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Southern California Authorities Continue Search For Escaped Inmates

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Authorities in Southern California are still searching for three inmates who escaped from a jail in Orange County on Friday. Police say the three men are violent and potentially dangerous, and there's now a $200,000 reward in the case. For more on this story, we're joined by Erika Aguilar. She's the Orange County reporter for member station KPCC. Let's start with the - first, who these three inmates are. I understand that they were in jail on charges of some very serious violent crimes.

ERIKA AGUILAR, BYLINE: Yeah. Hossein Nayeri - he's 37 years old. He's been locked up for more than a year. He allegedly kidnapped and tortured a marijuana shop owner for a ransom in 2012. But Nayeri evaded investigators, fleeing to Iran, until late 2014 when he was arrested in Prague and later extradited to the U.S. The other escapees, Bac Duong and Jonathan Tieu - they are Vietnamese who sheriff investigators believe have ties to local gangs. Bac Duong is a 43-year-old homeless man. He served time for drugs and burglary, and just this past November, he allegedly shot a man during an argument. Jonathan Tieu is the youngest. At 20 years old, he's accused of taking part in a fatal Vietnamese gang shooting about five years ago.

SIEGEL: And these three men were all awaiting trial, we should note. They pleaded not guilty to those charges.

AGUILAR: Yeah, that's right. That's right.

SIEGEL: How did they escape?

AGUILAR: This probably happened shortly after 5 a.m. last Friday, officials say. But jail deputies had no idea the three inmates were missing until after the second physical body count of the day was done around 9 p.m. They think they used tools - the inmates did - to cut through a steel grate in the jail cell, then climbed through the bowels of the facility up to an unsecured area of the roof.

They managed to mangle barbed wire while they were up there on the ledge of the roof and used ropes made of braided bed linens to rappel four stories to the ground. Now, Sheriff officials won't discuss the tools that the inmates used. They say no jail personnel have been taken off duty or suspended, but it's really hard to imagine how these inmates cut through four to five breaches of steel and rebar without making noise or attracting attention. Then again, as we learned last summer, you know, from the New York inmates who broke out of prison in June of 2015, prisoners have a lot of time on their hands to think up escape plans.

SIEGEL: Tell us more about this maximum-security county jail. What type of inmates are held there?

AGUILAR: Well, the jail was built in 1968. It houses, you know, more than 900 men. The three inmates - they were held in a dormitory-style cell with about 65 other inmates. A lot of the inmates there at this jail have upcoming trials and hearings, and so they're housed at Central Men's Jail because the main county courthouses is across the street. There have been two escapes since then. You know, the last one was about 25 years - 1989. And one of those escapes was from the roof.

SIEGEL: It has now been four days since the inmates broke out of the jail. The U.S.-Mexico border is just a two-hour drive from Orange County. Couldn't they have left the country by now?

AGUILAR: Yeah. It did take jail deputies about 16 hours to even confirm the inmates were missing Friday, so that's plenty of time to drive down to Mexico. We know one of the inmates, as mentioned earlier, fled to Iran a few years ago when police later identified Hossein Nayeri as a suspect in the kidnapping case he's facing. And in the other two cases, authorities have been making pleas to the Vietnamese community here because at least one of the inmates is known to have ties to a Vietnamese gang.

SIEGEL: OK. That's Erika Aguilar of Southern California Public Radio. Erika, thanks.

AGUILAR: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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