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Hossein Nayeri testifies in Orange County Superior Court on Monday, March 13, 2023. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Hossein Nayeri testifies in Orange County Superior Court on Monday, March 13, 2023. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

An Orange County Superior Court jury has determined that the accused mastermind of a daring 2016 jailbreak in Santa Ana that grabbed national headlines was guilty of the escape and stealing a van but not of kidnapping a taxi driver while on the lam.

Hossein Nayeri, 44, already had publicly admitted to taking part in the brazen break-out from the Central Jail Complex and even recorded the escape on a smuggled-in cellphone . An intense week-long manhunt ended with Nayeri and his two accused fellow escapees back in custody.

Nayeri, however, had denied abducting the taxi driver, instead alleging that the driver agreed to help Nayeri and his fellow escapees elude the massive law enforcement dragnet in return for a $10,000 payout.

The jury deliberated for less than four hours before reaching its verdict on Thursday afternoon. Nayeri appeared to tear up as the verdict was read, and wiped his eyes as he watched the jurors leave the courtroom.

Nayeri now faces up to an additional two years and eight months in prison when he returns to court for sentencing on March 24. But the former Newport Beach pot grower and one-time international fugitive is already serving multiple life terms of life without parole for his role in one of the most violent and shocking crimes in recent Orange County memory.

Deputy District Attorney David McMurrin, left, and Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer and hold a press conference following the verdict in the case against Hossein Nayeri at Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana on Thursday, March 16, 2023. Nayeri was convicted of masterminding of the 2016 Orange County jailbreak. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Deputy District Attorney David McMurrin, left, and Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer and hold a press conference following the verdict in the case against Hossein Nayeri at Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana on Thursday, March 16, 2023. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

District Attorney Todd Spitzer said he still opted to pursue the jail escape trial because he is concerned that the governor or state Legislature could change existing state law in a way that would reduce Nayeri’s existing life sentences. By convicting Nayeri for the jail escape, the DA said, a parole board would be able to consider that crime should they ever have to make a decision on whether he should be released.

“Mr. Nayeri, in my personal opinion, is one of America’s most dangerous criminals,” Spitzer said. “He is conniving, he is manipulative, and he is a mastermind. He knows how to get into people’s heads.”

In 2012, Nayeri and two high school friends abducted and brutally tortured a marijuana dispensary owner they believed had buried a non-existent $1 million in the Mojave Desert. The man was beaten with plastic tubing, Tasered and injured with a blowtorch before his penis was cut off and he was left bounded in the desert. A woman taken with him escaped and found a law enforcement officer, perhaps saving their lives. The missing body part was never recovered.

Nayeri fled to his native Iran, but was convinced by his then-wife — who Nayeri didn’t know was cooperating with police — to travel to another country where he could be arrested.

Once in custody at the Men’s Central Jail in Santa Ana, Nayeri teamed up with other inmates — including his eventual fellow escapees Bac Tien Duong and Jonathan Tieu — to carry out a daring jailbreak. Much of the preparation and eventual escape was filmed by Nayeri on a smuggled cell phone.

“He planned the escape,” Deputy District Attorney David McMurrin told jurors about Nayeri. “He was running the show. He was the brains behind it. He was proud about it. He bragged about it. This was something he wanted to document and keep forever.”

Over more than six months, the inmates cut through half-inch steel bars in order to access plumbing tunnels, then used makeshift ropes made of bedsheets to access the roof of the jail several times in order to pull up extra supplies — including actual ropes and cell phones — that a friend of Duong’s brought to the outside of the facility. In the early-morning hours of Jan. 22, 2016, the three men used the ropes to rappel down the five story

Prosecutors alleged that Nayeri and the other escapees were initially picked up by a friend of Duong’s before they got ahold of Long Ma , an independent taxi drive who testified to driving them to Rosemead, where he has said they pulled a gun on him.

Ma testified that the escapees held him against his will for five days as they moved from a series of hotels in Rosemead and San Jose. By the time the group moved to the Bay Area they were traveling in Ma’s vehicle and a van Duong had stolen in Los Angeles. Prosecutors said Nayeri eventually got into a physical altercation with Duong over whether to kill the taxi driver. Ma credited Duong with saving his life.

The prosecutor argued that Nayeri masterminded not only the escape, but also the efforts to evade re-capture. The men needed Ma, the prosecutor said, since along with a vehicle he had an ID that could be used to check them into hotel rooms and to collect money orders, including cash that Nayeri’s grandmother wired from Iran.

“(Nayeri) is constantly thinking about what the plan is and what is next, because he does not want to get caught,” McMurrin told jurors. “It wasn’t just about getting out. They needed to stay out. And they were going to do whatever they needed to stay out.”

During his own testimony, Nayeri said his original plan — which he described as having another man pick him up outside the jail and bring him directly to LAX with a passport and plane ticket to Turkey — fell apart when his ride didn’t show up the night of the escape. After that, Nayeri said he had no choice but to stick with Duong and Tieu.

Nayeri said Duong already knew Ma somehow, and alleged that the taxi driver agreed to drive them and find them places to stay in return for $10,000, half of which Nayeri claimed they paid him. Nayeri alleged that the trip to the Bay Area was so Ma could talk to family members to see if they could house the escapees.

Defense attorney Michael Goldfeder noted that the taxi driver’s testimony during Nayeri’s trial at times contradicted things he had said during a previous trial and in interviews with police, including his description of the handgun the escapees had allegedly pulled on him and who had held the weapon.

“Facts change, ladies and gentleman, when people aren’t telling the truth because they can’t remember what they said,” Goldfeder said. “He was a willing participant. He is part of the crew for a lack of a better word.”

Nayeri testified that his fight with Duong was not over the fate of the taxi driver, but over his frustration at learning that Duong had stolen the van in Los Angeles rather than just paying for it, bringing additional attention on them. The driver didn’t escape with Duong, the defense attorney said, but instead chose to leave after realizing that by helping turn Duong in he could make more money by collecting a reward for the capture of the escapees that had risen to $200,000.

“He could make more money claiming he was a victim,” Goldfeder said.

The defense attorney noted after the verdict that the kidnapping charge Nayeri was acquitted of carried the most serious sentence, a potential life term, and said he believed the jury had reached the “proper decision.”

“I think it is nice to know the justice system works,” Goldfeder said.

Duong has already been convicted for his role in the escape. Tieu is awaiting trial.

After the verdict, Spitzer noted that the county has spent millions of dollars retrofitting infrastructure within the Men’s Central Jail since the escape, including work meant to prevent inmates from being able to get onto the roof of the facility from inside the plumbing corridors that the escapees were able to access.