One of the three fugitives from Orange County Central Men’s Jail was a U.S. Marine with special operations training and a history of mental illness who once told his wife he was “upset with the world.”
People who know Hossein Nayeri said his life fell apart after a 2005 accident in which he drove drunk and rolled a car, an incident that killed his friend in a fiery crash after they had been partying at a casino in Madera County.
Some elements of Nayeri’s complex past contrast with the charges he now faces: the kidnap and torture of a Newport Beach marijuana dispensary owner who, in 2012, was burned, beaten, shocked with a stun gun, and left bleeding in the desert after his penis was severed. A prosecutor has described Nayeri as “Hannibal Lecter.”
Nayeri, Jonathan Tieu and Bac Duong were still on the run late Tuesday after escaping Friday. All three men had pleaded not guilty to crimes including murder, attempted murder and torture. More than 250 law enforcement officials from local, state and federal agencies are engaged in the search.
At least nine people once wrote letters of support to the judge after Nayeri pleaded no contest to vehicular manslaughter after the 2005 accident. They described a man whose life had become a contradiction.
On one hand, in 2006, while on parole, Nayeri warned young prisoners about drunken driving and volunteered to help victims of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana.
But he also jumped bail that year, the first of at least three times Nayeri has evaded authorities – once fleeing to Iran and, on another occasion, leading police on a high-speed chase in Orange County before escaping into the night.
RAISED IN FRESNO
Nayeri was born in Iran but raised by siblings in Fresno, according to friends. He wrestled for the Clovis West High School varsity team in the 1996-97 school year.
He had friends in high school – including some who prosecutors say participated in the 2012 attack in the desert – but has said he suffered as well.
He told Irvine police in a 2011 report that he’d been sexually assaulted as a child. He also told at least one friend that his father, a physician who lived in Iran, had been kidnapped and never came home.
In 1997, soon after graduating from high school, Nayeri enlisted in the U.S. Marines, completing basic training at Camp Pendleton. He also trained in special operations on Coronado, learning force reconnaissance work, in which operators serve independently behind enemy lines.
It is not clear if he was ever deployed abroad. Nayeri was discharged in 2002.
Soon after leaving the military he moved back to his hometown, Madera, about 25 miles northwest of Fresno, and took a job at a paint store.
“He was a nice guy, always laughing,” said Oscar Martinez, an auto mechanic in Madera who said he was friendly with Nayeri in the mid-2000s.
Martinez said Nayeri lent his 2004 Chevy Silverado truck to a friend, who crashed it and left it at the scene. Martinez repaired the truck for Nayeri.
In 2005, Martinez said Nayeri’s friend Ehsan Tousi was celebrating his engagement when Nayeri joined him for drinks at a casino the day after Christmas.
“He told me they got drunk, and nobody wanted to drive,” Martinez said. Nayeri offered to drive.
Nayeri lost control of the car, and it rolled off the road, pinning Tousi. Nayeri was airlifted to a hospital, and Tousi died at the scene.
Nayeri suffered a broken right leg and burns on his right side, and several of his toes were amputated, according to court documents. He was charged with vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated without gross negligence.
A ‘LOYAL’ FRIEND
One high school friend who wrote a letter of support in the case described Nayeri as “loyal, honest and considerate.” She said she was impressed when Nayeri comforted her mother after her stepfather died.
But the accident, according to many of the letters, changed Nayeri in ways beyond the physical scarring.
“He has not been the same joyful person since the night of the accident,” the woman wrote.
Other friends and family said Nayeri had nightmares and flashbacks from the crash. One person wrote that he had become “a shell of himself.”
When he recovered, he fled the country, breaking his bail agreement and prompting a warrant for his capture and arrest. Nayeri later told Martinez that he went to Iran.
VISIT TO MOTHER
While in Iran, Nayeri stayed with his mother, who wanted him to agree to an arranged marriage. When Nayeri refused, his mother taunted him, calling him “murderer,” according to what he told Martinez.
Nayeri was recaptured in 2006 in Washington, D.C. He pleaded no contest to the vehicular manslaughter charge.
He was sentenced to 125 days in jail and four years’ probation.
In 2010, the last time Martinez saw him, Nayeri asked if the mechanic could dog-sit his pit bull, Tyler. Martinez hasn’t seen Nayeri since. He still has the dog.
Martinez was shocked Tuesday to learn that Nayeri is a fugitive and of the recent charges against him.
“He was totally different back then,” Martinez said.
But court records indicate the changes might not be recent.
In 2011, Irvine police detailed an encounter with Nayeri in which he described himself as bipolar, suffering from post-traumatic stress and suicidal. But he also told police he is “a gentle person.”
Police did not think Nayeri was a danger to himself or others, so they called his psychiatrist and did not take him to jail.
In 2012, Nayeri led police on a high-speed chase. He crashed his car, but escaped.
Police found camera equipment in his car, but did not know whether it was linked to any crime. Later, prosecutors said the camera was used by Nayeri to track the Newport Beach man who was beaten and tortured, allegedly by Nayeri and his co-defendants.
While awaiting trial, Nayeri, Tieu and Duong were housed in Mod F of Orange County jail along with 65 other inmates, half of whom are considered violent.
It’s unclear how the three men connected or how they planned their escape.
On Tuesday, a sheriff’s spokesman said the men were housed appropriately, but an investigation into the escape is ongoing.
Nayeri’s trial had been scheduled for Feb. 23.
Staff writers Scott Schwebke and Ian Wheeler contributed to this report.
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