‘The entire state can breathe a sigh of relief’: An eight-day manhunt for escaped inmates ends

SAN FRANCISCO – The massive manhunt in the wake of a jailbreak in Orange County ended Saturday with the arrest of two remaining fugitives, capping a week of exhaustive law enforcement muscle, media saturation and help from a man on the street.

Sheriff’s investigators immediately headed to Northern California to question escapees Hossein Nayeri and Jonathan Tieu and bring them back to Orange County.

“The entire state can breathe a sigh of relief,” declared Sheriff Sandra Hutchens.

San Francisco police captured the two fugitives just before 9 a.m. after a man flagged down officers near a Whole Foods Market close to Golden Gate Park. The man had seen the photos of the escapees and their white van on television.

When police arrived, Nayeri ran away but was captured within minutes, Hutchens and San Francisco police said. Officers said they found Tieu hiding in the van.

Police found ammunition in the van, but no weapons.

Tourist Kevin Marks had been parked waiting for the market to open Saturday morning when he spied a white van near a bank of newspaper racks. Marks saw police cruisers block the van and said he watched as officers calmly approached the driver.

“I thought they were hassling some poor guy living in his vehicle,” Marks said. “It didn’t seem super-agitated.”

Marks, who lives in San Diego, said he didn’t realize he had witnessed the arrest of Orange County’s runaway inmates until later when he saw news crews near Haight and Stanyan streets.

Nayeri, 37, and Tieu, 20, spent their last minutes of freedom on a street corner teeming with hipsters, derelicts, dog walkers and skateboarders.

The third fugitive, Bac Tien Duong, 43, had surrendered to police Friday outside an auto repair shop in Santa Ana.

Saturday’s arrests ended an eight-day dragnet. Nearly 250 investigators fanned across Southern California, rousting suspected gang members and arresting 11 people, including a teacher who befriended Nayeri at the jail and is now accused of aiding the escape.

Hutchens said she went to bed each night hoping to get a call at 2 a.m. to say the inmates had been caught.

The sheriff, smiling after a week of grim determination, praised investigators who didn’t go home at night. For the past week, the Sheriff’s Department led a search team that included U.S. marshals, the FBI, the District Attorney’s Office and police departments from Garden Grove, Westminster, Yorba Linda, San Clemente and beyond.

The Sheriff’s Department stoked media coverage, holding daily news conferences with updated pictures of the three inmates and the white utility van investigators say the fugitives stole in Los Angeles. On Friday, sheriff’s Capt. Jeff Hallock looked in the camera and spoke directly to the escapees: “We’re coming after you.”

Along with the Register’s coverage, CNN, Fox News, “Good Morning America,” local television, Vietnamese newspapers and consistent updates on the Sheriff’s Department Twitter account kept the story alive.

“I told you we were going to capture these individuals,” Hutchens said Saturday. “I have witnessed fantastic police work.”

The Sheriff’s Department repeatedly asked for the public’s help to find the three escapees they described as desperate and dangerous.

Nayeri, who served in the Marines and who investigators said was the mastermind of the escape, is charged with kidnapping and torture. Tieu is charged in connection with a gang slaying. Duong is charged with attempted murder after a November shooting in Santa Ana.

Nayeri was a particular concern for investigators, both for the viciousness of the crimes he is accused of committing and for his history of evading law enforcement.

In 2005, Nayeri fled to Washington, D.C., after a hit-and-run accident that killed a friend and a passenger. In 2012, shortly after being arrested in connection with the kidnapping and torture of a Newport Beach medical marijuana dispensary owner, Nayeri jumped bail and fled to Iran. He was caught in Prague a year later.

Investigators focused much of their efforts on the Vietnamese community. Investigators said Duong and Tieu had connections to Asian gangs operating in that area.

Hutchens, along with Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do, visited Westminster’s Little Saigon’s media row to directly appeal to the community.

All 10 detectives in the Westminster Police Department joined the manhunt in the city’s large Vietnamese community, Cmdr. Cameron Knauerhaze said Saturday.

“We were rotating them in and out to get them rest,” Knauerhaze said. “Vietnamese officers who have expertise and were very instrumental to help the Sheriff’s Department sort through different leads. We wore out a little shoe leather.”

The Westminster department’s command staff also hit the streets, passing out fliers, meeting with residents and gathering information.

“We are on edge as a community not knowing where these guys would pop up, so it was important to exhaust all leads,” Knauerhaze said.

At the same time, SWAT teams concentrated on the area’s gangs, carrying out a series of raids and picking up people with suspected gang ties. The Sheriff’s Department announced 11 arrests, but did not name any of those detained – except for an ESL teacher from Lake Forest who tutored Nayeri in the jail.

That was the first announced break in the case. Nooshafarin Ravaghi is accused of supplying Nayeri with a Google Earth map of the jail’s roof.

The Sheriff’s Department now shifts its focus to investigate how the men escaped and how security procedures can be improved.

The Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs late Saturday released a statement about a change in personnel, saying a lieutenant has taken command of the Central Men’s Jail. A day earlier, union officials criticized jail leaders, claiming they hadn’t listened to the rank-and-file’s earlier concerns about how inmate counts were carried out behind bars.

Hutchens said no command staff change had been made.

Saavedra reported from San Francisco; Emery, Schwebke and Sharon reported from Orange County.

Contact the writer: tsaavedra@ocregister.com

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