How an unsuspecting cabbie found himself at the centre of a daring, dangerous crime.
HOW ONE MAN DROVE INTO THE CENTRE OF A DARING AND DANGEROUS CRIME.
“Take us to Walmart,” said the man who settled into the passenger seat – and this was the second signal that something was off. Ma recognised the man’s voice as the one who’d called for the cab, telling Ma that he and his friends had needed a ride home. His name was Bac Duong and he spoke to Ma in Vietnamese – their shared native language – and wore on his thin and weary face a salt-and-pepper goatee. It was 9.30pm, and now they wanted to go shopping. What happened to going home? Ma wondered. In the rear-view mirror, Ma could see Duong’s friends, quiet in the backseat: Jonathan Tieu, a pimply 20-year-old, and Hossein Nayeri, a 37-year-old athletic Persian with an air of insouciance. Ma said nothing, just plotted a course through the outlays of Orange County. Ma had moved to greater Los Angeles’s Little Saigon four years ago, after a painful divorce, taking a room at a boarding house and starting a new life as a self-employed cabbie. He never bothered to get his car – a worn Honda Civic – registered for commercial use. He didn’t see the point. Little Saigon had always felt to him like a place that enforced its own rules, and so he lived by an old Vietnamese proverb: The king’s rule ends at the village gate. He was 71, and in more ways than one, he was on his own. The work had a way of easing the loneliness he felt. At Walmart, Ma dropped the men off at the door and was asked to wait. But soon 43-year-old Duong and the others wandered back to the car. They needed to go to a Target in Rosemead instead, they told Ma. As Ma began to protest – the store was 45 minutes away – Duong reassured him. “Look, we’ll pay you $100 extra.” “Fine,” said Ma. Once at Target, the men were inside a long time. Ma had no way of knowing what they were doing in there – that they were desperate for phones, clothes, and some semblance of a plan. For all their casual silence since getting picked up, the three men had grown impatient. The night was ticking away. Outside, Ma was trying hard not to be frustrated, too. He paced to the far end of the deserted parking lot, a slim Vietnamese cigarette between his fingers. He had been asleep when Duong had called and he hadn’t bothered changing out of his pyjamas. This was supposed to be just a quick ride, he thought. What was going on in there? It was after 11.30pm when they emerged, and as they found their seats in the car, Duong seemed to sense the driver’s agitation. “My mum’s place is right around here,” he lied. “Take us there, please.” The streets were dark and quiet, and after
THEY WORE NO COATS. THEY JUST SHIVERED IN THE CRISP NIGHT AIR. TO THE CAB DRIVER WHO SLOWED TO STUDY THE THREE MEN WHO’D CALLED FOR A RIDE, THIS SEEMED STRANGE. IT WAS JANUARY IN SANTA ANA, CALIFORNIA AND THE TEMPERATURE HAD DIPPED TO 10 DEGREES. YET THESE MEN ONLY WORE COLLARED SHIRTS. AS THEY PILED INTO LONG MA’S CAR, THE DRIVER FILED THAT DETAIL AWAY.
a few minutes, Duong motioned to a coffee shop that anchored a mangy strip mall. “Pull in here,” he said. Ma realised this was no home, but he reluctantly complied. As Ma parked, Duong twisted around and locked eyes with Tieu in the back seat. Duong spoke in English, “Give me the gun.” Ma flinched. His eyes darted to the mirror, and he watched with panic as Tieu handed Duong a pistol. A moment later, Duong had it pointed at Ma and told the driver, calmly, in Vietnamese, “We need your help.”
Ma’s mind raced. “Please, just take what you want,” Ma told Duong, his heart drumming in his ribs. Duong flashed him an odd look. “No, you need to come with us,” said Duong. “Get out of the car.” The men patted the driver down and placed him in the backseat, where Tieu trained the gun on Ma’s stomach. Nayeri jumped behind the wheel, and they set out for a nearby motel. By the time they arrived, Ma was convinced he was going to die – he just didn’t know how or when. Inside a cramped room, he watched as his captors pulled clothes and cell phones from their shopping bags. The men were growing tired now, it was clear. He watched as Nayeri, who he suspected was the group’s ringleader, splayed out on one of the two beds. Ma was ordered to double up with Duong on the other as Tieu curled up on the floor near the door, resting the gun carefully under his pillow. For Ma, there was no escape and, with all the dread he felt, no easy way to fall asleep. In the morning, as the sun broke through the curtains, the old man felt Duong roll over and grab for the remote. He clicked it and the TV came alive with breaking news of a daring prison escape. “Hey,” Duong shouted, “that’s us!”
Mug shots filled the screen. A massive manhunt, Ma now learnt, was underway for the three guys he was watching sit up in bed. They were riveted as the broadcasters ran through the litany of alleged crimes that had put them in jail – murder, attempted murder, kidnapping and torture. They hooted and marvelled at their own images on TV, their instant fame. The scheme that had won them their freedom had clicked into motion a day earlier in the last moments before dawn. That was when Duong – sprawled on a bunk in the open-floor dormitory of the Orange County Jail’s Module F – had watched the guard finish his 5am head count. In the months that the three men had been formulating an escape plan, a series of factors inside the jail had been tilting the odds of success in their favour. According to a lawsuit later filed on behalf of jail guards, the facility had grown overburdened and insufficiently staffed. Duong had allegedly exploited this, tapping criminal contacts on the outside to help him acquire contraband tools that could be useful in an escape. Gathering intel had been easier than it should have been, too. Months earlier, Nayeri had met a college instructor, a woman named Nooshafarin Ravaghi, who visited the jail to teach English. She spoke four languages and had authored a series of children’s books about a girl discovering her Persian roots. When the Iranian-born Nayeri began attending her class, the two grew friendly. She seemed to respond to his persuasive charm, because one day she passed him something he’d needed – a printout from Google Earth that showed a satellite image of the jail’s roof, one floor above Module F. On the day of their escape, Duong watched as the guard finished his count. He gathered the knives and other sharp tools he’d been hoarding and shuffled to the rear of the housing block where Nayeri and Tieu waited for him. There, behind a bunk bed, was the metal grate they knew could lead to freedom. In no time, the three used their tools to work the grate loose. The trio quickly bellied through the hole to reach the jail’s innards. Surrounded by pipes and wiring, they crouched low and inched along a metal walkway until it dead-ended against a wall. There, they looked up. In the gloom, suspended 12 feet above them, they could see their salvation – a ventilation shaft that ran to the jail’s roof. Using pipes, they shinnied skyward. After sawing off the bars that sealed the shaft, they shouldered their way into the cramped ductwork. They moved upward on hands and knees towards a trapdoor. With a hard push, they got the thing open and felt on their faces the rush of cold, fresh air. They were on the roof now and made a quick dash to the building’s northeast corner. There, they cut through concertina wire and unfurled a makeshift rope they’d fashioned from bed sheets. Fastening one end of the line to the building, they tested its strength and peered over the edge of the roof, four storeys to the ground. When the last of their feet touched the dewy grass outside the jail, the men still had more than a half hour before the sun rose. No alarms sounded; no lights swept the exterior. They’d done it. They were out. The fugitives allegedly first visited a friend of Duong’s, hoping he would give them enough cash to leave the country. Nayeri had thought he could spirit the group to Tehran. But Duong’s pal could give them only $900. So, Tieu contacted what police later surmised were members of his Little Saigon gang. A security camera outside a deli recorded what appeared to be a hasty mid-morning rendezvous. But whatever money Tieu may have received wasn’t enough to get them far. At 9pm, the escapees were still in Santa Ana, eating at a Vietnamese restaurant a few kilometres from the jail. They needed to put distance between themselves and their predicament, which meant they needed a car. Stealing one would be risky and require expertise they didn’t have. But what if they took a driver hostage? The only trick would be luring someone close. Duong dialled a cab service that advertised in the local Vietnamese newspaper. Long Ma answered the call. As the men in the motel studied the television, Ma was introduced to his captors by their rap sheets. Tieu had taken part in a drive-by shooting that left one universityage kid dead; Duong had shot a man in the chest after an argument. And Nayeri, well, Nayeri was plenty notorious. Four years earlier, acting on a hunch that the owner of a marijuana dispensary had buried US$1M ($1.34m) in the Mojave Desert, Nayeri had alegedly snatched the guy and his girlfriend and driven them to the spot where the loot was thought to be hidden. There, he and his crew shocked the man with a Taser, burnt him with a butane torch, poured bleach on his wounds, and severed his penis in a failed attempt to locate the cash. After the man assured Nayeri there was no buried money, he was left out there to die. (His girlfriend found help and saved his life.) In the motel room, the escapees seemed to realise that the media attention was problematic. Spooked, perhaps, by the prospect that Ma’s disappearance had been noticed, they decided they needed a second vehicle – and now, with their photos everywhere, they also needed to mask their appearance. They hauled Ma out into the parking lot. He was again ordered into the back seat, where Tieu steadied the gun on him. He was afraid and unsure what would happen next – it was a mix of dread and confusion he hadn’t felt in 40 years. Ma had been a lieutenant colonel in the South Vietnamese Army during the war. At night, he would venture with the Americans in search of Viet Cong guerrillas – the ones who, by day, shelled his base, hard against the Cambodian mountains. After the war, after the Americans fled, Ma then endured a second horror as a captive, held for seven long years in a Communist forced-labour camp. “You are an especially stubborn case!” one Communist official
would shout before clubbing him with the butt of a rifle. All these decades later, Ma could still trace with his finger the scar just beneath his hairline. He’d survived, while others had not. But time can weaken resolve, and as an old man with a gun to his belly, too frail to fight, too tired to resist, Ma thought he would surely die. As they drove towards Los Angeles, his captors said nothing, which frightened him even more. Earlier that morning, the escapees had found a van for sale on Craigslist. Duong figured he could take the vehicle for a test spin and then simply drive away. And so, on a quiet backstreet in LA, Nayeri slowed the Civic to a stop, and Duong got out and disappeared around the block. Before long, he reappeared with a white van. After the theft, the day took on a surreal veneer of suburban normalcy. The fugitives went shopping at clothing store Ross Dress for Less; they visited a hair salon. The three escapees each altered his appearance – none more than Duong, who had his goatee shaved and his hair dyed black and cut into an army-issue high-and-tight. When they left the salon, Nayeri and Tieu took the van. Duong and Ma got into the Civic, and here, alone in the car – away from Nayeri and Tieu – Duong’s personality changed, just as completely as he’d changed his appearance. During the drive back towards Rosemead, he became relaxed and even chatty with Ma, asking about the cabbie’s life in their native Vietnamese. At one point, he even called Ma “Uncle”, a term of endearment that implied respect for the old man. Ma, unable to shake his suspicions, didn’t know what to make of this. Duong steered the Civic towards the Flamingo Inn, a motel where rooms are rented by the week. Nayeri and Tieu were waiting in the parking lot. They sent Ma to the front desk, where he registered room 116 in his own name. From the liquor store across the street, the escapees bought a case of Bud Light and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. Deep into the night, they laughed and drank and smoked cigarettes, while on television the anchors said that the reward for information leading to their arrest had increased from $29,000 to $67,000.
Sunday dawned and something wasn’t
right. Nayeri seemed more distant than usual. They drank and talked in urgent tones that Ma, with his limited English, couldn’t always understand. They seemed eager to go someplace, but no one headed for the door. At one point, Ma watched a discussion grow heated. The gist of the debate eluded him, but the truth was the men were already low on cash. Worse, they’d only made it to Rosemead. They realised that the media sensation of the jailbreak, while gratifying – they were famous now – also served to confine them with each passing hour. Outside it grew darker. Another day was slipping away. At 6pm, a local television station aired a bombshell report, an interview with the mother and sister of Tieu. Lu Ann Nguyen, his taut and tiny mother, stood near a row of bushes in a public park and heaved for air. “Jonathan, I miss you and I want…” Nguyen shook her head from the pain, sobbing in broken English – “and I want you to be … I want my son back. Jonathan, please!” His 18-year-old sister, Tiffany Tieu, at one point looked directly into the camera. “Please,” said Tiffany, crying, “just turn yourself in. Don’t let this drag on!” In the motel room, there was a sombre silence as Tieu seemed to grasp the ramifications of his escape. He’d always wanted to be the good boy; he was a solid student before he found trouble with the police. Now he’d caused his family new and searing pain. Tears welled in his eyes and fell upon his cheeks. Maybe it was the news report, or maybe it was everything combined – too much booze, too little cash – but Nayeri soon began yelling at Duong. The room became loud and tense and small. Ma sensed that the argument concerned him. He’d begun to consider what the men must have realised themselves – if they killed the driver now, they could make a cleaner escape. Nayeri had no more use for a hostage, and Ma watched as Nayeri pointed in his direction and shouted, “Boom-boom, old man!” At that, Duong stepped into Nayeri’s face and then took him to the ground. They struggled for a moment, and Nayeri, who had wrestled at high school in Fresno, ended up on top. With a punch to Duong’s face, he ended the fight. As he climbed off, Nayeri stared hard at the cab driver. But for whatever reason, he didn’t make for the gun. By night’s end, the weapon rested with Tieu, under the kid’s pillow by the door. Its whereabouts consumed Ma as he tried again to sleep.
“Uncle, go take a shower.” Duong motioned to the bathroom Monday morning, but Ma shook his head no. He still wore his pyjamas from Friday night and had not bathed since picking up the escapees. I’m dead already, Ma told himself. Duong shot him a concerned look, and as Ma stared blankly back, the old man wondered what to make of him. Last night, had Duong been protecting Ma? Or merely himself? Did he care for Ma, or did he simply fear that the blast of a gun and a dead body on the carpet might hasten his capture? Over the past couple of days, Duong had seemed to take an interest in Ma’s wellbeing. But Ma was leery, all too aware that it was Duong who had been the first to point the gun at him. For all Ma knew, Duong was playing an angle the other inmates didn’t see. As always in the US, the hardest people for Ma to read were his fellow Vietnamese. He’d felt wronged by them so often in his life. When Ma had landed in California in 1992, with a wife and four kids, he’d struggled. The war and his time in the labour camp had placed him nearly two decades behind the first wave of immigrants who’d left Vietnam for the US after the war. For years he took menial jobs, and he’d later say that his siblings – dentists and pharmacists and white-collar success stories – who’d arrived earlier, made him feel ashamed of the life he had made. Money had always been tight, which exacerbated the arguments between Ma and his wife. He knew she was losing respect for him and knew that everyone in the family noticed it. Rather than suffer the indignity, Ma moved out one day, without explanation, from their home in San Diego. He found a little room in the Garden Grove boarding house and began a solitary existence as a driver, a choice that seemed to have led him here – as a hostage in a squalid motel room, wondering whether an accused killer actually cared for him. The escapees decided they needed to move north, and on Tuesday morning, they drove 560 kilometres to San Jose, where they found another motel. The tense journey exhausted Ma. And that night he began snoring so loudly that he woke Duong, lying beside him. But Duong didn’t elbow him awake. Instead, he slowly climbed out of bed, careful not to stir Ma, and curled up on the floor, so Uncle might rest more peacefully.
They needed cash. On Wednesday morning, they piled into the car and drove to a Western Union. Nayeri walked inside, and when he returned, he had $3000 on him – his mother, he said, had wired him the money. But the group didn’t set out for Mexico or Canada. They no longer harboured delusions about Iran, either. Nayeri had another plan in mind. He drove back to the motel, where he dropped off Duong and announced that he and Tieu needed to take Ma out for a while in the van. Out? thought Ma. Oh no. By the time they parked near the ocean in Santa Cruz, Ma’s imagination ran dark and unbridled – and not without justification. The day before, the Orange County Register had published a story in which Heather Brown, a deputy district attorney familiar with the torture charges against Nayeri,
described hearing about the jailbreak: “My first reaction was, ‘Oh, my God, they let Hannibal Lecter out.’” Brown added that Nayeri was “diabolical”. Ma figured he’d been driven to the beach to be executed. His stroll with Nayeri and Tieu began aimlessly – and because of that, it felt even more malevolent to Ma. Nayeri had them pose for pictures. With the ocean, the beach, and the pier as their backdrop, Nayeri acted as if they were friends. What is he doing, Ma wondered. And then... nothing. The three got into the van and drove back to the Alameda Motel. When they returned from the strange trip, grim news awaited. Five people had been arrested for aiding the prisoners before and after they’d fled. Police weren’t releasing any of the names, but the escapees began to wonder: Was it Tieu’s alleged gang associates? Duong’s connections? The English instructor with the map? How close were the cops? Their small room became claustrophobic. Ma watched Nayeri and Duong start shouting at each other – the noise loud and fast and visceral. Suddenly, Nayeri glanced at Ma and ran his index finger across his throat. In an instant, days of anger and anxiety broke, and Nayeri and Duong fell to a rolling heap. After thrashing on the floor, Nayeri manoeuvred his way atop Duong and landed a series of clean shots to the nose and jaw, one after another, the whole thing hard to watch. Satisfied, Nayeri pulled himself out of his rage. Each man gasped for air. Ma was too terrified to move. But Nayeri didn’t grab the gun and kill the cab driver. He didn’t haul the old man outside and, in the shadows of the motel, slit his throat. Nayeri simply retreated to a corner. For yet another night, the four men watched one another and, as they went to bed, stewed in the frustration that had filled the room. The news reports were no better the next morning – their sixth on the run. Law enforcement shared photos of the stolen van the men were driving. This rattled Nayeri and Tieu, who announced to Duong that they were leaving to have the van’s windows tinted and its license plates changed. When the door closed behind them, Duong – his face battered from the fight – turned quickly to Ma. “Uncle, we have to go,” said Duong in Vietnamese. “What?” Ma was leery of falling into a partnership with Duong. “We have to go now,” said Duong. Ma knew he didn’t have any other option. He nodded, and the two rushed to his car. They drove south. The horizon opened, and the fear of being noticed, or the panic of seeing the white van behind them, levelled into something more prosaic. The day felt like two men on a road trip, tyres humming along the highway. Ma was back behind the wheel, empowered but still uneasy. When Duong said to him, “Don’t be afraid, you’re not in danger anymore,” Ma sniggered to himself. We’ll see. He had understood enough of the news to piece together Duong’s criminal past – a 1995 burglary conviction in San Diego, four years after he became a US resident; twice pleading guilty to selling cocaine; stints in state prison; and then, in November 2015, the alleged attempted murder of a Santa Ana man after an argument. In spite of Duong’s past, this week there’d been another side on view – that of a flawed but compassionate man. Ma’d caught flashes of details, but not the full picture of Duong’s conflicted life. He didn’t realise how chronic drug dependency and what Duong’s friends saw as mental disorders had pushed him onto a criminal path – and he didn’t yet know that Duong was also the father of two boys, Peter and Benny, whom he always wanted to make happy. He lived for their smiles. Duong began to tell Ma that he regretted his misdeeds and hated how his crimes placed him outside society. That was the most painful thing – not being accepted. A few years ago, out of prison after serving a drug sentence, he’d asked a friend of a friend, Theresa Nguyen, to accompany him to his grandfather’s memorial service. She found the invite strangely intimate. But she understood it better when she walked in – his father wouldn’t speak to him. His mother later said she was ashamed of him. Duong, a discarded man, just wanted someone to stand by him. Another time, Duong asked Theresa and her husband, Tri, to go with him to his mother’s home – “Because I want her to know that I have normal friends, too,” he told her. He could never atone in his family’s eyes. Theresa began to get it, why Duong called her “Sister”. Why he phoned her the day her daughter graduated from college, another immigrant success story: “I’m proud of you, Sister.” He’d wanted so badly to make things right but kept getting so much wrong. That was what he recognised now – this was what he told Ma as they drove. As he sat there, next to a cab driver he’d kidnapped six days earlier, Duong’s eyes filled with tears. He had caused so much pain, brought such shame to the ones he loved. Ma listened, reticent but knowing that sometimes people need to be heard even more than consoled. Duong realised he should never have gone along with Nayeri. He was a monster, said Duong, and the allure of joining in Nayeri’s jailbreak had only trapped him once he made it to the outside. He told Ma that Nayeri’s plan had been to kill the driver on the beach. But for whatever reason, Nayeri didn’t go through with it. The brutal fight the night before had been over Ma, too. Duong said that Nayeri was adamant – if the driver were dead, the men would have no witnesses to their escape. But Duong couldn’t abide seeing the cab driver murdered – or suffering for Duong’s mistakes. Ma drove on, trying to absorb this. At last he said, “You should turn yourself in.” Duong didn’t baulk at the suggestion. He looked contrite, in need of some sort of absolution. He was grateful for the way Ma hadn’t judged him. He didn’t want to call Ma “Uncle” anymore, he said. Given the circumstances of the last week, Duong said he wanted to call Ma “Father”. The suggestion moved Ma, who understood the cultural obligation that came with the moniker – to call Duong “Son”. To trust him, to love him, even. This scared Ma. Life had taught him to be cautious around love. And yet when he looked at the damaged man next to him, his face bruised, his psyche scarred, he saw the good that the rest of the world failed to see. Continued on page 168.
MA WATCHED NAYERI AND DUONG START SHOUTING AT EACH OTHER – THE NOISE LOUD AND FAST... NAYERI GLANCED AT MA AND RAN HIS INDEX FINGER ACROSS HIS THROAT.
“Yes,” said Ma. “You can call me ‘Father’, and I will call you ‘Son’. ” A while later, they pulled up in front of an auto-repair shop in Santa Ana. As instructed, Ma slunk inside the garage while Duong sat in the car. The old man returned with a woman who put her head inside the vehicle. Duong started to cry, his face swollen and almost unrecognisable. “Sister,” he said to Theresa, “I’m tired.”
Months later, Ma picked me
up in his Civic. An interpreter and I drove with him through Little Saigon. As we talked, Ma told me how it had all ended. The day after Duong turned himself in, Ma spoke with the police about where the other two fugitives might be. The next day, a homeless man in San Francisco noticed a white van on Haight Street. Tieu was found inside the vehicle, and Nayeri bolted. Police tracked him down a few blocks away. The homeless man shared in the reward that had climbed to $269,000. For his part in the capture, Ma got nothing. (He’s since filed a suit claiming he deserves a portion of the reward, arguing that lax oversight at the jail led to his kidnapping.) He returned to his boarding room in Garden Grove. No one had even reported him missing. There were moments, Ma told me as we drove, when the awful memory of the ordeal came back to him in waves of anxiety. But still, he agreed to share his experiences, from which this story has been drawn. Nayeri and Tieu consented to jailhouse interviews as well, though there were many aspects of their week on the run that they’d neither confirm nor deny. They face new charges, including felony counts for kidnapping and car theft (each pleaded not guilty), and didn’t want to compromise themselves. “It’s a hell of a story,” admits Nayeri, in a surprisingly gentle voice. Despite their refusal to elaborate, a picture of each emerged through numerous pages of police and government reports I received, and the relatives and friends of theirs who talked with me, as well as the lawyers who represented them and the law-enforcement agents who pursued the men and those who helped them. (Three associates suspected of aiding the trio were charged with crimes. And for her part, Ravaghi, the English teacher who’d worked in the jail, was arrested but never charged with a crime.) Though Duong is now back in jail, Ma has stayed in touch. He has sent Duong books on Buddhism, to assuage his guilt. And while money has always been scarce for the cab driver, he’s put cash into Duong’s jail account. The two men have talked by phone, and Ma has even visited the man who’d kidnapped him. The last time he went, Ma watched through a glass partition as Duong, in an orange jumpsuit, bowed when they met. “Daddy Long!” said Duong, greeting his friend. Throughout their half-hour visit, the two men wept softly and spoke of the bond they had nurtured since their week on the run. They both felt so grateful, so surprised by the possibility of friendship. Ma, especially. Whatever he had expected on that cold night when he left his house in his pyjamas, it wasn’t this. Wherever he’d figured that trip might lead, it wasn’t here. Ma told me that as he grinned through the glass of the visitors’ room wall, he realised that Duong had saved his life, even redeemed his soul. “My son,” Ma said to Duong, “as long as you are still here, I will rescue you like you rescued me.”