LOS ANGELES (AP) — It was a daring and elaborate escape. Three inmates, including a man suspected in a killing, cut through metal, crawled through plumbing tunnels, climbed a roof and rappelled down four stories to freedom using ropes made from bedsheets.
It wasn’t a Hollywood movie. The real-life breakout left authorities struggling Monday to find the men and to figure out how they managed to escape the maximum-security jail in Southern California.
The priority was finding the men who could be armed and dangerous. A probe also was underway into how the men escaped, authorities said, noting that so far there’s no indication the inmates received help from anyone inside the Orange County Men’s Central Jail.
Jonathan Tieu, 20, Bac Duong, 43, and Hossein Nayeri, 37, were all awaiting trials for unrelated violent crimes. They vanished early Friday from a dormitory they shared with about 65 other men.
Authorities said they believe Tieu and Duong may still be in the region due to their ties to local Vietnamese-American gangs.
“We need the Vietnamese community to come forward and help us with leads and tips on what they might know,” Orange County sheriff’s Lt. Dave Sawyer said. “We understand that the gang involvement of at least the two individuals is pretty strong” and community members could be intimidated by the escapees.
A Vietnamese-speaking deputy appealed for public help to find the men during a press conference.
Sheriff’s officials said 30 search warrants have been executed in the investigation of the escape.
Somehow, the men obtained tools, cut through a quarter-inch-thick grill on a dormitory wall and got into plumbing tunnels.
Cutting through additional half-inch-thick steel bars, they made their way to an unguarded area of a roof atop a four-story building, moved aside razor wire and rappelled to the ground using the bed linen.
The escape wasn’t noticed for 16 hours, until a nighttime head count was done after being delayed about an hour because of a fight involving other inmates.
Clearly, the plan was a long time 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.
The Mexican border is only a couple of hours south of the prison, but authorities said they had no evidence that the men had left the country.
Federal authorities are offering $50,000 in rewards for information leading to their recapture.
“What I can assure you is that the compromises in security have been shored up,” Hallock said.
He didn’t provide details.
“Escapes do occur from time to time,” Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said. “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 were two previous escapes from the jail decades ago, but nobody had managed another in more than 20 years — until Friday Jan. 22.
The aging jail was built in 1968 and houses some 900 men. Its design allows inmates to move through different areas more easily than modern jails, making 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.
Tieu had been held on a $1 million bond since October 2013 on charges of murder, attempted murder and shooting at an inhabited dwelling.
On Sunday, his mother and sister said they hadn’t heard from him and tearfully pleaded for him to surrender.
“I for sure know he wasn’t the one who orchestrated this. I feel he was manipulated or tricked into doing this,” his sister Tiffany Tieu told KABC-TV.
“Just turn in yourself in. Don’t let (it) drag on,” she said.
Nayeri had been held without bond since September 2014 on charges of kidnapping, torture, aggravated mayhem and burglary. He and three other men are accused of kidnapping a marijuana dispensary owner in 2012, driving him to a desert spot where they believed he had hidden money, and cutting off his penis, authorities said.
Duong has been held without bond since last month on charges of attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon and other charges.
Associated Press writers Amy Taxin in Santa Ana and Robert Jablon in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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