ORANGE COUNTY, California — With three dangerous jail escapees still on the loose, the anxiety in parts of Southern California is growing.
“I’m scared because these people are dangerous, and they may grab you or try to take your car,” said a woman in the city of Westminster who would only identify herself as Carmen. “You just don’t know what they are going to do.”
About 10 miles east, Santa Ana gas station employee Mike Murched waited nervously for news about the fugitives, who escaped 3 miles from his store. He’s heard customers talk about their fears since the inmates broke out Friday.
“They tell me it’s scary,” he said. “They tell me, ‘We don’t feel safe.'”
Last month, Murched was robbed at gunpoint, prompting him to close the doors at 9 p.m. instead of midnight. Now, he’s worried about violence from the escapees — “not just for me, but for my kids.”
The fugitives who vanished from Orange County’s Central Men’s Jail are accused of murder, attempted murder and torture. So far, police are stumped as to where they might be.
But not everyone in Southern California appears worried.
On Monday, a father played with his two young children on the vast lawn outside the Central Men’s Jail.
And the fugitives haven’t stopped nearby residents from going out at night.
“I’m not scared to be out and about in Santa Ana. I still feel safe,” bartender Ricky Zollinger said. “It’s probably because just like any city, we have our good and our bad parts. The level of danger is already there.”
He said some of his customers at The Olde Ship British Pub and Restaurant have casually mentioned the escape, but don’t seem too alarmed.
Zollinger said he doubts the fugitives will show their faces in public.
“I think that if they’ve broken out of jail, the last thing they’ll do is try to draw attention to themselves.”
Murder, torture and attempted murder charges
Authorities described the fugitives as a trio of extremely dangerous men.
Hossein Nayeri, 37, allegedly abducted a man in 2012, poured bleach on him, set the victim on fire, severed his penis and dumped him in the desert along with a woman who was unharmed. The man survived, Orange County Lt. Dave Sawyer said.
After being charged with five felonies in that case, Nayeri allegedly fled to Iran and was arrested at an airport in the Czech Republic in November 2013 while traveling to Spain, authorities said. He was extradited to the United States 10 months later.
Jonathan Tieu, 20, is charged with murder and attempted murder in a gang-related attack. Authorities say he is a documented member of a Vietnamese gang.
Officials said 43-year-old Bac Tien Duong, who faces attempted murder charges, also has Vietnamese gang affiliations.
Authorities are offering a $200,000 reward for information leading to the fugitives’ capture.
Bounty hunter Zeke Unger said he believes that at some point, the fugitives may have to commit crimes: “a carjacking, a home invasion, a robbery — some way that they can gain income in order to keep on the move.”
Maximum security breached
On the surface, the Central Men’s Jail may seem like an unlikely place to have a breach. The barren-looking facility houses more than 1,000 sentenced and pretrial maximum security inmates.
But it has had plenty of escapes.
Within five days of the jail’s opening in 1968, an inmate escaped by wiggling under loose mesh wire and using a garden hose to climb from the roof, the Orange County Register reported.
Months later, two others escaped using the same unrepaired opening, the newspaper said.
In 1983, an inmate escaped by cutting through the chain-link roof cage and sliding down bedsheets, the Register reported. The fencing was reinforced.
In 1988, five inmates climbed over reinforced fencing, cut through wire and used braided sheets to rappel down the building, according to the Register. While four escaped, the fifth was caught after breaking his leg in the attempt.
A ‘very sophisticated escape’
In some ways, last week’s jailbreak evokes memories of one last year nearly 3,000 miles away, in upstate New York. That’s where convicted murderers Matthew Sweat and Richard Matt used hacksaws to cut through cell walls and a steam pipe inside the Clinton Correctional Facility, then flee to freedom — until a border patrol agent killed Matt and Sweat was recaptured.
Like that one, Orange County Sheriff’s Lt. Jeff Hallock said what happened in Santa Ana was “a very sophisticated escape.”
“They cut through a quarter-inch metal plate,” he said. “They crawled through unsecured plumbing tunnels to the roof. They cut through steel rebar.”
After that, the trio used sheets braided into ropes to rappel down four to five stories, about 50 feet, he said.
There were two head counts conducted the day the three escaped, one at 5 a.m. and the second at 8 p.m., Hallock said.
“We think they escaped after the 5 a.m. head count,” Hallock said. Sometime around 8 p.m. there was a fight, which authorities suspect was staged to distract and delay the second head count.
There are three other counts during a typical day where staff count bodies and compare to a paper record. The two head counts involve identifying inmates through photos.
At a Tuesday afternoon media briefing, Hallock expressed Sheriff Sandra Hutchens’ dismay over the incident.
“The sheriff is extremely troubled by the length of time it took to determine that the three inmates, housed in a maximum security jail, were unaccounted for,” Hallock said.
The inmates were housed in an area with about 60 other inmates, Hallock said, but it’s unclear whether other prisoners saw the men escape.
A retired FBI supervisory special agent said he had no doubt the fugitives had assistance.
“These guys had to have help to begin with to get out of the place,” Steve Moore said. “The same people who helped them up to that point are going to help them later. And so they probably had someone waiting.”