Sometime before dawn on Jan. 22, three inmates stood on the roof of the Orange County Central Men’s Jail in downtown Santa Ana. At some previous time—the exact moment is unclear—they had cut their way through a thin metal screen on the wall of the low-security dormitory where they were being housed, crawled through a plumbing tunnel, and finally pushed aside a roll of barbed wire. After dropping a makeshift rope over the side of the building, they rappelled to the ground and disappeared.
A weeklong manhunt—the largest such operation in recent Orange County history—failed to locate the escapees: Hossein Nayeri, Jonathan Tieu and Bac Tien Duong. Authorities finally got a break on Jan. 29, when Duong turned himself in and told police that Tieu and Nayeri were driving a white van in Northern California. A day later, San Francisco police found the van, which was parked near a Whole Foods, and finally nabbed Nayeri and Tieu, who were escorted back to the jail the following morning.
At a press conference, broadcast live on CNN, shortly after Nayeri and Tieu were recaptured, OC Sheriff Sandra Hutchens declared, “The entire state can breathe a sigh of relief.” Yet as Hutchens surely knows, despite the happy ending, the escape never should have happened. The fact that it did—as well as the details of how the three inmates were able to go unnoticed for 12 hours—their movements unrecorded by any security cameras—is an embarrassment of Chapo-esque proportions.
As sheriff’s department officials quickly conceded, there were only two body counts inside the jail: one at 5 a.m. and the other at 8 p.m. Knowing this, the inmates, who had already sawed their way through a grate using tools somehow smuggled into the facility by a friend (it remains unclear exactly how the tools got through jail security), wisely waited until just after the morning count to make their move, knowing they wouldn’t be missed until lights out, a full 15 hours later, which is exactly what happened.
Because there were no cameras observing their movements, guards never saw them sawing away at the grate or manufacturing a rope out of scavenged bedsheets or jail uniforms, much less pulling the metal plate aside and disappearing into the plumbing tunnel behind their dormitory. Their movements on the roof were similarly unobserved. Although sheriff’s officials released a blurry black-and-white video they claimed showed one of the inmates, the quality of the footage is so poor it is impossible to make out exactly what is happening.
Along with Weekly reporter R. Scott Moxley, I toured the facility in March 2010, part of a goodwill effort on behalf of OC sheriff’s officials eager to demonstrate that after years of scandals of prisoner abuse—in the 1990s, a lawsuit filed on behalf of African-American inmates alleged that a group of racist guards known as the Psycho Crew had been habitually beating up black prisoners—and a bruising grand jury investigation (more on that in a moment), the agency finally had its act together. As I would later report in a feature story probing a series of inmate deaths and suicides inside Orange County jails (see “Who’ll Stop the Pain?,” Jan. 21, 2011), within hours of that tour, an inmate suffering a painful staph infection who was left alone in her medical ward cell for several hours had hung herself—an incident jail officials tried to keep secret for a week. By the time my feature story appeared less than a year later, eight more inmates had perished, including some under mysterious circumstances that were never fully explained in official reports.
The most embarrassing scandal to involve Orange County’s jail system stems from an incident that occurred at the Theo Lacy Jail in Orange, where, on Oct. 5, 2006, dozens of inmates savagely assaulted John Chamberlain, a software engineer arrested on child pornography charges. Over the course of nearly an hour, the inmates lined up in full view of a guard tower to punch, kick and stomp Chamberlain to death. (Several inmates were convicted of his murder; they claimed that jail guards had told them Chamberlain was a child molester and hinted they’d be rewarded with sack lunches if they attacked him.) A subsequent investigation revealed the guards were watching television and sending text messages during the attack, and shortly after it took place, deputies had destroyed a videotape that might have recorded the assault.
The area where Chamberlain was murdered at Theo Lacy was a wide-open, crowded dormitory where inmates could easily move from one “cube,” or doorless room full of bunkbeds, to another. The same goes for the area inside the Men’s Jail, from which the inmates recently made their escape. Although sheriff’s officials claim the jail is “maximum security,” Nayeri, Tieu and Duong were free to move through wide areas of the facility during any given day, interacting with other inmates at will—and these men were hardly nonviolent offenders. In fact, their charges range from kidnapping and torture to attempted and actual murder.
Nayeri arguably should have been locked up in a single-person maximum security cell. His alleged crime? Kidnapping a wealthy marijuana-dispensary owner, torturing him with a blowtorch, cutting off the man’s penis and dousing him with bleach, then dumping him in the desert and driving off with the victim’s manhood. “Oh, my god, they let Hannibal Lecter out!” Heather Brown, the prosecutor in Nayeri’s upcoming trial, told the Orange County Register upon learning of his escape. (After all three inmates were recaptured, it emerged they had kidnapped a taxi driver whom Nayeri wanted to murder; by deciding to turn himself in and take the cabbie with him back to Orange County, Duong likely saved the man’s life.)
Chamberlain’s murder highlighted not only the indifference, if not encouragement, of inmate abuse by guards, but also the lax nature of security inside the facilities, which contain numerous so-called “blind spots” where attacks, often allegedly carried out by guards themselves, could take place outside the view of cameras (see “Blind Spot,” March 30, 2007). Yet as a 2011-2012 Orange County grand jury report found, five years after Chamberlain’s death, few steps had been taken to increase video surveillance that might help increase inmate security. “Video-surveillance systems in many of the county facilities are antiquated analog-type systems offering poor quality and performance,” the report states. “The sheriff should place a high priority on upgrading video-surveillance systems in the county jail system so that all units are protected by high-quality digital-monitoring systems providing maximum area coverage to improve the safety of inmates, staff and visitors.”
That report is itself already 5 years old, yet almost none of the grand jury’s recommendations have been met. There were no functioning cameras in the area from which the three inmates escaped, and the few working cameras that are set up inside the jail are apparently for recording purposes only, not real-time monitoring, and rely on decades-old VHS technology. “We ran out of tapes,” a jail spokesperson feebly told the Register this week. “We have to order them from China.”
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).