LOS ANGELES — It was a daring and elaborate escape: cutting through metal, crawling through plumbing tunnels, climbing a roof, rappelling four stories to freedom using ropes made from bedsheets.
But this wasn’t a Hollywood movie: It was a real-life breakout that left authorities struggling to find three escapees one a suspected killer and put together the pieces of how they managed to escape a Southern California maximum-security jail.
The priority was finding the men — who are possibly armed and considered dangerous — but a probe also is under way to see whether the men had any help from inside or outside the Orange County Men’s Central Jail, authorities said Sunday.
Jonathan Tieu, 20, Bac Duong, 43, and Hossein Nayeri, 37, were all awaiting trial for violent crimes in unconnected cases.
They vanished from a dormitory they shared with around 65 other men on Friday shortly after the 5 a.m. inmate head count, county sheriff’s officials said.
Somehow, the men obtained tools that allowed them to cut through the quarter-inch-thick grill on a dormitory wall, then got into plumbing tunnels. Cutting their way through additional half-inch-thick steel bars, the trio made their way to an unguarded area of the roof of the four-story building, where they apparently moved aside some razor wire and rappelled to the ground using elaborately braided ropes made from linens, authorities said.
The escape wasn’t noticed for 16 hours, until a nighttime head count that was delayed about an hour because of a fight involving some other inmates that may — or may not — have been part of the escape plan.
Clearly, the plan had been long in the making and carefully thought out, sheriff’s Lt. Jeff Hallock said.
“We’re talking about breaching, in some places, significant amounts of steel, rebar and metal,” Hallock said.
As federal and local authorities staged an around-the-clock manhunt, there remained a lot of questions about the escape itself. How did the men get the cutting tools? When did they make the rope and where did they stash it? How did they know the jail layout so well? Did they have outside help, maybe a car waiting after they ran off on foot in their orange jail jumpsuits?
And perhaps most important: Did other inmates or jail employees help them?
“We’re going to take a look at everybody who may have been assigned there,” Hallock said. “What I can assure you is that the compromises in security have been shored up.”
He didn’t provide details.
“Escapes do occur from time to time,” Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said. “We try and limit that. We learn from the mistakes. I can tell you that this is a very sophisticated-looking operation. People in jail have a lot of time to sit around and think about ways to defeat our systems.”
There had been two previous escapes from the jail but they were decades ago. In fact, nobody had managed it in more than 20 years.
But the aging jail, built in 1968 and housing some 900 men, does have some vulnerabilities. Its design allows inmates to move through different areas more easily than more modern jails.
And inmates do move, which makes it difficult to get daytime head counts.
“We have people going to court, we have people going for medical treatment, and you can’t leave them locked down 24 hours a day. There are requirements that they get out and exercise from time to time,” Hutchens said.
The inmates include 20-year-old Jonathan Tieu, who had been held on a $1 million bond since October 2013 on charges of murder, attempted murder and shooting at an inhabited dwelling.
His case is believed to be gang-related.
On Sunday, his mother and sister said they hadn’t heard from him and tearfully pleaded for him to surrender.
“I miss you … I want my son back,” his mother, Lu Ann Nguyen of Santa Ana, told KABC-TV.
“I for sure know he wasn’t the one who orchestrated this. I feel he was manipulated or tricked into doing this,” said his sister, Tiffany Tieu.
“Just turn yourself in. Don’t let (it) drag on,” she said.
Hossein Nayeri, 37, had been held without bond since September 2014 on charges of kidnapping, torture, aggravated mayhem and burglary. Nayeri and three other men are accused of kidnapping a California marijuana dispensary owner in 2012. They drove the dispensary owner to a desert spot where they believed he had hidden money and then cut off his penis, authorities said.
After the crime, Nayeri fled the US to his native Iran, where he remained for several months. He was arrested in Prague in November 2014 while changing flights from Iran to Spain to visit family.
The third escaped inmate, 43-year-old Bac Duong, was being held without bond since last month on charges including attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon and others.
While the Mexican border is only a couple of hours south of the prison, authorities said they had no evidence that the men had left the country. Their alleged victims, as well as prosecutors and detectives involved in their cases, have been warned and investigators also are reaching out to their family and acquaintances.
Federal authorities are offering $50,000 in rewards for information leading to their recapture.
“There’s people out there that know who these people are, who may have seen them. We’re asking for phone calls, whether it’s any piece of information you may have,” Hallock said.
“We’re exhausting every lead that we currently have,” he said.