Investigators searching for three inmates who escaped from an Orange County jail are pursuing promising tips, but have yet to locate the “very dangerous” fugitives, Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said Sunday.
The U.S. Marshals Service has kicked in an additional $30,000 in addition to the $20,000 already offered by the FBI for information leading to the re-arrest of Hossein Nayeri, Jonathan Tieu and Bac Duong.
The three were awaiting trial for violent felonies, including a killing, when at some time on Friday they managed to break out of the Central Jail Complex in Santa Ana.
“We’ve gotten a number of what I would call very good tips that have got us on the right track,” Hutchens said of the ongoing, multi-county dragnet during a news conference. “As far as actual sightings of the individuals we have not (received any information).”
Hutchens and other law enforcement officials would not specify which cities they are focusing on. They don’t know if the men stayed together or split up.
The escape – which may have taken weeks or months to plan – is forcing Sheriff’s officials to re-evaluate their jailhouse security.
The three men were housed in a jail mod shared with 65 other inmates, all of whom are suspected of carrying out violent crimes.
Sometime between head counts carried out at 5 a.m. and 9 p.m., the trio apparently cut through half-inch steel bars, forced their way into a plumbing tunnel and got onto an unsecured part of the jailhouse roof.
The men then used an improvised rope made of bedsheets to get around barbed wire and rappel four stories to the ground and to freedom, Orange County Sheriff’s Lt. Jeff Hallock said.
“What was your reaction when you heard they cut through metal bars? How does that happen in a jail?” a reporter asked during the news conference.
“That was my reaction. We don’t know yet, but we are going to find out how that occurred,” Hutchens answered. “It appears to be a very sophisticated operation, where they were allowed to go through security access points and had some tools that allowed them to do that. Where they got those tools and how that occurred, we are still looking into that.”
An attack on a deputy by other inmates may have been staged to delay the scheduled 8 p.m. head count, Hallock said. It wasn’t until 9 p.m. that jail officials realized the men were missing, and midnight when they confirmed the three had escaped.
So far, authorities have not publicly narrowed down the time of the escape, leaving a nearly 16-hour window between the two head counts.
Investigators are looking into whether the escapees had help from inside or outside the jail. There is no indication that any jail workers were part of the escape plan, Hallock said, but all possibilities are under review.
Hutchens said the “older” design of the imposing Central Jail Complex, which was built in the 1960s, forces them to allow movement of inmates who are in need of services within the jail. By comparison, staff in newer jails “bring the services to the inmates.”
After learning about the escape, sheriffs officials say they reached out to warn the people the escapees are accused of hurting, as well as the detectives who investigated the alleged crimes and the deputy DA’s who are prosecuting them.
Investigators are tracking down known relatives or anyone who had relationships with the men. They are also reviewing security footage from cameras inside and outside the jail.
Hutchens said it isn’t possible to conduct more head-counts at the jail throughout the day.
“We are handicapped in that this is a jail where a lot of movement occurs,” the sheriff said. “We have people going to court, we have people going for medical treatment, and you can’t leave them locked down 24 hours a day. There are requirements that they get out and exercise from time to time.”
Hutchens noted that the Central Jail Complex currently houses more than 380 inmates awaiting trial for violent crimes such as murder or attempted murder.
“Escapes do occur from time to time. We try to limit that, we learn from the mistakes,” Hutchens said. “People in jail have a lot of time to sit around and think about how to defeat our systems.”
There were no obvious ties among the three inmates.
Nayeri is one of four people accused of kidnapping and torturing a marijuana dispensary owner.
Prosecutors allege that Nayeri and the other men burned the dispensary owner with a blowtorch and cut off his penis before dumping the owner and his girlfriend on the side of a desert road.
Nayeri fled to Iran before he could be arrested by Newport Beach Police. The FBI tracked him to Prague, where he was caught trying to take a flight to Spain to visit family.
Since September 2014, Nayeri has been held without bail in the Orange County Jail.
Less is publicly known about the other two men or their alleged crimes.
Tieu is facing a murder charge for a gang-related killing, and has been in jail since October 2013 in lieu of $1 million bail.
Duong has been in local lockup less than a month, after being arrested on suspicion of attempted murder. He was ineligible for bail due to an immigration hold.
Hutchens warned people not to approach the men, who may be armed.
Anyone who spots the escapees should call 911, authorities said. Anyone with information about there whereabouts can contact the Orange County Sheriff’s Department at 714-628-7085.