Long Hoang Ma, seen in rear-view mirror of his taxi (photo: Rick Loomis, Getty Images)
By Jon Chown, Courthouse News Service
SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) — He was certain they would kill him; having survived, he feels owed something.
Long Hoang Ma, 71, was taken hostage by three prisoners who escaped from Orange County Central Men's Jail in January and held in motels across the state for a week before he finally escaped. He thinks he helped Orange County recapture them, so he should get some, or all, of the $200,000 reward. But he got nothing, so he sued the county, its Board of Supervisors and the Sheriff's Department.
Bac Duong, Hossein Nayeri and Jonathan Tieu were all in jail for violent felonies.
Duong, 43, a member of a Vietnamese gang, was awaiting trial for attempted murder.
Nayeri, 37, had been extradited from Iran on charges of kidnapping and torture after his alleged victim was found alive in the desert, burned, beaten and with his penis severed.
Tieu, 20, was awaiting retrial on charges of murder and attempted murder.
They escaped sometime after 5 a.m. on Jan. 22, but it took jailers 12 to 15 hours to realize it, the Orange County Sheriff's Department acknowledged at the time.
On that morning, Ma, a Vietnamese-American who advertises his taxi service in Vietnamese-language newspapers, got a call to pick up three passengers at a Garden Grove restaurant.
Ma, who had been a lieutenant in the South Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam War, and taken prisoner and tortured after the North won, finally escaped and made it to the United States.
"He had a lot PTSD to start with, and they literally physically and emotionally tortured him," his attorney Walter Emil Teague III said in an interview. Teague is with The Tu Firm in Fountain Valley. Hoang Huy Tu is the lead attorney.
In the May 17 complaint in Orange County Court, Ma says nothing seemed amiss when he picked up his fares. He drove them to a Wal-Mart in Santa Ana and then to a Target in Rosemead to go shopping.
They came out of the Target with a gun and forced him to drive to the Flamingo Hotel in Rosemead and rent a room for all of them.
In the ensuing days the three men chain-smoked cigarettes and watched news of the manhunt on TV. The reward increased from $50,000 to $200,000 and they laughed gleefully about it.
They also discussed whether to kill Ma and dump his body in the ocean.
At one point, Nayeri, who wanted to kill Ma, punched Duong in the face. Duong wouldn't let the other men kill him, Ma says, and often was cordial to him, calling him "uncle" or "Daddy Long."
That weekend Duong stole a white van and using both vehicles the men drove to San Jose on Tuesday, Jan. 26. There they rented a room at the Alameda Motel and drank a lot of beer and whiskey, Ma says.
Ma slept on a twin bed, Nayeri on the other twin bed across the room, and the other two on the floor in front of the door. On Wednesday they went to a Western Union to collect $3,000, allegedly sent by Nayeri's mother.
On Thursday morning, Nayeri and Tieu left the motel to get the van's windows tinted and left the gun with Duong.
While they were away, Ma persuaded Duong that Nayeri would kill him eventually, and Duong would be complicit if they didn't flee — so they did.
On a 400-mile drive south, Ma says, he persuaded Duong, a fellow Buddhist, to surrender and return to "the right path."
On Friday, Jan. 29, Ma says, he and Duong went to the office of an attorney in Westminster to arrange Duong's surrender: but the secretary sent them away.
They drove to Auto Electric Rebuilders in Santa Ana, where Duong asked an acquaintance at the shop to call 911. Police arrived with sirens screaming and lights flashing to make the arrest.
Ma then called the sheriff's office to give more information on the events of the past week, including the last known location of Nayeri and Tieu and a description of the van. With information going out over the airwaves, Nayeri and Tieu were spotted by a homeless man in San Francisco, Matthew Hay-Chapman.
"He was a news junkie watching TV in a McDonalds and he realizes he just saw these guys," Teague said. "So he runs down a cop who was nearby and they caught them."
The Orange County Board of Supervisors awarded Hay-Chapman $10,000 for his quick thinking. Hazel Javier and Jeffrey Arana, two clerks at a Target where the fugitives bought cell phones, received $15,000 for recognizing the men and delivering the receipts to police; and Jeffrey Arana, who owned the white van, got $20,000 for reporting it stolen.
Ma got nothing.
Teague said he believes the supervisors were prejudiced against Ma because he is Vietnamese.
"That's not cool," he said. "How would you like to be locked in a room with three killers for a week?"
Teague said it was Ma's escape that flushed the fugitives out of hiding.
"Those two guys still in Northern California, they thought, 'Uh-oh,' and they left the motel. That's how they got captured."
Ma asks the court to award him some of the $200,000 reward. He also seeks damages for violation of due process, racial discrimination, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, and two counts of negligence for lack of oversight at the jail.
California law forbids citizens for suing the state for injuries suffered due to prisoner escapes. Calif. Code Sect. 845.8 states: "Neither a public entity nor a public employee is liable for ... any injury caused by: An escaping or escaped prisoner; an escaping or escaped arrested person; or a person resisting arrest."
Teague said they would try anyway.
"In cases of gross negligence, when something is really stupid, there is a chance," he said.
According to the complaint, the Orange County Central Men's Jail has been grossly negligent. Opened in 1967, it was designed to house mainly misdemeanor inmates, but with overcrowding rampant throughout California, most of the 1,000 prisoners there have been convicted of a felony, or are awaiting trial on one. The three escapees were all violent offenders, but were classified as "white-banders:" the lowest level offenders in the jail.
As "white-banders," according to the complaint, three men were allowed roam unaccompanied and had access to tools and knives.
Other security problems alleged in the complaint are that jailers scroll through multiple cameras using one monitor, instead of having a multi-view screen, and that inmates construct barriers with sheets and towels known as "ratlines" to block the cameras, and little is done about it.
"We urge that increasing staffing be acted upon swiftly," it recommended. Instead, the sheriff's department replaced 35 percent of its experienced deputies with civilian Correctional Services Assistants, who are not allowed direct contact with inmates and have just 10 weeks of training instead of the six-month academy required of sheriff's deputies, according to the complaint.
Jan. 22 — the day of the escape — was the first day of a new staffing reduction, the complaint states, with 22 percent less manpower during the night shift from 6:30 p.m. to 7 a.m., and a deputy no longer assigned to the roof.
There was a fight that night, in which a guard broke his hand, and another incident in which an inmate died. Three deputies were at the death scene to secure it. All this led to fewer eyes on the prisoners, according to a series of statements from the sheriff's office.
The three men used tools they had pilfered, cut through at least four layers of metal, steel and rebar in the dormitory-style barracks, snaked their way through plumbing tunnels and made it to the roof, then rappelled down with knotted bed sheets.
Teague says Ma has been suffering since his weeklong ordeal. He returned to Vietnam for a time, but came back as his health continued to deteriorate. He says the physical and emotional strain was compounded when the county ignored his due.
It didn't make his attorney happy, either.
"It really pisses me off," Teague said.
The Orange County Counsel's Office did not respond to requests for comment by phone and email, but there was no response. Neither the Orange County Sheriff's Office nor the Board of Supervisors responded to requests for comment.