When three men escaped from the Orange County jail, officials quickly decided only one of the escapees possessed the cunning and resourcefulness to mastermind it: Hossein Nayeri, a 37-year-old ex-Marine who faced charges in a grisly kidnapping and torture plot.
Around Nayeri’s former wife, 29-year-old Cortney Shegerian, the anxiety was extreme. She was rushed into hiding. She assumed a fake name. During the eight days Nayeri was on the run – from his escape on Jan. 22 to his capture Saturday morning – the people around her feared for her life.
As the manhunt dragged on, authorities were convinced that if Nayeri remained in California, it was to stalk and kill her. Her lawyers, and the district attorney’s office, implored the media not to mention her name, for fear of inflaming him.
The source of Nayeri’s rage? Shegerian, daughter of Fresno businessman John Shegerian, had played a central role in putting him behind bars in the first place, participating in an elaborate law-enforcement scheme to lure him out of Iran – and into an extradition-friendly country – in November 2013.
Shegerian, now an employment-rights attorney at a prominent Santa Monica firm, had admitted to detectives that she helped her husband conduct surveillance on a Newport Beach pot-dispensary owner, who was later abducted and tortured, his penis severed. Facing the possibility of criminal charges, she agreed to cooperate against her husband.
She was a student at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa in October 2012 when, prosecutors say, her husband, a small-time pot dealer, hatched the crime.
Prosecutors contend that Nayeri, along with two other men, broke into a home in Newport Beach, a block from the Pacific Ocean, to abduct the owner of a lucrative marijuana dispensary.
The masked attackers beat the dispensary owner and dragged him – along with a woman who lived at the house – into a van. The attackers headed to the Mojave Desert, 125 miles away, where they mistakenly believed the man had buried $1 million.
A session of protracted torture followed. As they demanded money, the attackers shocked the man with a Taser, burned him with a butane torch, poured bleach on his wounds, placed a zip tie on his genitals and sawed off his penis, then left him and the woman behind in the desert. She flagged down a Kern County sheriff’s deputy and the two were rescued.
Newport Beach detectives got a quick break, when a neighbor reported having seen two suspicious-looking men, apparently posing as construction workers, using a ladder behind the 25th Street home the previous day.
The neighbor had written down the license plate of what seemed to be their vehicle, a Dodge truck. Detectives tracked it to a Fountain Valley pot dealer named Kyle Handley, who was quickly arrested. Inside Handley’s truck, police said, they found a blue latex glove with DNA that matched Nayeri’s.
Newport Beach detectives found another clue in their impound yard. A few days before the kidnapping, an officer had tried to stop a gray Chevy Tahoe for running a red light, but the driver had sped away and then run off. The car was registered to Shegerian, who told police it had been stolen.
Searching the Tahoe, detectives found small security cameras with hours of chilling footage. Nayeri had been conducting surveillance of the pot-dispensary owner at the 25th Street home.
Newport Beach police Sgt. Ryan Peters, testifying at a 2015 preliminary hearing in the case against Nayeri, said Shegerian admitted that she had helped her husband while he was carrying out surveillance.
Shegerian is the daughter of John Shegerian, a wealthy businessman who runs an electronics-recycling firm in Fresno.
“She stated at times throughout the surveillance she drove him around as he either retrieved old surveillance cameras or adjusted the surveillance cameras,” Peters said. She took her husband to the 25th Street home and to the home of the victim’s parents in Westminster, Peters said.
At her husband’s behest, she said, she made hamburger patties laced with an unknown poison intended for the parents’ dog, because it was too loud, according to Peters’ testimony. “She stated she assumed they were given to (the victim’s) parents’ dog,” Peters said. It wasn’t clear if that part of the plan was carried out.
Before the kidnapping, she heard Handley and her husband in her garage experimenting with a butane torch, according to Peters’ testimony. Further, Peters said, “Mr. Nayeri borrowed her pink Taser.”
Lured from Iran
Soon after Newport Beach detectives began focusing on Nayeri in October 2012, they learned that he had fled to Iran, where he had family roots. It would be hard to find a country less likely to extradite him.
To catch him, they used Shegerian. The daughter of John Shegerian, a wealthy businessman who runs an electronics-recycling firm in Fresno, she had hired powerhouse Orange County defense attorney Lewis Rosenblum.
Rosenblum said his client began cooperating closely with the Newport Beach detectives and district attorney investigators seven months before Nayeri’s capture.
Month after month, she exchanged phone calls and emails with Nayeri under the supervision of law officers, who were recording the exchanges in hopes he would implicate himself.
Authorities collected dozens of hours of such “controlled conversations” between the couple, said Robert K. Weinberg, the attorney representing Handley.
After months of effort, Shegerian managed to lure Nayeri out of Iran with the ruse that she would meet him, along with his sister, in Spain. He expected to enjoy a vacation and to collect cash and an iPhone, Weinberg said.
If he had any suspicion that she’d helped authorities, he could have killed her.
Shegerian’s attorney, Lewis Rosenblum
Nayeri boarded a flight that stopped in the Czech Republic, an extradition-friendly country. It was there that FBI agents were waiting to arrest him in November 2013.
Her attorney said she flew overseas, at considerable risk, to make the ruse plausible. “Had the police not been able to apprehend him, she was there,” Rosenblum said. “If he had any suspicion that she’d helped authorities, he could have killed her there.”
The month after his capture, as he awaited extradition, Nayeri wrote her a letter saying he was worried that he hadn’t heard from her. “I love you more than anything in the world,” he wrote.
Even after she filed for divorce, in early 2014, he seemed unaware of the role she had played in his capture. In a letter he wrote to a Los Angeles family-court judge, Nayeri said that their marriage was on firm footing when he left the country and grew even stronger while he was living in Iran.
“By no means whatsoever we were separated relationship wise, emotionally or legally. Quite the opposite. It brought us even closer. During that time we constantly expressed our love and admiration toward each other, and planned our future,” he wrote to the court.
It is not clear when Nayeri learned of his wife’s role in his capture. But during his preliminary hearing last year, which he attended in a jail-issued jumpsuit, a detective described the information she had provided to prosecutors. It was clear from the testimony that she would be a key witness against Nayeri.
Nayeri faces life in prison if convicted on charges of kidnapping, aggravated mayhem, torture and burglary. He escaped the Orange County jail with two men being held on unrelated cases – Bac Duong, 43, who faced charges of attempted murder, and Jonathan Tieu, 20, who faced charges of special-circumstances murder. All are back in custody.
Shegerian and Nayeri had known each other since she was in her teens and he was in his early 20s, in Fresno, where he had grown up and she had attended Fresno State.
In 2005, Nayeri was arrested in connection with a drunken-driving crash in Madera County. He pleaded guilty to drunken driving and causing great bodily injury, which resulted in a year in prison and probation, according to the victim’s lawyer.
In 2009, when she was 22, Shegerian wrote a letter to a Madera County judge in support of Nayeri, describing herself as a pre-law student who had known him for nearly seven years.
He could definitely come and try to hurt or kill me.
Cortney Shegerian, in court documents
They married in 2010 and lived in Irvine, but had been married only seven months when she filed a domestic violence restraining order against him. She claimed he had pinned her to the floor with his foot on her chest, and put her in a chokehold. She said he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety, and had been drinking heavily. She said he threatened to kill her with a box cutter.
“He could definitely come and try to hurt or kill me,” she wrote in court documents.
A Los Angeles judge annulled their marriage in 2015 on the basis of bigamy, ruling that he had not legally ended a previous marriage to a woman in Iran, where he had lived. The ruling could undercut Nayeri’s legal efforts to invoke “spousal privilege” in his criminal defense.
Shegerian, who has not been charged with a crime, graduated from Whittier Law School in May 2013, and is an associate attorney with Shegerian & Associates, a civil litigation firm founded by her uncle, Carney Shegerian. (The firm recently represented former Los Angeles Times sports columnist T.J. Simers in an age- and disability-discrimination suit against the newspaper, winning more than $7 million in damages that were later overturned by a judge. The case is on appeal.) Through her lawyer, Cortney Shegerian declined to be interviewed for this story.
The California State Bar would not comment on whether it was aware of her connection to the kidnapping case when it admitted her in May 2014.
Shegerian’s attorney, Rosenblum, described her as “a vulnerable person meeting the wrong individual,” and said she did not know what Nayeri had been planning, in connection with the alleged kidnapping plot.
“He asked her to do things (and) she had no idea why she was doing them. She was kept in the dark on most of this,” Rosenblum said. “As soon as she understood the gravity of this, she has done everything she can to cooperate” with authorities.
“You have a 16-year-old girl who essentially meets a guy who has destroyed her life,” Rosenblum said.
Weinberg – who represents Handley, one of Nayeri’s co-defendants in the kidnapping and torture case – said Shegerian was the only witness against his client and questioned whether her account can be believed.
“How can she say she was unaware there was a criminal enterprise?” Weinberg said. “Imagine someone inquisitive enough to go to law school not asking her husband, ‘Why do you want me to poison a dog?’ ”
Christopher Goffard: firstname.lastname@example.org. Richard Winton and Stephen Ceasar contributed to this report.