For days, Tri and Theresa Nguyen had seen their friend’s face splashed on television and wanted posters after he and two other inmates had escaped from an Orange County jail.
They wondered where Bac Duong was and what he might do if confronted by authorities.
The couple were stunned Friday morning when one of Orange County’s most wanted men walked into the family’s auto body shop on North Harbor Boulevard in Santa Ana. Duong, 43, looked nervous and pale, almost sickly, appearing nothing like the scowling man seen in mugshots broadcast nationwide, said Lee Tran, Theresa’s brother.
He milled around the store for a few seconds before Theresa recognized him. She rushed toward Duong, asking how she could help and where he had been, Tri Nguyen said.
Duong had a simple request: Call police. Then he stepped outside to smoke a cigarette while he waited to be taken back to jail.
Within 20 minutes, law enforcement officers from across Orange County swarmed the store and Duong was taken into custody about 11:30 a.m., the first capture in a sprawling manhunt sparked by a brazen escape last week from the Men’s Central Jail in Santa Ana, police said.
“I feel good for him because he did the right thing,” Tri Nguyen said. “He doesn’t have to run around anymore.”
Duong’s surrender came just 12 hours after police made their most public show of force yet in the now week-long hunt for the escapees. Carrying rifles and wearing tactical gear, dozens of Orange County sheriff’s deputies hung from the sides of armored vehicles as they flooded Westminster Avenue on Thursday night, conducting searches of a warehouse and a home.
Police have been increasing pressure on local gangs while asking Little Saigon’s residents for help in tracking down the three fugitives — Duong, Jonathan Tieu and Hossein Nayeri.
As part of the investigation, dozens of search warrants have been executed and at least 10 people have been arrested, some of whom belong to a street gang Tieu is affiliated with, sheriff’s officials said.
A source familiar with the investigation said Friday that police have been hammering those with ties to Vietnamese organized crime to “rattle the tree and shake these guys out.”
Police have carried out almost daily raids against Vietnamese crime groups and local street gangs in the hopes that the pressure might result in a surrender, according to the source, who did not have permission to speak publicly about the ongoing investigation.
The three men escaped last week by cutting through several layers of metal, steel and rebar on their way to the facility’s roof, before rappelling down the side of the building shortly after 5 a.m. on Jan. 22.
They vanished after a 5 a.m. head count, and the escape went undetected for at least 16 hours until deputies conducted a second inmate count.
Lt. Jeff Hallock, a Sheriff’s Department spokesman, said investigators believe the men have been living out of a white 2008 GMC Savana that was stolen in South Los Angeles the day after the escape.
A man matching Duong’s description stole the vehicle after responding to a Craigslist advertisement posted by the owner, who was looking to sell the van, police said.
Nayeri and Tieu remain on the loose. Hallock said investigators think they are in the San Jose area, and may be headed to Fresno.
Police are also trying to determine the extent of the relationship between Nayeri and Nooshafarin Ravaghi, a 44-year-old jailhouse English teacher who was arrested Thursday on suspicion she aided in the escape.
Ravaghi is accused of providing printed images of the jail from Google Earth that would have allowed Nayeri to view the roof of the complex.
Hallock said Friday that authorities were investigating whether the pair’s relationship was romantic and said it was “much closer and much more personal than it should have been.”
Duong, a Vietnamese national who entered the country legally in 1991, was charged with attempted murder last month.
An immigration judge ordered him deported in 1998, but Duong launched several appeals, which were exhausted in 2003, according to a statement issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. At the time, the Vietnamese government rarely accepted deportees from the U.S. and refused to take Duong.
He was freed in 2004 and reported regularly to ICE officials. In 2008, Vietnam signed an agreement with the U.S. to accept deportees but only those who had arrived in the U.S. after July 12, 1995.
Immigration officials recently filed paperwork to detain Duong after he was charged in December.
Tri Nguyen said he and his girlfriend, Theresa, had known Duong for about 10 years. They met in the Little Saigon neighborhood where Duong had rented rooms for the last decade.
Duong at one point worked in the area as a furniture deliveryman, and also occasionally found work on construction sites.
Nguyen said he believed that Duong had been divorced for several years and has two sons who live in San Diego.
When he entered the store on Friday morning, Duong was wearing a white shirt and jeans. His hair was shaved into a buzz cut and he “did not look anything like his picture,” on the wanted posters, said Tim Tran, the owner of the auto body shop where Duong surrendered.
Tran’s son, Lee, said investigators with the U.S. Marshal’s Service visited the store four days ago after jail records revealed that Theresa Nguyen had visited Duong at the Santa Ana lockup.
Speaking to a throng of reporters outside the store on Friday afternoon, employee Michael Knoski suggested Duong ran to the store because he wanted the manhunt to end peacefully.
“He knows us. He wants to feel safe,” Knoski said. “That’s why he came here.”
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Times Staff Writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.
MORE ON THE O.C. JAIL ESCAPE
O.C. jail escapee was ordered deported in 1998 but remained in U.S.
More details emerging about English teacher arrested in O.C. jail break plot
Orange County jail escapees may have fled to San Jose or Fresno, one suspect surrendered
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