WESTMINSTER, Calif. — A 74-year-old California taxi driver expected to die when an escaped jail inmate put a gun to his stomach and kidnapped him. But now the driver is thanking the man for saving his life.
Cab driver Long Hoang Ma detailed on Wednesday the harrowing week he spent with the three violent fugitives who escaped on Jan. 22 from the Orange County jail and the unexpected kindness from one of them, Bac Duong, a fellow Vietnamese immigrant.
Ma said his ordeal began after he unknowingly picked them up just hours after their jailbreak and Duong pulled the gun.
But Duong called him "uncle" - a friendly term of respect in Vietnamese - and told him from the start he wouldn't harm him if he helped, and eventually whisked him to freedom from a motel in San Jose, California, where the fugitives had holed up during a manhunt.
"From the bottom of my heart, I can say Bac Duong saved my life, and I'm so grateful and thankful to him. I thought I was dying," Ma said in Vietnamese through a translator at Nguoi Viet, a newspaper in Westminster, whose Little Saigon is among the largest Vietnamese communities outside Vietnam.
Ma said he speaks limited English and did not know from minute to minute if he would live or die as he was forced to travel 400 miles with his captors and they fought over his fate.
They used Ma's identification to check into two motels and to pick up $3,000 from Western Union that he was told had been wired to fugitive Hossein Nayeri by his mother.
No one reported Ma missing. He said he leads a very private life and has few friends.
Duong, 43, told him as they drove to safety on Jan. 28 that Nayeri and the other fugitive, Jonathan Tieu, had been planning to tie him up with rope bought at Home Depot that morning and kill him, Ma said.
Duong was worried about his own life, too, after a fistfight with Nayeri over what to do with Ma that left Duong bloody.
"I don't know English very well but I heard Nayeri saying 'Bang, old man! Bang, old man!' and they were fighting back forth with each other," Ma said. "Bac was afraid of him."
A day earlier, the fugitives had driven Ma to Santa Cruz, California, and marched him to the end of a pier, where Nayeri took cellphone pictures of Ma with himself and Tieu but left Duong out of the photos.
"On the way back, they took a different road and they went around and around," Ma said. "When we got back to the room, I knew I was alive for one more day."
Nayeri, 37, Tieu, 20, and Duong broke out of the jail by cutting through a metal grate that led to a plumbing tunnel. The trio then crawled through piping to the jail's roof, where they rappelled four stories to freedom using a rope made of bed linens. An accomplice picked them up and drove them to safety.
Duong surrendered Friday in Santa Ana after fleeing San Jose with Ma. Nayeri and Tieu were arrested Saturday in San Francisco after a homeless man reported seeing a white van matching the description of a vehicle that authorities said had been stolen by the fugitives.
The man, Matthew Hay-Chapman, told the San Francisco Chronicle that despite sleeping in a park until a friend recently began allowing him on his couch he follows current events and recognized the car. He could wind up collecting $140,000 in reward money, the paper reported.
Ma's ordeal began late Jan. 22, when Duong called his cellphone to order a cab. The grandfather of eight, who is from Ca Mau Province and was a captain in the South Vietnamese army during the Vietnam War, advertises his independent cab business in Vietnamese-language newspapers.
He took Duong and the other men several places, including a Target and a coin-operated laundry. Later in the evening, Duong pressed the gun into Ma's stomach, took his cellphone and said, "'We need you. You have to help us for a few days,'" Ma recalled.
Nayeri took the wheel and drove to a motel in Rosemead, California. The next morning, Duong turned on the TV and the trio gloated as they saw their mug shots splashed across the screen.
Later that day, Duong stole license plates and the white GMC van, Ma said.
The four men then drove to the San Francisco Bay Area after spending three more nights in a motel.
Duong was with Ma in the taxi; Nayeri and Tieu were in the van.
They ate pizza, fried rice and pasta. And each night, the three inmates drank two cases of Heineken beer and a bottle of Jack Daniel's whiskey.
The fight that ultimately broke up the group — and saved Ma — came on one of those alcohol-fueled evenings. The next morning, Nayeri left the gun with Duong and Ma when he went with Tieu to buy the rope.
Duong took the gun and the next day, when he and Ma were alone again, he ordered Ma into the taxi. Ma thought Duong was going to kill him but instead they headed south - and a visibly upset Duong talked about Nayeri.
"Bac Duong said, 'escaping the prison was not easy ... but now Nayeri is behaving like this,'" Ma recalled. "'How can he do business?'"
On Wednesday, a relieved and smiling Ma was again behind the wheel of his Honda Civic taxi. Bright yellow evidence stickers placed by sheriff's investigators were still affixed to the trunk and a back door.
As he slipped behind the wheel, Ma nodded to a small statue of Buddha propped on the dashboard and grinned.
"I had this on my car the whole time," he said. "I think his statue brought luck to me."