedsheets and broomsticks and initially got away undetected. Italian newspaper La Repubblica called it an escape “you can only see in movies.”
1986: Two Orange County inmates were able to escape from county jail with a pair of handcuffs and sheer force.
Convicted murderer Ivan Von Staich and suspected murderer Robert Joseph Clark were alone with a guard in the Central Men’s Jail rooftop recreation area. When the guard emerged from a restroom, the inmates overpowered him and restrained him with his own handcuffs.
The inmates then found a metal bar in a nearby maintenance locker and pried apart the fencing that cages the exercise area. They also found blankets and an electrical cord, which they used to constructed a rope and descend down four stories.
1968: In the last days of the old Sycamore Street Jail in Santa Ana, just before the Central Men’s Jail was built, 11 inmates used soap to squeeze through airshafts to get to the roof.
Tony Saavedra and Ian Wheeler contributed to this report.