This is the first in a six-part series.
A marijuana dispensary owner and his roommate are abducted in the middle of the night at gunpoint from their Newport Beach home by three masked men.
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.
Part I: The Kidnapping
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.
Now, Nayeri is back in custody, awaiting trial next month 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 last month. He faces a life sentence without parole at his sentencing hearing next month. 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 also faces trial next month. 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 plans to appeal 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 and 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.
Police immediately began investigating, but there was one big problem. While the kidnappers seemed to know a lot about the victims, the victims had no idea who the culprits were.