Driven to the Mojave Desert while the man was tortured, the disturbing events of that night became known as one of Orange County's most horrific crimes.
This article contains language and content that may be disturbing to some readers.
Mary Barnes noticed something unusual when she got home from work, but didn't think much of it.
A window on the ground floor of her shared Newport Beach home had been left open wide enough that someone could step right in. She thought it was odd, but she didn't see or hear anything unusual, so she went about the rest of her day.
The 53-year-old Florida transplant had recently moved in with her boyfriend in his cozy blue house a block away from the beach. He was out of town on business in Belize.
She got a spray tan and went to bed around 10:30 p.m. in the master bedroom, alone.
The couple's 28-year-old roommate, the owner of a flourishing medical marijuana collective, had a good day. Nothing unusual.
He fell asleep after midnight on the couch watching TV.
Hiding inside the home that night were three men in ski masks, dark clothes, rubber gloves and armed with a shotgun and a pistol. They emerged from closets after midnight in what a prosecutor later called the "worst jack-in-the-box surprise ever."
They tied up the pair and then tortured the man for hours in the back of a rented van while driving to the Mojave Desert, where they thought he had buried $1 million in cash.
While repeatedly demanding to know "where's the money," the kidnappers burned him with a blowtorch, shocked him with a stun gun and mutilated him. Later, they doused him in bleach to try to erase any DNA or physical evidence they might have left and abandoned the pair on a desolate dirt road before dawn Oct. 2, 2012.
NBC4 is not naming the man because he's the victim of a sex crime.
Miraculously, both the man and the woman survived, but the crime became known as one of the most sadistic and twisted in Orange County history. It sparked a sprawling investigation in the search for the kidnappers and swept across several countries in the hunt for the suspected mastermind, a man named Hossein Nayeri.
Authorities said he had a history of fleeing the law and a convenient hiding place — Iran, where he was born and which has no extradition treaty with the United States.
This story would have been remarkable had it ended with Nayeri's dramatic arrest at Václav Havel Airport in Prague, but it didn't.
The saga took on another life after Nayeri was extradited and returned to U.S. custody and escaped a Santa Ana jail through an air vent on Jan. 22, 2016.
He filmed the breakout and his days on the run on a cellphone before he was recaptured.
During his eight days of freedom, victims, witnesses and law enforcement went into hiding from the man a prosecutor compared to Hannibal Lecter, the fictional killer from "The Silence of the Lambs," for his sadistic nature.
Nayeri was returned to custody and was convicted in the kidnapping and torture that happened five years ago on charges that carry a life sentence in prison without the possibility of parole.
Nayeri's friend from high school, Kyle Handley, was convicted of kidnapping, torture and mayhem charges in January and was sentenced to four life sentences without parole. Prosecutors say Handley was the driver of the van and was Nayeri's closest confidant in the kidnapping plot.
Another high school friend, Ryan Kevorkian, was identified as the third kidnapping suspect. He still faces trial. Prosecutors call the former wrestler "the hired muscle."
Nayeri has denied any involvement in the crime. Kevorkian's attorney declined to comment for this story. Handley's attorney, Robert Weinberg, said he's appealing the judgment.
Testimony in Handley's trial, court documents obtained by NBC4 and interviews with investigators and Nayeri himself are painting a more complete picture of the twisted five-year-long saga.
'Where's the Money?'
The dispensary owner woke up to someone pointing a flashlight in his face, he testified in court.
At first he thought it was one of his friends playing a joke, he said.
"Hey, Todd, cut it out," he said.
"I'm not Todd," said the man who was wearing a ski mask and pointing a shotgun in his face. The victim tried to push the barrel away, but the man hit him in the head with the butt of the gun.
Dizzy and bloody, he was attacked by a second man who punched and choked him. He tried to fight, but was quickly overpowered.
They ordered him to lay on his stomach, hands behind his back. They cinched zip ties around his ankles and wrists, put duct tape over his mouth and blindfolded him before they dragged him downstairs by his feet, his face hitting every step on the way down.
Barnes was fast asleep in the master bedroom face down in the pillow when she felt something cold and hard on the back of her neck.
"I was instantly awake," she told jurors. "I instantly knew it was the barrel of a gun."
"Don't worry, this isn't about you," she said a man whispered in her ear. "Just be quiet. Don't try to fight and you'll be all right."
The man put a blindfold over her eyes, duct tape over her mouth, and zip-tied her wrists and ankles.
He then dragged her off the bed and down the stairs.
On the way down, her sweats slid down her waist and she struggled to pull them up, but her captor did it for her.
"It's not about that," he said.
They were after money, not sex.
With both captives restrained on the floor next to the garage, the intruders ransacked the house. The men banged around upstairs, slammed doors, and rummaged through cabinets.
"Where's the money?" they demanded.
They pulled off the man's duct tape so he could respond.
"I have $2,000 in a sock in my room."
"No, no, not that. Where's the money?"
He told them that was all the money he had in the house.
About thirty minutes passed, both victims later testified.
The victims were shoved into the back of a van. Two of the men hopped in the back of the van with their two captives, while a third kidnapper drove.
While they drove into the predawn darkness on well-traveled Southern California highways, they kicked the man, punched him, burned him with a torch, and shocked him with a stun gun.
They didn't hurt Barnes.
The kidnappers asked the victim where he buried his million dollars.
"I told them I didn't have a million dollars," he testified at Handley's trial. "I definitely didn't have a million dollars buried anywhere."
They didn't like that answer.
They beat him, whipped him with a rubber hose, stomped him 15 to 20 times for five to 10 minutes at a time, demanding, "Where's the money?" over and over again.
"Hey, look, I don't have that much money," he said.
He offered them the $40,000 cash he had at his shop. But the shop had cameras.
"You can't go there looking like you look," they laughed. His face was a bloody, swollen mess.
They drove for more than two hours across two counties into the desert north of Los Angeles, the van radio tuned to a Spanish-language station.
They beat him up, asked for money, beat him up again, then asked for money again.
It seemed to go on forever, he said.
Barnes couldn't see the men because she was blindfolded, but she described one of the kidnappers as "the guy with the pretend Spanish accent."
When the victim's legs jerked during beatings, inadvertently kicking Barnes, he ordered the victim "'not to kick the female,'" Barnes said.
Several times Barnes thought she heard the clicking sound of a lighter.
"Someone might have been taking a hit of some kind of drug at some point," she said.
Again, one of them demanded: "We know you have a million dollars, where is it?"
"You're going to die tonight."
He told them he could get them $100,000 from a safety deposit box the next day, but that wasn't good enough.
The victims thought the kidnappers were faking accents. They alternated between Spanish and English.
They threatened to kill Barnes if the man didn't take them to the money.
They also told him they knew what car his girlfriend drove and knew where his parents lived.
"I was afraid we were going to die," Barnes said.
Barnes was terrified when the van pulled off the highway and she heard gravel under tires.
"I thought, 'This is where they're going to dump us and kill us,'" Barnes testified.
The van stopped. The kidnappers dragged the victims out and set them on the dirt.
The man with the fake-sounding Spanish accent "started to really turn up the heat and make threats in much scarier ways," Barnes said.
"We know you have the money. Where is it? Where is it? We know it's up here."
"Shoot him in the head!" one of them yelled, according to Barnes.
But nothing happened.
"My patrón's going to be very, very upset if we don't get him the million dollars," the man with the fake Spanish accent said.
They threatened to cut off his penis, put a bullet in his head and kill Barnes, too.
"Yeah, do it," another said.
The kidnappers followed through. They cut off his penis.
In a sadistic, singsong voice one of the men repeated throughout, "And back and forth and back and forth," while another kidnapper used his foot to pin the victim down, leaving a shoe print embedded in his skin.
Barnes, still blindfolded and bound nearby, then heard splashing. One of the men was pouring liquid on her roommate. Barnes thought it was lighter fluid and they were going to set him on fire. The man thought the same thing, but it was bleach. They used it to kill DNA to cover their tracks, prosecutors said.
One of kidnappers stepped over to Barnes, leaned toward her, pressed a knife against her hand and said, "Do you know what this is?"
"Yes," she said she told him.
"I'm going to take this knife and throw it five feet in front of you and if you can get to the knife and cut yourself free, you'll live. Today's your lucky day."
He threw the knife and told her to count to 100 after they got in the van.
She waited until she couldn't hear the sound of tires on gravel before she sat up and pushed her blindfold up with her knees so she could see.
The sun was coming up and she saw something shining a few feet away. It was the knife.
She scooted over to it, zip ties still binding her hands behind her back. She said she doesn't know exactly how she did it — she chalked it up to her years doing yoga maybe — but she managed to use the dull knife to cut the zip ties binding her feet.
Then she cut the duct tape off her roommate's mouth. She tried to cut the zip ties off his hands but he had been beaten so badly his hands were swollen and the zip ties cut into his skin.
Barnes said she saw car lights in the distance and knew she could get help.
She couldn't waste any more time. Her roommate, she feared, could bleed to death. She told him she could see the road. She'd go for help.
"Try to stay calm," she said, and left.
He waited on the desert floor alone. He had no idea how far the road was or whether anyone would come back for him. "Am I going to die? Am I going to live?" he testified he thought at the time.
Barnes couldn't run — the gravel was too painful on her bare feet — but she walked as fast as she could. Her blindfold was pushed up, her hands still bound behind her back.
She carried the knife, in case someone stopped to help but didn't have anything to cut the zip ties off.
"Help me! Please help me!" she screamed from the side of a highway in the middle of the desert.
She saw the look of shock on drivers' faces as they passed.
Kern County Sheriff's Deputy Steve Williams was on his way to work at 7 that morning on Highway 14 near Silver Queen Road outside the town of Mojave.
On the shoulder of the road, he saw a blond woman with a pony tail in a black top and black sweats walking barefoot on a shoulder of the highway. Her hands were behind her back and she had a blindfold on her forehead.
He made a U-turn.
As Williams approached Barnes he saw zip ties sticking out from behind her back.
"As soon as I turned around I knew something was up," he said. "So I called for backup."
She told him they had been kidnapped, and that her friend had been badly beaten and needed help or he might die.
The deputy could tell she was frantic, and fought to keep her calm. He radioed for help and two ambulances arrived within two minutes.
The caravan, with Barnes in the passenger seat of Williams' squad car, headed up the gravel road to where her roommate lay.
When Barnes opened the car door she heard him calling, "I'm over here."
He was still alive.
He was laying on his side on dirt, his hands still bound behind his back. His clothing had been saturated with bleach, the stench so strong Williams could hardly breathe.
His face and eyes were swollen nearly shut. His shoulders, chest and stomach were a patchwork of bruises and burns. He had wounds from the electrified barbs of a stun gun.
Deputies fanned out across the desert floor to search for the victim's severed penis, but never found it. Prosecutors believe the kidnappers tossed it out of the van so it couldn't be reattached, leaving him permanently scarred.
Each victim was put into an ambulance and rushed to the Antelope Valley Hospital some 20 miles away.
They had been found near an abandoned mining settlement called Reefer City, in the shadow of Edward's Air Force Base and only four miles away from a Kern County Sheriff's station.
There was no buried treasure there, as the kidnappers thought, just a lot of dirt, rocks, and scrub.
The kidnapping took place in a part of Newport Beach known as the Balboa Peninsula. It's a narrow strip of land with the Pacific Ocean on one side and the harbor on the other, home to multimillion dollar beachfront houses that compete for views of the ocean.
It's a popular area with weekend beachgoers who flock to the Balboa Fun Zone with its Ferris wheel, arcades, restaurants and bars.
Police there occasionally see rowdy, drunken fights and DUIs, but the most common crime is petty theft.
The kidnapping case, investigators said, was one of the worst crimes in the area's history.
Newport Beach police were now tasked with trying to find three violent kidnappers bent on finding, in the words of veteran prosecutor Matt Murphy, "Ali Baba's treasure" buried in the desert.
'Genuinely Nice Man'
The morning the two victims were found, detectives drove the 142 miles north into the Mojave Desert to see what they could learn from the crime scene where the pair had been rescued and to talk to them in the hospital.
"Who would do such a thing to you?" investigators asked the man.
He said he had no idea. He had never been in trouble. He had no criminal history. He had no enemies that he knew of.
People who knew him couldn't say anything bad about him.
He rented the room in the Newport Beach house where he and his roommate had been kidnapped for about $1,000 a month. He drove an older pickup truck. He was popular and well-liked, prosecutors would later tell the jury during the trial of one of his accused assailants.
At first, cops thought a mysterious man who had befriended the victim and had taken him out to the Mojave Desert to talk about a dubious gold mining scheme in the weeks before the kidnapping was the clue to solving the crime.
But a tip about three suspicious-looking men who had been seen near the house just before the kidnapping took them down a different path — one that can be traced back to a 1996 California ballot initiative.
California voters passed Proposition 215 in 1996, allowing patients to use medical marijuana. People with medical issues can get a medical marijuana card from a doctor and legally buy pot. They buy it for glaucoma, anxiety, cancer, and pain management.
While it is now legal in California for recreational use, it wasn't yet allowed at the time of the kidnapping.
The victim's medical marijuana dispensary in Orange County employed many people and catered to high-end clientele.
All-cash businesses like his, police say, are often targets for robbery because of the nature of their revenue. They're shut out of federal banking systems because the federal government still considers marijuana an illegal drug, so they often have cash on hand.
Because of the stigma of buying weed, most people pay in cash.
"Not a lot of people want 'Sky High' or 'Elevated Dreams' on their credit card statements," according to Senior Deputy District Attorney Heather Brown.
The morning that deputies discovered the kidnapping, police cordoned off the home on 25th Street with police tape. Investigators followed a trail of blood from the alley to the bedroom.
Inside, blood stained the base of the stairs. Large blood stains splattered a comforter that was stuffed in a closet. The house had been ransacked.
A woman drove up to the edge of the police tape. She told Newport Beach police Detective David Syvok that she had a friend who might have information and gave him a phone number.
The woman who answered the phone told Syvok she saw three "suspicious looking" men next to the garage of that home on the afternoon of Oct. 1, 2012, less than 24 hours before the kidnapping.
She said the men hoisted an extension ladder up against the wall of the home. A white pickup truck was angled next to the garage.
The woman thought their behavior was odd. They looked like construction workers, but didn’t appear to be doing any work on the house.
She said that two men stood near the side of the house while a third man held the ladder. She heard the ladder retract and extend a couple of times, but never saw anyone go up or down it.
She described one man as possibly Hispanic and between 30 and 40 years old with a medium build. He wore a hard hat and tan shirt with a collar. She described him as good-looking.
The second man also was possibly Hispanic and between 30 and 40 years old. He was shorter, stockier and wore a red or orange shirt. She couldn't see the third man very well.
She didn't see everything the men were doing. She was worried they'd spot her, so she said she would duck, then stand to watch some more. She wrote down the pickup truck's license plate number.
Investigators found that the white 1998 Dodge Ram 1500 was registered to Kyle Handley, a Fresno transplant who lived in Fountain Valley, a suburban city in Orange County. He had been convicted of illegally growing marijuana out of a rental in Fresno in 2007.
'Seemed Like a Cool Guy'
It turned out, the victim knew Handley.
They were both in the marijuana business. They first met in early 2012 when Handley showed up at the victim's collective with pot that he had grown and that he wanted to sell.
Over the course of their relationship, Handley had sold him up to five pounds of marijuana as many as nine times. Each time the victim paid him up to $2,800 cash for a pound of marijuana.
"He had nice product," the victim later said.
Handley seemed like a cool guy so they struck up a friendship. They even talked about going into business together.
But when the victim stopped buying, they ended their professional relationship, although they remained friends and began hanging out socially.
The victim took Handley and a few others on trips to Las Vegas, once in March 2012 and again in May 2012.
During the May trip, the victim splurged — $12,000 for the weekend penthouse at a Vegas hotel, $5,000 on gambling. He paid for prostitutes and cocaine.
They hung out at the pool during the day and partied at the strip club at night.
"We just went to Vegas to have fun," the victim told jurors.
After the May trip, Handley disappeared. The victim said he tried calling him a few times, but Handley's phone was out of service. It wasn't unusual to lose touch with marijuana vendors, he said. They lose their inventory in seizures by local or federal authorities. They get shut down by building departments if they don’t have permits. They get out of the business or move.
But he figured Handley would come back one day and he'd get his new number.
When detectives asked if the victim remembered hearing Handley during the kidnapping, he said one of the voices sounded familiar. But he never saw any of their faces, and he was blindfolded, tortured and scared to death.
"I definitely didn’t think he wanted to kidnap me."
After staking out Handley, police moved in for an arrest at 2 a.m. Oct. 6, 2012, four days after the kidnapping.
Orange County Sheriff's deputies pulled him over in his dad's blue Lexus in a 7-Eleven parking lot in Huntington Beach.
He was held on a charge of possession of an illegal switchblade while police searched his Fountain Valley home and his pickup truck for evidence in the grisly crime.
In a trash bag in his backyard, police seized a used zip-tie that looked identical to the ones found on the victims in the desert. On the floorboard of his pickup truck, police found a blue latex glove. In the house, police found a sweatshirt splattered with white bleach spots. The evidence was submitted to the crime lab for DNA testing.
The kidnapping investigation took detectives to a high school friend of Kyle Handley's, the first man arrested in connection with the brutal crime.
Hossein Nayeri's ex-wife, Cortney Shegerian, testified against him and said her former husband was also involved in the crime.
Nayeri denies the allegations against him and his trial is slated to begin next month.
At Handley's trial, Shegerian detailed what she said was an abusive relationship with Nayeri, the months he allegedly spent planning the crime, and his frantic efforts to flee to Iran before he could be arrested.
In 2012, Shegerian said, her ex-husband set aside marijuana dealing — a venture he did not deny during a jailhouse interview with NBC4 — and focused on a new venture: spying on a marijuana dispensary owner he believed to be wealthy.
Come take a look, Nayeri told his wife one day while looking at a map on his laptop.
"'Why would someone be circling out in the desert?'" Shegerian said he asked her. "Would that be a great place to bury money?"
"Yeah. Sure. Probably," she said she responded.
Shegerian described for the jury odd behavior in the months before the victim was kidnapped and tortured.
Shegerian said Nayeri became obsessed with the surveillance. She said he asked her to search the internet for the victim's name. She said she rode along with him to locations in Orange and Los Angeles counties where he set up and took down small cameras and affixed GPS devices on cars "to see where they were going."
She said she peeked over Nayeri's shoulder as he pulled up maps that corresponded to GPS tracker locations on his laptop just about every other day.
It was his "100 percent focus," she told the jury.
Shegerian testified as part of a deal with prosecutors that grants her immunity. A lawyer, Shegerian is also under investigation by the State Bar of California for her involvement in the crime.
Two weeks before the kidnapping, Shegerian said, Handley came to the apartment in Newport Beach she shared with Nayeri. She said Nayeri and Handley went into the garage where she heard them laughing while playing with a blowtorch.
She testified she also saw a hard hat that Nayeri had nicked by throwing it on the ground, rolling it around.
"Does that look like it's been worn?" she said he asked her.
Nayeri borrowed her pink stun gun, prosecutors said.
On Sept. 26, 2012, just days before the kidnapping, Shegerian said she was home alone.
She got a knock at the door in the middle of the night. It was the police.
Her Chevy Tahoe had been in a high-speed pursuit. It was found parked on a tiny street on Balboa Island, nestled in the Newport Bay between the Balboa Peninsula and mainland Newport Beach.
The driver was nowhere to be found. The Tahoe was impounded by police.
She said she lied at the time about who had the SUV.
"I knew Hossein had the car," she said. "I don't think I told them that."
Hours later — at 4 or 5 in the morning — Shegerian got another knock at the door.
It was her husband. He was drenched. She later told investigators that he told her he had been in the pursuit, ditched the Tahoe, and managed to avoid being caught by police by hiding out in the chilly waters of the bay under an overpass.
She said he asked her to go to the police station and file a police report saying the SUV had been stolen, which she did.
If it came back that he was the driver involved in the chase, he would've gone to jail. At the time, he was on felony probation for a vehicular manslaughter conviction in Central California years earlier.
He then asked her to drive him to Handley's house so he could take a nap, Shegerian said.
On Sept. 29, 2012, Nayeri asked her to buy four burner phones, Shegerian testified.
She said she was instructed to keep one and give the other three to her husband.
That night, before dinner, she said Nayeri was frustrated because Handley was having a problem.
"'Here, can you talk to Kyle?'" she said her husband said as handed one of the phones to her. "'He can’t set up the pay-as-you-go phone. Tell him how to do that.'"
She said she walked Handley through the set up, a short conversation, outlining the instructions laid out in the phone's activation packet.
She said she didn't know who was going to get the fourth phone.
Nayeri told her to make calls from his iPhone, she said.
Oct. 1, 2012
Shegerian said she remembered Oct. 1 well. It was her birthday.
Nayeri was not around, she said. She spent the day making calls and texting herself on his iPhone as he instructed, from their apartment.
He told her to make sure she used his cellphone in the vicinity of the house that night. "So I did," she said.
She said in court that the next time she talked to her husband was the next morning.
"He called me from his pay-as-you-go phone to my pay-as-you-go phone and said that I need to put money in the meter where Kyle's truck was parked," she testified.
She said Handley's Dodge was parked near a restaurant on the Balboa Peninsula, which was about a half-mile away from the location where the kidnapping occurred earlier that morning.
Shegerian found the truck and put money in the meter before she went to her law clerk job in Cerritos.
She talked to him later that day. This time, she said, Nayeri asked her to buy him four more burner phones.
"After I gave him the four new pay-as-you-go phones, he told me to destroy my previous one," she said.
When she got home, Nayeri wasn't there, but she noticed socks in the trash and the apartment was "somewhat disheveled." She said she thought her dog had gotten into it.
She bagged up the trash and disposed of it at a Target store in Costa Mesa, about an eight minute drive from her apartment.
Then she called Nayeri.
"What's going on with this trash? What's happening? These socks were in there," she said she asked him.
"'Oh, you know, those socks,'" she recounted him saying. "'It's good that you threw them away. Those socks are fine, but it's good that you threw them away.'"
After Handley's Arrest
After Handley was arrested, days later, Shegerian said Nayeri was frantic. They immediately saw a lawyer.
Nayeri began destroying documents, phones, a laptop, and "every single electronic in the house," Shegerian said.
"He went through and cleaned out our entire apartment over the course of like four or five days."
He didn't stop there, she said.
Nayeri went to his old pal Handley's house and removed several items, including a flat-screen TV right off the wall. He also took a Tiffany watch, Shegerian said.
Nayeri said he was going to Iran and told Shegerian to sell the items so he could have spending money while he was abroad.
"Anything that he could take with him, he took," she said.
When investigators learned the Tahoe was still in impound after the kidnapping, they got a search warrant and found mini cameras, GPS trackers and magnets that allow someone to affix the trackers onto metal like on a car. On the cameras, detectives discovered hundreds of hours of footage. In one video, police saw the victim walking from his shop to his truck, prosecutors said.
According to court documents, police found a cellphone containing emails with receipts for the equipment dating back to March 2012. The equipment had been shipped to Handley's Fountain Valley home, officials said.
Police ramped up their hunt for Nayeri.
Eight days after Kyle Handley was arrested in connection with the horrifying kidnapping and torture of a medical marijuana dispensary owner, his close friend and high school pal, Hossein "Adam" Nayeri, flew to Iran, Nayeri's ex-wife Cortney Shegerian said.
In court documents, she said Nayeri told her he had no intention of returning to the United States. She said he wouldn't have been able to come back anyway. He wasn't a United States citizen and his green card had expired.
This December, Shegerian testified against Handley, who was later convicted of kidnapping, torture and mayhem in connection with the case.
Nayeri is scheduled to go to trial in March for his alleged role in the crime. He denies any involvement. Handley's attorney, Robert Weinberg, said he's appealing the judgment.
In court, Shegerian described what she said were her initial attempts to cover for her then-husband and protect him from police inquiries. She later had what a prosecutor called a "come-to-Jesus moment" and made the ultimate decision to cooperate with local and federal authorities in a dangerous and delicate ruse to lure Nayeri out of hiding overseas.
In the spring of 2013, Newport Beach police notified Shegerian that she could pick up her Chevrolet Tahoe, still in a police impound yard months after it had been involved in a police pursuit.
Shortly after she'd been notified about that chase, she lied to police about who the driver was when officers came to her door and she filed a false police report claiming it had been stolen, prosecutors said.
She had even refused to give police Nayeri's cellphone number in connection with the pursuit investigation, telling an officer she was a law student who had "learned not to trust the police because 'they lie,'" Newport Beach police Detective Peter Carpentieri wrote in court documents.
She later changed course, telling police Nayeri told her he'd been behind the wheel during that chase and said in court that he told her to file a false police report. If it came back that he was the driver in the pursuit, he would have gone to jail. At the time, he was on probation for a vehicular manslaughter conviction in Central California years earlier.
At the police station, she signed a release saying she was the person responsible for the items found inside the SUV — phones, small cameras and GPS trackers, all considered evidence in the kidnapping plot.
In April 2013, when Newport Beach police Detective Ryan Peters tried questioning her about her husband at the police station, Shegerian wouldn't talk.
"I was not cooperative in any sort of way," Shegerian testified at Handley's trial.
So police took another tack. They called her father.
"We had a great conversation," said Peters, testifying in Handley's trial.
During that call, Peters broke the news to Mr. Shegerian that his daughter was married to Nayeri. She had kept her relationship with Nayeri a secret from her family.
He wasn't happy.
Ever since that call, he said, the relationship between police and Shegerian has been good, in a major breakthrough for investigators looking to piece together the mystery surrounding her then-husband.
Shegerian and Nayeri had been in an off-and-on relationship for 10 years after meeting in the summer of 2003 at a Mimi's Cafe in Fresno. He was a 24-year-old server and she was a 16-year-old high school student.
He was physically abusive, she testified in court. It started with smaller things like pushing. Then it grew into "full-fledged violence." She said he beat her between 60 and 70 times in the time they were together. Neighbors would hear. Property managers would call the police, she said. She called police once to respond to their home.
By January 2011, she said, Nayeri had become extremely violent, "just beating me up every single day."
She said police once went to her house to check on her after Nayeri had been seen walking around Irvine, "kind of discombobulated with a knife being threatening." Days later she went to the police, pressed charges and Nayeri was arrested, she said.
"I just couldn't take it anymore," she said. "I was so afraid."
She hid what a prosecutor said was a "very sick, dysfunctional" relationship from her family.
"Hossein had made me feel I couldn't trust them," she said.
Cooperating with law enforcement meant putting herself in danger, she said. "I was terrified of him." But she was also facing serious charges, "classic aiding and abetting" in a case that carried a life sentence, prosecutors said.
"My frame of mind started changing," Shegerian said.
She started seeing a therapist and hired a criminal attorney, and she eventually told detectives everything she said could remember about her involvement before, during and after the crime.
Police realized Shegerian was more than a witness. She could be the lure to coax Nayeri out of Iran.
She waited until Nayeri emailed her so that it didn't look suspicious. She had told him that she had been contacted by law enforcement.
She said it took a while for Nayeri to warm up, but eventually they talked.
By May 2013, she was saving his emails and recording every phone and Skype call to turn over to police.
Meanwhile, Newport Beach police, Orange County prosecutors and the FBI were calling authorities overseas to find a country willing to help to catch Nayeri.
They settled on the Czech Republic. They came up with a plan to fly him there, with Shegerian as their go-between.
She started hanging out with Nayeri's sister. She went to Nayeri's uncle's funeral. She made plans with Nayeri's sister to travel to Barcelona and have Nayeri meet them there to celebrate Shegerian's graduation from law school.
She mailed Nayeri travel documents, arranged through her law enforcement handlers, so he could enter the European Union.
The ruse had to look real enough that he'd feel comfortable. It had to be believable enough so that Nayeri's sister, who was kept in the dark, would go along.
Shegerian packed $20,000 in cash that her parents gave her and flew to Spain with Nayeri's sister, all under law enforcement direction and supervision.
"He was going to get some money, some electronics and some fun," said Heather Brown, an Orange County senior deputy district attorney.
Not all of Shegerian's law enforcement handlers were confident that she'd pull it off.
"On multiple occasions, many people, including myself, said they thought you were going to tip him off," Matt Murphy, a veteran prosecutor, told Shegerian during her testimony in Handley's trial.
But she didn't.
Nayeri was arrested Nov. 7, 2013, after getting off a plane at Václav Havel Airport in Prague, where he thought he was going to make a connecting flight to Barcelona. He was met by Czech authorities, US Marshals, and FBI agents from "Project Welcome Home," a unit that helps U.S. authorities capture fugitives abroad.
Prosecutors and police, who'd worked for a year tracking him down, were thrilled.
"I have never been more ecstatic in my entire career," said Brown, a 20-year veteran.
Two others were arrested in the case: Ryan Kevorkian, the third suspected kidnapper, and his ex-wife, Naomi Rhodus.
In the months leading to his arrest, two plainclothes Newport Beach detectives followed Kevorkian into a 24-Hour Fitness in Palmdale. While playing pickup basketball and doing their own workout, the officers kept their eyes on him as he did squats and leg presses with heavy weights. Kevorkian was a former Clovis West High School wrestler with Nayeri.
In the bathroom, Kevorkian wiped his hands on a towel, set it on the counter and walked out of the gym. The plainclothes cops scooped up the towel, put it into a bag and sent it to the crime lab for DNA testing.
Police said Kevorkian's DNA matched physical evidence from the investigation, found on a zip tie in a trash bag at Handley's Fountain Valley home.
Kevorkian is a former California correctional officer. His father is a retired deputy commissioner for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Ryan Kevorkian reportedly resigned from his correctional officer job in 2010 under the shadow of suspicion after an inmate became impregnated at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla where he worked, according to Eric Schweitzer, the attorney for Kevorkian's ex-wife, Rhodus.
A spokesman for the CDCR confirmed Kevorkian worked at the facility as a corrections officer, but did not disclose whether he had any complaints about improper sexual relationships with inmates or the reason he left the department, citing peace officer privacy laws.
Ryan Kevorkian's attorney declined to comment for this story about his client's actions on the job or the kidnapping and torture allegations.
Rhodus is not suspected participating in the kidnapping or torture. She's accused of buying the surveillance equipment through a phony email account as well as supplying the guns and renting the van used in the crime.
She also went to high school with Nayeri, Kevorkian, Handley and Shegerian. She later worked as a budtender, trimming marijuana for Handley and Nayeri when they were in the pot business together, prosecutors said.
She got a friend to rent the white Ford Econoline panel van on Sept. 25, 2012 that was later used by the kidnappers as a "rolling torture chamber," prosecutors said.
It was returned on Oct. 3, 2012, a day after the crime.
She bought a Glock semi-automatic pistol on March 7, 2012 in Fresno and returned it on Oct. 24, 2012, less than three weeks after the crime, prosecutors said.
From her storage locker in Fresno, detectives seized ammunition and a 12-gauge pump-action pistol grip shotgun, a "big gun that makes big holes," said Murphy, the Orange County Senior deputy district attorney who prosecuted Handley and has been involved in the investigation for years.
Prosecutors said Rhodus also traveled to Turkey at least once with $10,000 cash for Nayeri while he was on the run.
Schweitzer, Rhodus' lawyer, said his client was coerced into providing guns and the van.
"It appears that Mr. Nayeri fed my client various lines of baloney in order to get his way," Schweitzer said. "Recent events indicate that this is a pattern with him. He gets people around him to give him whatever he needs at the moment. He does this through sympathy, intimidation, or a combination of both. She had no idea what the stuff was being used for."
He told her he needed the van to move, Schweitzer said. He needed the guns for protection. He had her order surveillance equipment because he was afraid his wife was cheating on him, the lawyer said.
"He's got a line for everything," Schweitzer said.
The whole group were friends. They'd gone to high school together.
Nayeri was the godfather to Kevorkian's first child and was best man at Ryan and Naomi's wedding.
A Nazi Prison
After his capture in the Czech Republic, Nayeri spent more than 10 months in a cell at Pankrác Prison in Prague, which once housed the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation, while awaiting extradition to the United States.
Nayeri said in an interview with NBC4 that nobody spoke English and he communicated with hand signals. He described his experience like something out of "The Twilight Zone."
While there, Nayeri got a package from his wife — she wanted a divorce.
She claimed their marriage was void because Nayeri had already been married to a woman in Iran at the time he married Shegerian on June 25, 2010. Their marriage was eventually dissolved by a California court on grounds of bigamy.
Nayeri was extradited to the U.S. on Sept. 14, 2014. He was escorted in handcuffs by U.S. Marshals on a 9-hour flight from the Czech Republic to New York.
In New York, he was met by Detective Peters and his partner, who escorted Nayeri on the last leg of the journey. Nayeri had a window seat next to Peters. Nayeri stared out the window without saying a word to Peters the entire 4-hour flight back to Southern California, the detective later said.
Catching Nayeri was a big coup for the veteran detective, his department and Orange County prosecutors — but the case was far from over.
It was sometime after the 5 a.m. head count on Jan. 22, 2016 when three inmates escaped from the Orange County Central Men's Jail in Santa Ana.
They crawled through an air vent, climbed in the bowels of the jail using a ladder made of bedsheets and onto the roof where they rappelled four stories to the ground.
Jailers didn't notice the missing inmates until 15 hours later, during an 8 p.m. head count in a dormitory filled to capacity with 68 inmates.
When Sheriff's Deputy Gabriel Perez called for Hossein Nayeri, Jonathan Tieu, and Bac Duong, he got no answer.
The deputy called again and heard nothing.
Perez checked to see if he had misidentified them or if he missed them altogether in the count.
A voice from inside the dorm said they might be in court.
But they had no court dates or any other excused absences that day.
The dorm was cleared and a search was launched for three missing criminals with a history of extreme violence.
Sheriff's officials aren't talking about the escape, citing the ongoing criminal case and a lawsuit by deputies against the county about jail safety. But the breakout is detailed in court documents, a grand jury report, and a video of the jailbreak that Nayeri filmed and provided to NBC4 last summer.
Witnesses, victims and law enforcement scrambled to go into hiding.
The missing inmates were considered armed and dangerous. Tieu was a documented member of a Vietnamese gang, facing a retrial on murder and attempted murder charges in a gang-related attack, officials said. Duong also had gang ties. He had felony convictions for drugs and burglary. At the time of the escape, Duong was facing trial on an attempted murder charge. Nayeri was in custody awaiting trial in the kidnapping and torture case from 2012.
Tieu's attorney declined to comment. Duong's public defender did not respond to requests seeking comment. In a jailhouse interview, Nayeri didn't deny the escape, but did deny the kidnapping and torture charges.
It was after midnight — 20 hours after the breakout — when Heather Brown got a text from Newport Beach police Detective Ryan Peters.
Brown, Peters, and other law enforcement spent years getting Nayeri into custody.
Brown said Nayeri was violent, manipulative and cunning. She compared him to Hannibal Lecter in an interview with a reporter. Now he was on the loose after being extradited to the U.S. to face charges in a case that carries two life sentences without the possibility of parole.
"'Please tell me you're lying,'" Brown said she told Peters.
"'No, I'm not lying,'" she said the detective told her. "'I have a unit on my house. I suggest you do that as well.'"
Brown called the sheriff's department to request a patrol unit to watch her home. The sheriff's department expedited a concealed-weapons permit for Brown to carry a gun, she said.
She called one of her main witnesses — Nayeri's wife, Cortney Shegerian.
Shegerian was a reluctant witness who had initially refused to talk to police, but agreed to cooperate as she faced potential charges of aiding and abetting, prosecutors said.
Shegerian testified in December in the trial of her ex-husband's high school friend and alleged co-conspirator, Kyle Handley.
She said in court that Nayeri's escape terrified her. He had abused her for years, she testified.
She feared that if Nayeri ever got the chance, he would kill her.
Police knocked on her door before dawn.
"'We need to take you with us now,'" she said police told her.
She was put into protective custody. Police also hid Shegerian's grandmother, and other family members also went into hiding, Brown said.
Brown called Eric Schweitzer, an attorney for Naomi Rhodus, an accused accomplice in the kidnapping case, in Fresno.
Rhodus feared Nayeri would not only come after her, but her children as well.
"We took it very seriously," Schweitzer said.
They Had Help
As sheriff's officials announced rewards for their arrests, law enforcement fanned out across the state to find them. Deputies at the jail began to piece together the escape route.
Sheriff's Department photos showed a section of razor wire that had been cut and moved aside on the jail's roof. A rope made of bedsheets could be seen hanging off a grate.
Surveillance video showed movement on the roof in the early morning hours, just before, officials said, a getaway driver whisked them away once they were on the ground.
That driver, Loc Ba Nguyen, a longtime acquaintance of Duong, later told investigators he had visited Duong in jail and got a list of tools and supplies needed for the escape.
He left a backpack with a rope, a knife, and clothing and a duffle bag with clothes, wire cutters, and cellphones attached to a rope that the inmates hoisted up from the roof in the weeks leading up to the escape, Nguyen's attorney said.
Nguyen was arrested two days after the escape. He pleaded guilty to felony charges and was sentenced to a year in jail.
His attorney, Ed Welbourn, said Nguyen, who had known Duong's reputation in gangs in the Vietnamese community, got nothing in return for his help but felt like he had no other choice.
About 90 minutes after the sheriff's department discovered the breakout, Long Ma, a 74-year-old cabbie, got a call from a man who wanted to be picked up outside a restaurant in Westminster.
When Ma got to there, Duong, Nayeri, and Tieu climbed into his Honda Civic.
From there, he later told investigators, the men told him to drive to a Walmart and a Target. Then they held him at gunpoint while they drove with him in his own locked car to hotel rooms across Southern California and the Bay Area, he later told investigators.
In the rooms, he was never left alone, nor was he allowed to get off the bed. He had to ask permission to use the bathroom.
The cabdriver said Duong told him later that Nayeri had wanted to kill him, but Duong protected him and rescued him after an argument with Nayeri in Northern California.
The two Vietnamese men drove back to Southern California where Duong surrendered to police.
The cabbie drove to a courthouse in Santa Ana and told authorities about his ordeal.
They Got Him
Nayeri and Tieu spent their last night of freedom in the back of a stolen van parked on a street next to a Whole Foods Market in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco.
They smoked marijuana and ate bananas in the back of the van, their makeshift home.
"This is our casa, right now, for the moment," Nayeri says as the camera pans around the van showing sheets, a Target store bag and bottles of water.
"Want some bananas?" he says, as the camera pans to bananas.
"No, we don't have crack," Nayeri says. "We don't have crystal meth. We're smoking weed and eating bananas."
Nayeri and Tieu laugh.
"It's kind of bananas."
They were arrested Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, when a passer-by saw Nayeri get out of the van and walk into a McDonald's.
He was arrested after a short foot chase.
When Brown, the prosecutor, got the news that Nayeri was back in custody, she jumped for joy.
"I was so excited," she said. "Relief washed over me."
The escape raised questions about visitor security and contraband smuggled into the jail.
A jailhouse ESL teacher was ensnared in the escape fallout.
Even though he speaks perfect English, Nayeri took classes from the woman at the jail and developed a close relationship with her, officials said.
Sheriff's officials said he used her to get Google Earth map printouts of the jail complex. He also asked her for printouts of pictures of two prosecutors — Brown and Matt Murphy, Brown said.
The teacher told investigators he wanted the pictures to know who the lawyers were on his case, Brown said.
The teacher was arrested, but no charges were filed against her, officials said.
Nayeri allegedly went so far as to forge "love letters" in her handwriting, officials said, falsely implicating her in helping the escape.
The escape prompted a grand jury investigation and a lawsuit against the sheriff and the county by the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs. The lawsuit claims the 1,433-capacity jail is not safe, and is like a state prison with "violent, hardened criminals."
Deputies alleged that management had dismissed or ignored grave concerns about security years before the jailbreak.
The union also charged that management had cut staff the night of the escape and ignored department policy on proper inmate counts.
The grand jury report found a laundry list of problems — improper inmate head counts, inadequate searches of plumbing tunnels and roofs, a lack of supervision and improper training, confusing policies on inmate head counts and inspections, and outdated video security equipment.
Last summer, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens announced upgrades — clarified rules for inmate counts and inspections, upgraded lighting and fencing, closed circuit television cameras and more staffing.
But questions remain about Nayeri's status in a dorm with other inmates. He was a flight risk, had a history of fleeing the law and had told his sister that if he ever got out, he'd go back to Iran, according to court documents.
Visiting Hossein "Adam" Nayeri is a lengthy process.
It took months for NBC4 to get face-to-face access, communicating at first through letters with Nayeri, who agreed to the interview — his first on camera.
When he finally sat down with NBC4, it was in an 11-foot by 5-foot visiting room usually reserved for lawyer-inmate visits. The room was in a wing of smaller visiting booths where family members meet with inmates and communicate by phone separated by glass.
At the time of the interview in November, he was among the most heavily guarded inmates at the Theo Lacy Jail in Orange, confined alone in a cell 23 hours a day, after his daring jail escape in 2016.
In the one hour a day he was allowed out for shower and meals, Nayeri was escorted by two deputies, one carrying a camera filming his every move through the 3,000-inmate jail. He was one of seven inmates with the highest level of security at the jail.
Nayeri's trial for kidnapping and torture is scheduled for later this month, and he faces charges that carry a life sentence in prison without the possibility of parole. He denies any involvement in the original crime that landed him behind bars.
He's also facing additional charges in connection with breaking out of the Orange County jail in Santa Ana. He doesn't deny breaking out.
He's facing more charges for what allegedly happened while he and two other escapees were on the run. They are accused of kidnapping a cabdriver and forcing him to drive north with them, but Nayeri denies it was an abduction and says the man voluntarily helped them.
Before Nayeri could be seen, the chains hobbling his legs could be heard dragging on the floor as he was escorted by deputies down a hallway and into the visiting room. He stood in an orange jail jumpsuit in a doorway, hands shackled to his waist. The 39-year-old former high school wrestler stands under 6 feet tall.
Deputies sat Nayeri down on a metal stool and locked his chains to the floor. A deputy instructed him to stay in his seat, then threaded a microphone cord under his jailhouse smock and affixed it the clip-on mic on his collar.
Once the mic was attached, introductions were made while seven deputies in bulletproof vests stood watch, out of the view of the cameras.
Nayeri was asked about the cabdriver, who he is charged with kidnapping after his jail escape.
"When you were on the beach with Long Ma, are you telling me he went willingly, that he was part of your crew?"
"I'm just going to leave it as it is, speaks for itself," Nayeri said quietly, shaking his head.
"Some of the things that were said in my preliminary hearing just blew me away, just blew me away. He claimed in broad daylight ... gonna go hang him from the Santa Cruz pier? ... I left it be. I still think he's a great guy."
He said that if he thought he was going to be accused of kidnapping Ma, he would have recorded the whole time he was out on the run.
"We were great to him," Nayeri said.
Ma, the cabdriver, told investigators he was held at gunpoint, he couldn't leave the motel rooms, was forced to stay on beds and had to ask permission to use the bathroom.
While on the run, Nayeri said he and his accomplices were in fear for their lives as they watched news of sheriff's officials hunting for them after their daring escape from jail.
"It blew me away to sit there and watch the captain basically taunting us. It was really volatile hours. We were just as concerned and under a lot of stress ourselves."
"The sheriff, when he's standing on the podium and directly talking to us escapees and saying, 'I'm coming to get you,' that puts you on the spot. Is this like a do-or-die situation? It pushes you to the edge. It does something to you. It really pushes you to the limit to where you're like, 'maybe there is no going back.'"
"When you feel like every agency is looking for you, guns drawn ready to shoot, your choices become very limited."
He talked about how different security for him is now, post-escape.
"It's been a whole lot more tighter. I'm practically nailed to the ground."
Nayeri was born in Iran to a father who is a doctor and a mother who is a lawyer. He grew up in Fresno, was on the wrestling team at Clovis West High School.
He once volunteered with the American Red Cross to help out victims of Hurricane Katrina, although he said he sold half a pound of marijuana to finance a donation. When he went to donate the money, he said a worker asked if he could help out.
"We need bodies out there," he said he was told. "Got any experience?"
He told the worker he had been in the Marine Corps for a little bit. He wound up driving to New Orleans himself, where he stayed for five weeks helping distribute food and water. He said at that time he was heavily addicted to cocaine and was a regular pot smoker.
While there, he said he slept in an empty jailhouse.
His story about his work for the Red Cross, distributing water and food in Louisiana, is supported by a document obtained by NBC4 that was submitted in support of Nayeri in an earlier court case. The details of his time there are Nayeri's own telling.
"I took a chunk of hash with me and helped out a whole lot of people under stress. I just felt at that moment, 'it has to be done.' It's just part of me. I don't think about it twice. If it needs to be done, I do it. And that's it."
With a smile, he looked at one of the NBC4 reporters — "if you had a flat on the side of the road, I'd probably help you out, too."
When asked about the kidnapping and torture charges against him, he accused police of "running fast and loose with the case," but declined to talk specifics.
"They run a kind of a wild, wild west kind of a justice around here," he said. "When you get a green light from your DA's office that you can run it fast and loose a little bit, then you do."
He said DNA found in a blue rubber glove seized from his best friend's pickup truck in connection with the kidnapping and torture investigation gave detectives "the starting point to drag me into it."
"If I wasn't there, how in the world, how in the world, can I know who was actually there?"
In the interview, Nayeri was open about his personal life.
He said after high school he enlisted in the Marines with some of his wrestling team buddies for the challenge. He said he took it a step further and qualified for elite reconnaissance training on Coronado Island. Documents obtained by NBC4 support that claim.
But his service ended when he was court-martialed. Police arrested him for drinking at a park in Fresno after he had gone AWOL during a weekend leave. He said he was at a lake jet skiing.
It was one of his biggest regrets, he said.
"I loved the Marine Corps, hands down. They know what they're doing."
He talked about his ex-wife, Cortney Shegerian, who's now a witness expected to testify against him at his upcoming kidnapping and torture trial.
She faced charges in the case as well, but agreed to cooperate with police in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Authorities said she was critical in helping lure Nayeri out of hiding in Iran so he could be extradited to the United States.
He says he doesn't blame her for turning him in.
"She's a human being," he said. "You put somebody under certain type of pressure ... when you hang somebody's life over their head. I try to have empathy for her, understanding. Did it hurt? ... It hurt. It hurt."
He didn't say why he traveled to Iran after his friend, Kyle Handley, was arrested in October 2012 in connection with the kidnapping and torture case.
"I'm going to leave that for the court. There are reasons."
He said it took a while for him to figure out his then-wife had been cooperating with police, and she was in on the sting to lure him to the Czech Republic, where he was arrested.
"I was so concerned about her. I was thinking she was in Barcelona waiting for me."
He said his first thought was to ask the authorities to call his wife and let her know what was happening.
"I had no idea."
He described his time in custody overseas like something out of "Twilight Zone." He was held at Pankrác Prison, which once housed the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation.
"A two-hour layover turned into 11 months, a true dungeon, legitimate dungeon, which you see in the movies."
He said nobody spoke English and he communicated with "big, burly guys" using hand signals.
He said while he was in the lockup in Prague, he got a package from his wife seeking a divorce on grounds that he had already been married to a woman in Iran. He said he had long been divorced from his Iranian wife, even though a judge nullified his marriage to Shegerian on grounds of bigamy.
To that, Nayeri said, "Once you step into the grinder, it's not about so much to do with truth. It's a game of winning and losing, like a Sunday afternoon NFL game."
He said he can't think about what his future holds.
"Right now I'm in complete limbo ... But I don't have any hang-ups in life. I've had a very good life."
This series was published between Feb. 13, 2018 and March 1, 2018.