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The 5 biggest unanswered questions about the OC jail escape

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens speaks on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016 about the three people who escaped from an OC jail.
Erika Aguilar/KPCC
Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens speaks on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016 about the three people who escaped from an OC jail.

Orange County Sheriff's Department officials announced late last week that they're done answering questions about how three inmates managed to cut and rappel their way out of a Santa Ana jail on January 22, at least until the department completes its own internal investigation.

“I have initiated an internal administrative investigation to determine the facts of what occurred, contributing factors to the escape and inmate count procedures,” said Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens in the statement released Thursday. “Until the investigation is complete, I am unable to discuss it further.”

That leaves a whole lot of outstanding questions. Mainly:

What tools did the three inmates use to get out and how did they get them?

Hossein Nayeri, Jonathan Tieu, and Bac Duong were housed in a dormitory on a floor near the top of the jail. Orange County Sheriff's investigators say the three cut open a steel grate in the wall inside the dorm and climbed through the facility's plumbing tunnels to get to the roof.

The biggest hint at how they accomplished that task comes in a criminal complaint against Loc Ba Nguyen, an alleged friend of escapee Duong. Officials said Nguyen had visited the jail before.

The complaint charges Nguyen with smuggling a “deadly weapon” into the jail between January 12 and January 15. Orange County prosecutors allege Nguyen carried and sent “an article useful for escape” into the jail during that same time period, which the complaint states Nguyen allegedly used a knife. He is accused of sending another article useful to the escape between January 16 and January 19.

What we don't know is who made the hole in the grate, what specific tools were used, and how jail officials didn't notice a cutting process that presumably created some level of noise. 

Who helped them escape? 

Orange County Sheriff officials say Nguyen, a friend of 43-year old escapee Bac Duong, was involved in the planning and preparation of the escape.

Nguyen is also accused of picking up the three inmates at approximately 5:15 a.m. on the day of the escape just two blocks from the jail at the intersection of 10th Street and Olive Street in Santa Ana.

“Mr. Nguyen was involved in the investigation. (He) did provide us some information throughout,” said Hallock during the last news conference the department held last Monday.

Nguyen bailed out of jail on January 27 for $300,000, according to court data. He will be arraigned on February 22.

He is not a jail employee but Nguyen did visit the facility before the escape, according to O.C. Sheriff’s Captain Jeff Hallock. 

As for inside help, an ESL teacher who was originally arrested for allegedly providing Google-Earth maps of the jail to Nayeri has since been released from custody. Prosecutors declined to press charges against Nooshafarian Ravaghi.

Officials have not said whether they suspect anyone else of contributing to the plot.

Why did it take so long for jail deputies to realize the three inmates were missing?

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens has revealed that it appears jail deputies didn’t conduct inmate counts properly the day of the escape.

It took jail deputies approximately 16 hours to confirm the three inmates were gone. They escaped shortly after the first morning inmate count was completed at around 4:45 a.m. 

During the day, the inmates are moving around: attending court hearings, health appointments, visits and classes. Not all of them remain in the dorm-style cell where the three escapees were housed. 

Jail deputies are supposed do another inmate count at 11 a.m., a so-called “administrative” or “paper” count, which is different than the one at 4:45 a.m.

 “That requires the deputy to count the inmates in the area and compare them to the paper record,” Hallock said on January 25. If the records match, everybody is accounted for, he said.

But Sheriff Hutchens said jail deputies should call these other locations such as court or medical offices to confirm inmates are actually attending those appointments. When asked if jail deputies had done that, Hutchens said this:

“It does not appear to be that way because they went undetected as missing for quite a while,” she said February 1.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department has declined to answer any questions about inmate counts since then.

Why was escapee Nayeri taking ESL classes at the jail--even though he speaks English?

Though prosecutors have declined to file charges against Nooshafarian Ravaghi, sheriff's officials continue to allege the ESL teacher aided the inmates' escape--and had an inappropriate, personal relationship with one of her students, Nayeri. 

Whether or not Ravaghi had anything to do with the escape, the question of why Nayeri was in her class at all has been raised repeatedly.

“We’ve not been able to figure that out but we do have some concern that he does speak English and he was involved in the ESL class,” Hallock said on February 1. “We said that from the on-set, again, only making us feel stronger that, in fact, there was some type of connection with Ravaghi and that she may have contributed to planning the escape.”

The same day, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackackus said prosecutors don’t have physical evidence that Ravaghi provided Google Earth maps to the inmates. She has been released from custody but remains watched.

Is Central Men's jail equipped to house potentially violent inmates?

Each of the three inmates was in jail awaiting trial on serious violent charges -- Duong for attempted murder, Tieu for murder and Nayeri for kidnapping and torture. 

The three were living in a dorm-styled “tank” with approximately 68 other inmates, according to officials. Half of them are considered violent offenders or suspected of violent crimes.

The “tank” allows for inmates to roam freely within. They sleep in bunk beds.

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens has said several times that she feels the three inmates were housed appropriately.

She has also said that the jail itself is outdated and lacks the security and surveillance features of more modern jails. 

Since their return to custody, the three inmates have been listed as “escape risk with violent charges” and are housed in one-man cells, officials said. They will be handcuffed, shackled by the leg and escorted by three jail deputies when outside the their cells.