Convicted kidnapper and torturer Hossein Nayeri talks about his charges, history of escaping the law

Nayeri spoke to "20/20" five months before the trial that led to his conviction.

ByAnthony Rivas, Jeca Taudte, and Tom Berman
March 13, 2020, 6:16 AM

Hossein Nayeri appeared to have a knack for getting out of trouble — he's even facing charges for breaking out of jail.

But as Nayeri sat chained to the floor in a California jail cell charged with kidnapping, torture and aggravated mayhem against a medical marijuana dispensary owner and another woman — the man's roommate — it seemed like Nayeri's luck had finally run out.

"I'm just an average, ordinary person. Simple as that," Nayeri told "20/20." "I have many flaws. Wanting to hurt people is definitely not one of them."

Watch the full story on "20/20" Friday, March 13, at 9 p.m. ET on ABC

In an interview with ABC News five months before his July 2019 trial, Nayeri spoke about his history of running from the law, why he was innocent of the charges he was about to face in court and how he says he pulled off the jailbreak.

"[I want] to get my side of the story out," Nayeri said. "The true version of what happened."

PHOTO: Hossein Nayeri spoke to ABC News in February 2019, nearly six months before he was convicted of two counts of kidnapping and torture involving a Newport Beach, California, marijuana dispensary owner and his roommate's girlfriend.
Hossein Nayeri spoke to ABC News in February 2019, nearly six months before he was convicted of two counts of kidnapping and torture involving a Newport Beach, California, marijuana dispensary owner and his roommate's girlfriend.
ABC News

Nayeri was about to stand trial on charges related to the October 2012 kidnapping of the dispensary owner, who asked to use only his first name, Michael, and Mary Barnes from their Newport Beach, California, home.

Police say Nayeri, a former U.S. Marine, along with two people whom he characterized as "business partners," tied the two victims up and drove them to the Mojave Desert where Nayeri and his associates believed the dispensary owner had buried $1 million in cash.

Michael was brutally beaten and burned with a blowtorch on their way to the desert. Once there, one of the perpetrators cut off Michael's penis. He was then doused with bleach in an effort to remove any DNA evidence, the prosecutor says. Then, authorities say the perpetrators drove away with Michael's penis, leaving him and Barnes in the desert.

"Cutting it off is one thing. Ensuring that it is never recovered to be reattached is a level of depravity and cruelty that…this man should never get out of prison," said Matt Murphy, the former senior deputy district attorney for Orange County who prosecuted Nayeri's case and who is now an ABC News consultant.

The kidnappers left behind the knife, which Mary Barnes used to cut the zip ties around her feet. Then, she walked barefoot through the desert to reach a road, where a police officer saw her while driving by. The pair was rescued and the victim underwent surgery for repair of the penile amputation.

Nayeri admitted that he carried out video surveillance of Michael for months before the kidnapping, but denies taking part in the kidnapping, torture and mutilation.

"Obviously, there was some involvement that I did have," Nayeri told ABC News. "I just had no clue that it was going to turn into [the] mess that it did."

Nayeri became linked to the kidnapping after police found a glove with his DNA in it inside of a truck belonging to his business partner, Kyle Handley, who had been arrested in connection to the kidnapping, torture and mutilation, according to Newport Beach Police Sgt. Ryan Peters.

Handley's truck had been spotted behind the victims' home on the afternoon before the kidnapping. A neighbor told police she'd seen three men exit the vehicle and that they were acting suspiciously. She wrote down the truck's license plate number and police traced it to Handley.

PHOTO: Sgt. Ryan Peters, formerly a detective for the Newport Beach Police Department, led the investigation into Hossein Nayeri, who was later convicted of kidnapping and torture of a marijuana dispensary owner and his roommate's girlfriend.
Sgt. Ryan Peters, formerly a detective for the Newport Beach Police Department, led the investigation into Hossein Nayeri, who was later convicted of kidnapping and torture of a marijuana dispensary owner and his roommate's girlfriend.
ABC News

Handley, it turned out, was a marijuana grower and partner of Nayeri's who had sold marijuana to Michael's dispensary. The two had taken a trip to Las Vegas together where the victim spent lavishly, paying for everything including a $12,000 casino suite in cash, according to crime reporter Pat LaLama.

"We're dealing with the all-cash medical marijuana business," LaLama said. "Certain days you could have tons of cash lying around, and maybe next week it's dry."

It was after this trip that Murphy says Handley and Nayeri's plan to steal money from the victim began to take shape.

Nayeri had gone to high school with Handley and another man named Ehsan Tousi. Murphy says Nayeri would tell his then-wife Cortney Shegerian that the three men were growing marijuana together, which Tousi's family denies their son's involvement in.

Tousi was killed in a car crash in late December 2005. Nayeri, who admitted to drinking beforehand, was the driver when the vehicle went off the road and flipped.

"I lost control and boom, boom, boom, rolled over," Nayeri said. "I killed my best friend."

After being charged with vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, Nayeri fled to his home country of Iran. Shegerian said she wasn't surprised because "he's the type that always tries to get out of a situation, whatever it is."

"I've thought about this a lot throughout my life," Nayeri said. "Since childhood, I've always avoided conflict and confrontation. It's been a part of me for a long time. It's not just about the law."

Nayeri spent nearly a year in Iran before sneaking back into the United States, Murphy said. But he was caught and eventually received a suspended sentence with time served and five years' probation after he pleaded guilty to the vehicular manslaughter charge. He was also ordered to enroll in a substance abuse program. Nayeri said he was "very fortunate" for receiving such a lenient sentence.

PHOTO: Matthew Murphy, a contributor for ABC News and the former senior deputy district attorney for Orange County, California, said he hopes Hossein Nayeri will be brought to justice for the 2012 kidnapping and torture of a man and woman.
Matthew Murphy, a contributor for ABC News and the former senior deputy district attorney for Orange County, California, said he hopes Hossein Nayeri will be brought to justice for the 2012 kidnapping and torture of a marijuana dispensary owner and his roommate's girlfriend.
ABC News

Nayeri and Handley began working together again growing marijuana a few years later, Shegerian said.

When they began plotting against the dispensary owner, surveillance became Nayeri's job. Shegerian said she was not aware of the kidnapping nor the extent of their plan.

"And so for, I think, six to eight months, that was [Nayeri's] job. He was no longer working necessarily in the pot business, but surveilling," Salvatore Ciulla, Nayeri's attorney, told ABC News.

Handley was arrested just after the kidnapping, after which Nayeri fled to Iran.

It was Shegerian who became the one to eventually lure Nayeri into the authorities' clutches.

Shegerian met Nayeri as a teen and said she kept their relationship a secret from her parents even after she married him years later. She said their relationship had been controlling and abusive. Eventually, the physical abuse became so bad that she said she pressed charges. However, she said that he agreed to a plea deal, and was only ordered to get counseling.

"I screwed up really, really bad," said Nayeri when ABC News asked him about the physical abuse. "I grabbed her arm really hard. I left fingerprints on her arm. Never before have I touched her. Never again did I touch Cortney after that."

"He's a liar," Shegerian said about Nayeri's claim. "He's going to admit to the one thing that he can't not admit to where there was a police report that proves it. Of course, he's going to admit to that one thing, but he's a complete liar."

Nevertheless, Shegerian stuck by Nayeri.

"I had resigned in my mind [that] this is the way my life is going to be," Shegerian said.

"I just got to deal with it," she said, rationalizing, "'Cortney, everyone has problems. This is your problem.'"

But Shegerian said she was terrified of what he could do to her or her family, especially after the kidnapping.

Shegerian, who was still married to Nayeri at the time, said she maintained contact with him while he was evading arrest overseas. She also visited him in Dubai and Turkey and provided him with money and other items that he needed to live in Iran.

Shegerian said that at one point, while Nayeri was in Iran, he asked her to recover surveillance equipment from his car. The car had been impounded after Nayeri abandoned it while fleeing police when they tried to make a traffic stop a week before the kidnapping.

The car was later found to contain a GPS tracker and two surveillance cameras, showing hours of footage of Michael and Barnes' home, Peters said.

"Police realize they had this vehicle. It's tied to this name, and this name is tied to this kidnapping," Sean Emery, a crime reporter for The Orange County Register, told ABC News.

PHOTO: Cortney Shegerian, the former wife of Hossein Nayeri, said that just like "everyone has problems," she once believed that her problem was her toxic marriage to Nayeri. "I just got to deal with it," she said.
Cortney Shegerian, the former wife of Hossein Nayeri, said that just like "everyone has problems," she once believed that her problem was her toxic marriage to Nayeri. "I just got to deal with it," she said.
ABC News

When Shegerian showed up to claim the surveillance equipment, police were waiting.

"I literally present her with the cameras and the GPS tracker and say, 'Is this yours? Do you want it?' And she says yes," Peters said.

Shegerian said " there were no words to describe" how she felt when police confronted her about the surveillance equipment in the car.

"I mean...everything was closing in on me," she said.

Shegerian said that when the police started asking her questions, she "was just totally uncooperative. Not helpful at all."

Peters said he then contacted Shegerian's father. He broke the news to her father that she was married to Nayeri and that she was in serious trouble.

Shegerian's family contacted a lawyer who made it clear to her that she potentially faced life in prison if charged and convicted of being an accomplice. Shegerian said she then "stopped all contact" with Nayeri and began cooperating with the police. They hatched a plan to trap Nayeri that essentially used Shegerian as bait.

Two months after Shegerian had cut off contact with Nayeri, she began calling him again as part of their plan, convincing him to meet her in Spain, where they would rekindle their relationship.

Nayeri's travel plans called for him to change planes in Prague, Czech Republic. That country has an extradition agreement with the U.S., and as soon as he stepped off the plane in Prague, he was taken into custody.

"It was really hard," Shegerian said of reconnecting with Nayeri. "I was thinking to myself, 'Oh my God, he's going to sense that my voice inflection changes if I don't laugh at a joke.' You know, anything could set him off and he's highly suspicious."

But Nayeri told ABC News that he didn't suspect a thing.

"When they arrested me in Prague, my sole concern was [Cortney]," Nayeri said. "I'm telling the cops, they take me to court two days into it, and I'm telling them I'm not going to participate in this and let me call my wife at least and let her know I'm alive. She's in Barcelona, Spain, waiting for me."

Peters said Nayeri was held in Prague for nearly a year as he waited for extradition. Nayeri called the jail in Prague "a true dungeon. … Wet, cold, no hot water. It was just something out of a movie; twilight zone," he said.

When Nayeri was sent back to the U.S. in 2014, he was booked into Orange County Central Men's Jail, where he was placed in a "dormitory-style holding facility," Emery said, adding that there were "dozens of inmates being held in the same area" and that it was "kind of a chaotic situation" due to overcrowding and problems with guard staffing.

During the time that Nayeri was locked up, Shegerian divorced and annulled her marriage to Nayeri.

Then, Nayeri escaped from the jail in January 2016. He said it took weeks for him and two alleged accomplices — Bac Duong and. Jonathan Tieu — to prepare.

PHOTO: This file photo provided by the Orange County, Calif., Sheriff's Department on Jan. 23, 2016, shows three jail inmates charged with violent crimes who escaped from the Central Men's Jail in Santa Ana, Calif.
This file photo provided by the Orange County, Calif., Sheriff's Department on Jan. 23, 2016, shows three jail inmates charged with violent crimes who escaped from the Central Men's Jail in Santa Ana, Calif.
Orange County Sheriff's Department via AP, FILE

"It was a complicated thing. It wasn't an easy task by any stretch," Nayeri said. "But planning ahead of time? There wasn't much planning ahead of time."

Nayeri said he and his alleged accomplices in the escape had gotten access to the jail's roof a couple of weeks before the escape and that they began using that access to obtain supplies from people outside the jail. During the preparations, Nayeri also obtained a cell phone, which he later used to film parts of the escape.

With these tools, Nayeri said he began sawing through a grate near his bed and creating other equipment that they'd need for the escape.

"It was a hell of a production just to get through that hole, and set it up to where nobody could see," Nayeri said.

He said very few other inmates knew about their plans and that those who saw what they were doing often "looked the other way."

The official version of the escape was that on the morning that the trio escaped, they slipped through the grate after the jail's 5 a.m. body count and headed toward the roof, journalist Paul Kix said.

Nayeri's "video shows how they created basically harnesses" to climb up the ventilation piping "until they could reach the trapdoor of the roof," Kix said.

PHOTO: Orange County sheriff's deputies investigate, Jan. 23, 2016, after three jail inmates charged with violent crimes escaped from Central Men's Jail in Santa Ana, Calif.
Orange County sheriff's deputies investigate, Jan. 23, 2016, after three jail inmates charged with violent crimes escaped from Central Men's Jail in Santa Ana, Calif.
Kevin Warn/AP

"It really is unbelievable. They pulled it off," Emery said. They "managed to climb down four stories from this jail to the ground and escape without being detected."

Nayeri said that he was gone for about 16 hours before he was discovered missing.

"There was a chill over the community as a whole, but specifically [with] anyone who had any connection to this case," LaLama said.

Shegerian said she was notified of her ex-husband's escape early the next morning.

"Police knocking on my door… This is like 5:30 in the morning at my apartment," she said. "There's two officers there. 'Do you know Hossein Nayeri?' 'Of course.' 'Well did you know that he escaped from jail?' I became hysterical. It's my worst nightmare coming alive. He's going to kill me. There's no doubt in my mind, like, I'm dead."

But Nayeri said he had no intention of harming Shegerian or anyone involved with his case. "If I wanted to do something, I would have, right?" he said. "I had the freedom to do it, didn't I?"

Nayeri, Duong and Tieu, however, are now charged with calling a cab and forcing its driver, Vietnamese immigrant Long Ma, to stay with them by threatening him with what Nayeri claimed was a fake gun.

With the police looking for them, Ma said the men took his car keys and Nayeri drove the four of them to a motel where they stayed for three nights. He said his alleged kidnappers would sleep with their feet on a chair blocking the door so that he couldn't escape.

"Hossein Nayeri denies that he kidnapped Long Ma," said Greg Lee, a former reporter for Los Angeles ABC News station KABC. "I have no doubt that Long Ma feared for his life, that he didn't know if he was going to come home."

The group became increasingly concerned by the news coverage of their escape and allegedly stole a second vehicle — a white van — and left the motel, Lee said. They started heading north, now split between both vehicles.

Along the way, however, the group began to fight among themselves, arguing over whether they should kill Ma, Lee said. "I just heard them say, 'boom, boom, boom, old man,'" Ma said.

Nayeri denied any sort of hostility, even saying that Ma was "concerned" because he didn't want them to get hurt.

"Hell, I kissed his forehead several times. … He was just with us. I mean, we ate, we went to restaurants, we went for a walk here or there. He went to the grocery store by himself and with Bac several times."

But during a fight between Nayeri and Duong while staying at a motel in Northern California, Kix said Nayeri made "a gesture."

"[He] slits his finger across his throat and points at Long Ma," Kix said.

Soon after, Duong, who had often conversed with Ma, asked Ma to be his godfather, Ma said. Then, the two men left the group and went back to Southern California, where Duong turned himself in to authorities, LaLama said.

Meanwhile, Nayeri and Tieu continued north in the van until they ended up in San Francisco, a place where Nayeri said he found comfort.

"Things unraveled so fast...that I just wanted to go somewhere where I felt at peace," Nayeri said. "Somewhere I was familiar with from my younger days."

A week had passed since they'd escaped jail when Nayeri said they were hanging out in the back of the van "enjoying the moment," smoking weed, eating bananas and drinking alcohol. By chance, a homeless man and self-described news junkie named Matthew Hay-Chapman saw Nayeri exit the van and took action, LaLama said.

"As I was reading [The San Francisco Chronicle] about some escaped fugitives, out popped an escaped fugitive," Hay-Chapman said. "I said, 'I got to report it to the authorities.'"

Nayeri was arrested eight days after his Orange County jailbreak. But while Shegerian said she was relieved, she also expressed caution.

PHOTO: Recently recaptured Orange County prison escapee Hossein Nayeri appears in court in Santa Ana, Calif., Feb. 2, 2016.
Recently recaptured Orange County prison escapee Hossein Nayeri appears in court in Santa Ana, Calif., Feb. 2, 2016.
Nick Ut/AP

"To be honest, I was freaked out. I was just terrified," Shegerian said. "I'm thinking, if he did this once, he's going to figure out a way to do it again."

When Nayeri eventually went to trial in July 2019 on charges that he kidnapped, tortured and maimed the marijuana dispensary owner, his defense team argued that the police had planted the glove with his DNA in Handley's truck and that Shegerian wasn't a credible witness because she had been given immunity.

"Cortney's endgame was no prosecution, no jail, keep [her] law license," Ciulla said. "Most people would do anything and say anything to save all that."

The defense also called Nayeri himself to the stand, where he insisted that he had taken part only in the surveillance prior to the kidnapping.

"His testimony of 'I only watched him for Kyle Handley, who's the real criminal mastermind' is patently absurd," Murphy said.

PHOTO: Cortney Shegerian, the former wife of Hossein Nayeri, testified in his 2019 trial for the kidnapping and torture of a Newport Beach, Calif., medical marijuana dispensary owner.
Cortney Shegerian, the former wife of Hossein Nayeri, testified in his 2019 trial for the kidnapping and torture of a Newport Beach, Calif., medical marijuana dispensary owner.
ABC News

Beth Burbage, the foreperson on the jury, said she thought Nayeri's testimony was "believable" at first.

"When Nayeri first started testifying, it was his attorneys questioning him. So, he was pretty calm," Burbage told ABC News.

But then, on cross-examination, Murphy's questioning led Nayeri to become visibly irritated — something Murphy said he did purposefully. The two traded barbs often, and at multiple points, the judge had to ask the jury to leave.

"He's in a battle between the impression he's trying to make and his actual nature," Murphy said. "If you can get a witness to unmask themselves so a jury sees who they really are, that's a win."

"He'd go from this charming young man to, 'I'm angry and I'm not going to take this,'" Lee said. "That's what his ex-wife had described. It was jarring to see in person."

PHOTO: Defendant Hossein Nayeri sits in court following guilty verdicts during his trial in Newport Beach, CA., Aug. 16, 2019.
Defendant Hossein Nayeri sits in court following guilty verdicts during his trial in Newport Beach, CA., Aug. 16, 2019.
Paul Bersebach/Orange County Register via ZUMA Wire via Newscom

"The thing that was incredibly overwhelming was that his words did not match his behavior. …You're like, 'OK, something's not right here. It's not matching up,'" Burbage said.

It took the jury five days to come to a verdict, in part, because there was one juror who initially believed Nayeri was innocent, Burbage said. Ultimately, in August 2019, Nayeri was convicted of two counts of kidnapping and torture. The jury could not reach a verdict on the aggravated mayhem charge as they were unable to agree on whether Nayeri was the one who had maimed the victim. He still has not been sentenced as of March 2020.

Handley, meanwhile, was convicted in 2018 of kidnapping, aggravated mayhem and torture and sentenced to four life terms in prison, two without the possibility of parole.

Ryan Kevorkian, the third kidnapping suspect and a high school friend of Nayeri's, faces the same charges and has pleaded not guilty. His case is still pending.

Nayeri, Duong and Tieu are still facing charges related to the jailbreak. They have all pleaded not guilty.

PHOTO: Defendant Hossein Nayeri listens to the judge's instructions before the reading of guilty verdicts during his trial in Newport Beach, CA., Aug. 16, 2019.
Defendant Hossein Nayeri listens to the judge's instructions before the reading of guilty verdicts during his trial in Newport Beach, CA., Aug. 16, 2019.
Paul Bersebach/Orange County Register via ZUMA Wire via Newscom

Murphy said that he "hopes and prays" for justice for Michael and Barnes.

"Hossein Nayeri is bad or worse than almost anybody I encountered in my entire career," Murphy said. "He is diabolical. He's manipulative. … He has no problem hurting other human beings if it advances his temporary gains. He leaves a path of human destruction and wasted lives everywhere he goes. … Literally everybody that touches him is hurt because of it."

"So for these two people," he continued, "I hope and pray that getting Hossein Nayeri here, getting him to face justice...will allow them to move forward in their lives and to heal."

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