Ex-wife of convicted kidnapper, torturer Hossein Nayeri on toxic relationship and cooperating with police: 'I was there to serve Hossein'

Cortney Shegerian spoke about how she often feared for her life.

Cortney Shegerian said she spent years being the loyal wife to Hossein Nayeri despite what she says was a toxic and abusive marriage.

But when her husband became a suspect in a brutal 2012 kidnapping and torture case involving a medical marijuana dispensary owner, Shegerian got the chance to make things right for herself and help get justice for those who'd been harmed by Nayeri.

"There's what he did to me…and then there's knowing that I was with that person and stayed in that relationship, and the other things that he did to other people as well," she said.

During the violent October 2012 incident, police say three men tied up and kidnapped the dispensary owner, who wished to go only by his first name, Michael, and Mary Barnes from their home in Newport Beach, California. The perpetrators then brutally attacked Michael while driving to the Mojave Desert, where they believed Michael had buried $1 million in cash.

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

Nayeri was one of the three men who were later accused of beating the dispensary owner and burning him with a blowtorch as they made their way to the desert.

According to police, when the kidnappers realized there was no money, one of them cut off Michael's penis and then drove away with the dismembered organ, leaving him and Barnes behind. She was eventually able to make her way to a nearby highway where a senior deputy sheriff who observed her on the roadside with her hands zip-tied behind her back, stopped to help. Both victims survived.

Shegerian, who said she knew at the time that Nayeri was plotting something but couldn't tell what it was, later became a critical witness for the prosecution in the case against Nayeri.

"I couldn't go back and undo what had happened," she said. "This is how I felt... [It] was the only way to try in any way to make this right."

Shegerian's chaotic relationship with Nayeri

Shegerian first met Nayeri in 2003 at a cafe in Fresno, California, where he was her server, she said. She was 16 and he was 23.

"He was funny and charming. I mean, just…cute. Intriguing for a 16-year-old," said Shegerian. "I didn't know any better."

Shegerian said she told her parents about her relationship with Nayeri when they first started dating, and that they disapproved. The couple broke up, but it wasn't for good.

Shegerian said they started dating again in 2008, and that Nayeri seemed different this time around. Nayeri, she said, had become "very dark" compared to how "charming" and "lighthearted" he had been. This time, she said she kept their relationship a secret from her family.

At times, Shegerian said Nayeri would drink a lot, get angry and target her during his outbursts.

"He would bring anything up that would be my fault and then, all of a sudden, he was shoving me. He was pushing me. He was screaming at me, like, in my face threatening me," Shegerian said. "I didn't really know what to do. My parents don't have any idea that we're together. None of my friends know."

He would also use Shegerian's insecurities against her, she said.

"He'd say, 'You're too fat. Your nose is too big,'" she said. "He wouldn't say it all at one time. It's these comments, little comments here and there, that he starts to break you down as a person -- as a woman."

In 2005, while they were not dating, Nayeri was charged with vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated after he crashed his best friend's car during a night of partying. His friend died in the accident. Nayeri, however, jumped bail and fled to Iran.

He eventually returned to the U.S. where, in 2009, he pleaded guilty to the vehicular manslaughter charge. He received a suspended sentence with time served and five years’ probation. He also went to court-ordered rehab for alcohol and substance abuse, Shegerian said.

A few months after he left rehab, in June 2010, Nayeri and Shegerian secretly married. But she said that afterward, he became even more abusive than he'd previously been.

"I got hit, I got punched, I got thrown downstairs, I got choked," she said. "There was nothing safe about being around him. I just couldn't take it anymore. I finally called the police."

Shegerian pressed charges and Nayeri was arrested and jailed. He was required to attend anger management classes and the case was dismissed, according to Newport Beach Police Sgt. Ryan Peters, who investigated the 2012 kidnapping and torture case. Nayeri denied hitting Shegerian except for the one time for which she pressed charges.

"I screwed up really, really bad," Nayeri said. "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. Never."

In 2011, Nayeri was working with a man named Kyle Handley to legally grow marijuana. Handley, who had sold marijuana to Michael before his kidnapping, was later named alongside Nayeri as another suspect in the 2012 case.

Nayeri and Handley had gone to the same high school, Nayeri said. Shegerian said that in 2011, Handley briefly moved into her home, where she was living with Nayeri. She said that by then, she'd decided to stay with Nayeri despite the alleged abuse.

"I had resigned in my mind [that] this is the way my life is going to be. I just got to deal with it," she said, rationalizing, "'Cortney, everyone has problems. This is your problem.'"

Shegerian, who was in law school at the time, said her parents would send her money to pay for law school. Instead, she said she used the money to support herself and Nayeri.

Nayeri was using Shegerian's money to fund his marijuana business. But in early 2012, Sheegerian said she started noticing all the surveillance equipment he had around their house.

Over the next few months, Shegerian said that although Nayeri would keep her out of the loop "to a certain degree," he'd also tell her what he was doing incrementally and she was able to "figure things out a little bit more."

For example, she said she knew he was targeting Michael because he asked her to look up his name. Nayeri also asked her if she thought the desert was a "great place to bury money" while he tracked Michael via GPS, she said. Another time, she said she saw Handley and Nayeri in their garage "playing with a blowtorch."

Nayeri, Shegerian said, surveilled the dispensary owner for months before he was kidnapped.

"It was an obsession. He was obsessed," she said.

Shegerian lures Nayeri into a trap

In October 2012, a few days after Michael and Barnes were kidnapped, Shegerian said that Nayeri showed up at their home and began destroying "anything in the house that had anything to do with him."

He was "frantic" and not at all like the "cool, calm, collected person that he was," Shegerian said. Nayeri had discovered that police were onto Handley, she said.

In the days following the kidnapping, a neighbor gave police the license plate number for a truck that had been parked behind the victims’ home the day before the kidnapping. Police traced the truck to Handley. After uncovering more evidence, police were able to obtain a warrant for Handley's arrest less than a week after the kidnapping, Peters said.

When Nayeri found out that Handley was in police custody, his mood “intensified" Shegerian said.

"I mean, he was like, 'I got to get out of here. I got to get out of here,'" she said.

Nayeri once again fled to his native Iran.

It wasn't long after Nayeri left for Iran that police linked him to the kidnapping; they had found a glove with Nayeri's DNA inside of Handley's truck.

Around the same time, police also realized they had impounded Nayeri's car a week before the kidnapping. Police said Nayeri had fled from a Chevy Tahoe that he shared with Shegerian after a high-speed nighttime police chase. Nayeri had been running from the police because he'd been drinking and driving, Shegerian said.

Peters said that later, when police searched the car, they found a GPS tracker and two surveillance cameras. He said there were hours of footage showing the dispensary owner's house.

"It was an absolute gift," he said of the evidence.

Meanwhile, while Nayeri was on the run abroad, Shegerian said he had her visit him in different countries to deliver money, medicine and clothes, among other items.

Shegerian said that the more she spoke to Nayeri, the more she realized that he had been involved in the kidnapping. She said she felt like she had to keep doing what he asked of her because "otherwise I'm done or my family's done."

"I was there to serve Hossein," she said. "I was in this world where it was me and Hossein, and that was it."

At one point, Nayeri told Shegerian to pick up the surveillance equipment that was found in the Chevy Tahoe from the police. But as she signed for it, investigators in the kidnapping case were waiting for her. But, as she signed for it, investigators in the kidnapping case were there waiting for her.

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

Shegerian said she initially refused to provide investigators with any additional information.

"There's no words to describe how I felt at this point. I mean, everything was closing in on me," she said.

But after Peters told her parents about her secret marriage to Nayeri and the potential legal jeopardy she faced, the family hired a lawyer who, along with her family, encouraged her to cooperate.

"She actually had a very impactful conversation with her father. … She had a 'come-to-Jesus' moment where she realized, 'I have to do this. I have to actually stand up for myself for once,'" Peters said.

Peters said Shegerian told authorities what she knew about the plans regarding Michael. When they asked her if she would help them catch Nayeri, she agreed.

At the direction of authorities, Shegerian soon re-established contact with Nayeri while he was hiding in Iran. She recorded their phone calls.

Shegerian said "it was really hard" speaking to 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,'" Shegerian said. "You know, anything could set him off and he's highly suspicious."

Nevertheless, Shegerian was able to win Nayeri over again, moving her and the authorities into the next phase of their plan to capture him.

Iran does not have an extradition treaty with the United States, so authorities needed to lure Nayeri to a country where he could be arrested and then extradited, Peters said.

Shegerian was able to convince Nayeri to meet her in Barcelona, Spain, for a romantic rendezvous. Peters said she sent him a fake passport and fake green card.

But Nayeri’s travel plans included a connection in Prague, Czech Republic, a country that also has an extradition treaty with the U.S. As soon as Nayeri stepped off the plane in Prague in November 2013, he was arrested. He spent nearly a year there — in what he called a "true dungeon" — as he waited to be extradited to the U.S.

Nayeri said he never expected his then-wife to be involved in a plan to catch him.

"She's good. She's good. What can I say?" Nayeri said.

Nayeri goes to trial 7 years after kidnapping

When Nayeri was sent back to the U.S. in 2014 to stand trial for the 2012 kidnapping and torture case, he was locked up in Orange County Central Men’s Jail in California. But in January 2016, he managed to escape with two other inmates.

By then, Shegerian had divorced and annulled her marriage to Nayeri. She said she feared for her life.

"I became hysterical," Shegerian said about the moment she learned Nayeri had escaped. "It was my worst nightmare coming alive. He's going to kill me. There's no doubt in my mind."

After escaping the jail, Nayeri and the other two men allegedly kidnapped a cab driver and used his car to drive north. Police ultimately found and arrested Nayeri and one of the other inmates in San Francisco eight days later.

Days before their capture, the third inmate had returned to Orange County with the cab driver and turned himself in.

Nayeri went to trial last summer on charges of kidnapping, torture and aggravated mayhem for the events in 2012. Nayeri took the stand in his own defense.

Nayeri testified that although he had spent months surveilling Michael before the kidnapping, that was as far as his involvement went. In an interview with ABC News five months before his trial, he said there were "some good reasons" for the surveillance but would not elaborate.

"When the time comes, we'll put it out on the table," Nayeri said.

Nayeri has always denied taking part in the kidnapping and the bodily harm inflicted on Michael.

"Obviously, there was a level of 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."

In August 2019, the jury found Nayeri guilty of kidnapping and torture, but could not agree on whether he had committed aggravated mayhem, the charge related to the maiming of the victim. He has not been sentenced as of March 2020.

Handley was convicted in 2018 of two felony counts of kidnapping for ransom, one felony count of aggravated mayhem and one felony count of torture. He was sentenced to four life terms in prison, two without the possibility of parole.

Ryan Kevorkian, the third kidnapping suspect and Nayeri's friend from high school, and his former wife, Naomi Rhodus, face the same charges and have pleaded not guilty. Their cases are still pending.

Nayeri and the two other inmates are facing charges related to the jailbreak. They have all pleaded not guilty.

"The conviction was ultimately a relief,” said Shegerian, who had been granted transactional immunity in 2017 by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office in exhange for her cooperation and who testified against Nayeri. "It was a relief because it was justice in this case. … It was a relief for me because I'm like, 'OK, he's never going to get out again. I think this is it.' It was a relief for everyone else that he's really hurt along the way. It was just a relief for everyone."

Shegerian said she thinks about her experiences with Nayeri every day.

She also said that she volunteers at legal clinics focusing on victims of abuse and works to help victims in other ways.

For women who find themselves in situations similar to the one she was in eight years ago, she emphasized that "there's hope."

"I know you feel like it's hopeless, but it's not hopeless," she said. "You are not alone. … There is so much hope. There are so many people on the outside that are willing to help you and want to help, and there's hope. You are not stuck."