Illustration: Francesco Francavilla
“Take us to Walmart,” said the man who settled into the passenger seat. The driver, Long Ma, 71, recognized from his voice that he was the one who’d called for the cab, telling Ma that he and his friends needed a ride home from a restaurant. His name was Bac Duong. He spoke to Ma in Vietnamese—their shared native language—and wore a salt-and-pepper goatee on his thin and weary face. It was 9:30 on a chilly Friday night in Santa Ana, California. Now they want to go shopping? Ma thought. What happened to going home? Ma, a small man with short gray hair and a gray mustache, had been asleep when Duong called and hadn’t bothered changing out of his pajamas.
In the rearview mirror, Ma could see Duong’s friends, quiet in the back seat: Jonathan Tieu, a pimply 20-year-old, and Hossein Nayeri, an athletic Persian with an air of indifference.
Walmart didn’t have what the men needed, so they told Ma to drive them to a Target 45 minutes away. Ma had no way of knowing that they were desperate for phones, for clothes, and for some semblance of a plan. They finally emerged from Target. “My mom’s place is right around here,” Duong lied.“Take us there, please.”
The streets were dark and quiet, and after a few minutes, Duong motioned to a mangy strip mall. “Pull in here,” he said. As Ma parked his Honda Civic, Tieu handed Duong a pistol, which Duong pointed at Ma. Ma’s mind raced as Nayeri shouted, “Boom, boom, old man!”
The men placed Ma in the back seat, where Tieu now trained the gun on his stomach. Nayeri jumped behind the wheel and set out for a nearby motel.
By the time they arrived, Ma was convinced he was going to die—he just didn’t know how or when. Inside a cramped room, he watched as Nayeri, who he suspected was the group’s ringleader, splayed out on one of the two beds. Ma was ordered to double up with Duong on the other as Tieu slept on the floor near the door, the gun under his pillow. For Ma, there was no escape and, with all the dread he felt, no easy way to fall asleep.
In the morning, Duong turned on the TV. A report about a prison escape was on the news. “Hey,” Duong shouted, “that’s us!” Mug shots filled the screen. A massive manhunt, Ma now learned, was under way for his three roommates.
The jailbreak had occurred a day earlier, on January 22, 2016. It began after Duong, sprawled on a bunk in the open-floor dormitory of the Orange County Jail’s Module F, watched a guard finish his 5 a.m. head count.
Duong then gathered the tools that he’d been hoarding and shuffled to the rear of the housing block, where Nayeri and Tieu waited for him. There, hidden behind a bunk bed, the three used their tools to work loose a metal grate. They bellied through the hole and, surrounded by pipes and wiring, inched along a metal walkway until it dead-ended against a wall. Using the pipes, they shinnied skyward into a ventilation shaft that led to a trapdoor, which they shoved open.
Now on the roof, they fastened a makeshift rope that they’d fashioned from bedsheets and rappelled down four stories to the ground. No alarms sounded; no lights swept the exterior. They’d done it. They were out.
The fugitives allegedly first visited friends, who gave them money. By 9 p.m., the escapees were still in Santa Ana and needed to get away. Duong dialed a cab service that advertised in a local Vietnamese newspaper. Long Ma answered the call.
As the men in the motel hooted and marveled at their images on the TV, Ma was introduced to his captors by their televised rap sheets. The three men were in jail awaiting trial. Tieu had allegedly taken part in a drive-by shooting that left one person dead; Duong had allegedly shot a man in the chest after an argument. And Nayeri, well, he was plenty notorious.
Four years earlier, acting on a hunch that the owner of a marijuana dispensary had buried $1 million in the Mojave Desert, Nayeri had allegedly snatched the guy and his roommate and driven them to the spot where the loot was thought to be hidden. There, Nayeri and his crew were said to have shocked the man with a Taser, burned him with a butane torch, and poured bleach on his wounds, among other abuses, all in a failed attempt to locate the cash.
After the man assured Nayeri there was no buried money, he was left out there to die. (His roommate found help and saved his life.)
Spooked, perhaps, by the prospect that Ma’s disappearance had been noticed, the escapees decided they needed a second vehicle. The next morning, they found a van for sale on Craigslist. Duong took the vehicle for a test spin and then simply drove away. He met up with the others again later, and the fugitives visited a hair salon and altered their appearances, none more than Duong, who shaved his goatee and dyed his hair black.
When they left the salon, Nayeri and Tieu took the van. Duong and Ma got into the Civic, and there, alone in the car, Duong became relaxed and even chatty, asking about the cabbie’s life in their native Vietnamese. At one point, he even called Ma “Uncle,” a term of endearment that implied respect for the old man. But Ma was leery. For all he knew, Duong was playing an angle. As always in the States, Ma found his fellow Vietnamese the hardest people to read.
When Ma had landed in California in 1992, with a wife and four kids, he’d struggled. A former lieutenant colonel in the South Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam War, he still had the physical and emotional scars from seven punishing years spent in a Communist forced-labor camp. The war and his time in the camp had placed him nearly two decades behind the first wave of emigrants who’d left Vietnam for the United States.
For years he took menial jobs. He would later say that his siblings—who had arrived earlier and become dentists and pharmacists and white-collar success stories—made him feel ashamed of the life he had made.
Money had always been tight, which exacerbated the arguments between Ma and his wife. He knew she was losing respect for him and that everyone in the family had noticed it. Rather than suffer the indignity, Ma moved one day, without explanation, from their home in San Diego. He found a little room in a boardinghouse near Santa Ana, 90 minutes north, and began a solitary existence as a taxi driver—a choice that seemed to have led to his current predicament.
Duong steered the Civic toward a new motel, the Flamingo Inn, where they would meet Nayeri and Tieu. Deep into the night, the fugitives laughed and drank and smoked cigarettes, while on television the news anchors said that the reward for information leading to their arrest had increased from $20,000 to $50,000.
Sunday dawned, and Nayeri seemed more distant than usual. Ma’s captors drank and talked in urgent tones. Nayeri soon began yelling at Duong. The room became loud and tense and small. Ma, with his limited English, sensed that the argument concerned him. He’d begun to consider what the men must have realized themselves: If they killed him now, they could make a cleaner escape. Ma watched as Nayeri pointed in his direction and again shouted, “Boom, boom, old man!”
The escapees decided they needed to move north, and on Tuesday morning—day four of Ma’s captivity—they drove 560 stressful kilometers to a motel in San Jose. The journey exhausted Ma, and that night he snored so loudly that he woke Duong, who was lying beside him. But Duong didn’t elbow him awake. Instead, he slowly climbed out of bed, careful not to stir Ma, and curled up on the floor, so Uncle might rest more peacefully.
The next day, Nayeri announced that he and Tieu needed to take Ma out for a while in the van. By the time they parked near the ocean in Santa Cruz, Ma had figured he’d been driven to the beach to be executed.
His stroll with Nayeri and Tieu began aimlessly—and because of that, it felt even more malevolent to Ma. Nayeri had them pose for pictures. With the ocean, the beach, and the pier as their backdrop, Nayeri acted as if they were friends. What is he doing? Ma thought. And then … nothing. The three got in the van and drove back to the motel.
After watching another news report on themselves, Nayeri and Duong started shouting at each other. Suddenly, Nayeri glanced at Ma and ran his index finger across his throat. In an instant, days of anger and anxiety broke, and Nayeri and Duong fell into a rolling heap. Nayeri ended up on top and landed a series of clean shots to Duong’s nose and jaw, one after another. Satisfied, Nayeri pulled himself out of his rage. Each man gasped for air.
Ma was terrified. But Nayeri did not grab the gun and shoot the cabdriver. He did not haul the old man outside and, in the shadows of the motel, slit his throat. Nayeri simply retreated to a corner. For another night, the four watched one another and, as they went to bed, stewed in the frustration that filled the room.
The news reports were no better the next morning—their seventh day on the run. Law enforcement shared photos of the stolen van the men were driving. This rattled Nayeri and Tieu, who announced to Duong that they were leaving to have the van’s windows tinted and its license plates changed.
When the door closed behind them, Duong turned quickly to Ma. “Uncle, we have to go,” he said in Vietnamese.
The two men drove south in Ma’s Civic, with Duong behind the wheel. When Duong said to him, “Don’t be afraid; you’re not in danger anymore,” Ma snickered to himself. We’ll see, he thought. He had understood enough of the news to piece together Duong’s criminal past: a 1995 burglary conviction in San Diego, four years after he became a U.S. resident; twice pleading guilty to selling cocaine; stints in state prison; and then, in November 2015, the alleged attempted murder of a Santa Ana man after an argument.
And yet, in spite of Duong’s past, there had been, this whole week, another composite on view: that of a flawed but compassionate man. Ma had caught flashes of details but not the full picture of Duong’s conflicted life. He didn’t realize how chronic drug dependency and what Duong’s friends saw as mental disorders had pushed Duong down a criminal path—and he didn’t yet know that Duong was the father of two boys, Peter and Benny.
Duong, his eyes filling with tears, told Ma that he hated how his crimes had placed him outside society. That was the most painful thing—not being accepted. His father wouldn’t speak to him, and his mother said she was ashamed.
A few years earlier, out of prison after serving a drug sentence, Duong had asked his friend Theresa Nguyen and her husband to go with him to his mother’s home—“Because I want her to know that I have normal friends, too,” he told Nguyen. He could never atone in his family’s eyes. Nguyen began to get it, why Duong had been calling her “Sister.” Why he’d phoned her the day her daughter graduated from college, another immigrant success story: “I’m proud of you, Sister.” She was as close to family as he had.
Ma listened, reticent but knowing that sometimes people need to be heard even more than consoled.
Duong told Ma that Nayeri’s plan had been to kill the driver on the beach. But for whatever reason, Nayeri hadn’t gone through with it. The brutal fight the night before had been over Ma too. Duong couldn’t abide seeing the cabdriver murdered for Duong’s mistakes.
Ma said at last, “You should turn yourself in.”
Duong didn’t balk at the suggestion. He was grateful for the way Ma hadn’t judged him. He didn’t want to call Ma “Uncle” anymore, he said. Given the circumstances of the past week, Duong said he wanted to call Ma “Father.”
The suggestion moved Ma, who understood the cultural obligation that came with the moniker: To call Duong “Son.” To trust him, to love him, even. This scared Ma. Life had taught him to be cautious around love. And yet when he looked at the damaged man next to him, his face bruised from the fight with Nayeri, his psyche scarred, he saw the good that the rest of the world failed to see. It warmed him.
“Yes,” Ma said. “You can call me ‘Father,’ and I will call you ‘Son.’”
After hours on the road, they pulled up to an auto-repair shop in Santa Ana. As instructed, Ma slunk inside the garage while Duong sat in the car. In a moment, the old man returned with a woman, who put her head inside the vehicle. Duong started to cry. “Sister,” he said to Nguyen, “I’m tired.”
The day after -Duong turned himself in, Tieu and Nayeri were captured in San Francisco after police were alerted to their van parked on a city street. Ma returned to his boardinghouse. No one had even reported him missing.
Though Duong is back in jail now, Ma has stayed in touch. And while money is scarce for the cabdriver, he has put cash in Duong’s jail account. Ma has even visited the man who kidnapped him. The last time he went, Ma watched through a glass partition as Duong, in an orange jumpsuit, bowed when they met. “Daddy Long!” Duong said, greeting his friend.
Throughout their half-hour visit, the two men wept softly and spoke in their native language of the bond they had nurtured since their week on the run. They both felt so grateful, so surprised by the possibility of friendship. Perhaps Ma especially. Whatever he had expected to experience on that dark, cold night when he left his house in his pajamas, it wasn’t this. Wherever he’d figured that trip might lead, it wasn’t here.
As Ma grinned through the glass of the visitors’ room wall, he realized that Duong had saved his life, even redeemed his soul.
“My son,” Ma said to Duong, “as long as you are still here, I will rescue you like you rescued me.”