M ICHAEL AWOKE STARING down the muzzle of a short-barreled, pump-action shotgun. It was well past midnight on a warm, clear October night on the Southern California coast. The 28-year-old medical-marijuana dispensary owner — half asleep on a couch in the Newport Beach bungalow where he rented rooms — reached out to push the weapon away. The intruder, wearing a ski mask, wrestled with him over the gun. Another man entered the room. That’s when the beating began.
The first man clocked Michael in the head with the rifle butt, then began pummeling him. His nose bleeding, Michael struggled. The second man yanked Michael into a headlock. He blacked out, shitting his pants.
The men blindfolded and gagged Michael, zip-tying his ankles and wrists, and dragged him downstairs, his head hitting every step. The intruders were intent on inflicting pain. They dumped Michael in the hallway at the bottom of the stairs — next to his housemate, Mary. She lay on her side, also zip-tied and blindfolded, with duct tape covering her mouth.
Mary, then 53, dressed in black yoga pants and a nightshirt, had awakened to the cold barrel of a gun at the back of her neck. “This is not about you,” her assailant whispered. “Don’t try to fight and you won’t get hurt.”
The men ransacked the upper floors of the bungalow. “Where’s the money?” one demanded, briefly removing Michael’s gag.
“I have $2,000 in a sock in my room,” Michael said.
“That’s not good enough!”
Michael and Mary could hear the intruders tossing drawers and clearing closets. A third man opened the garage at the rear of the house, backing out the black Maserati belonging to Mary’s boyfriend, and backing in a white cargo van. Mary flashed with “total dread,” she’d later testify. “They were going to take us somewhere else. I thought they were going to kill us.”
The kidnappers tossed Michael and Mary onto the floor of the van. Michael’s blindfold came up a bit. On the windows, he caught a glimpse of panda paper, a fixture of the pot industry — white on the inside to reflect grow lights, black on the outside to block the view of onlookers.
The van prowled surface streets. But this wasn’t a clockwork caper; the criminals had to stop for gas. “Don’t say anything,” one of the men said, putting a knife to Michael as he listened to the clanks of the tank being filled. When they hit the freeway, the torture commenced.
Mary could hear the slaps of a hardened rubber hose hitting the soles of Michael’s feet, and the clicks of a taser, followed by convulsions. Michael’s spasms caused him to kick Mary. “Do not touch the female,” the lead attacker said, and beat Michael again, taunting him for the smell of excrement in his pants, calling him a “pussy.”
The captors’ English had been unremarkable, but they now slipped into shoddy Mexican accents — “like Speedy Gonzalez or something,” Mary recalled at trial. One man spoke for the crew. He called Michael “a stupid fucking white boy,” deriding him as a “puto” — street Spanish for f—-t. “You’re hurting our business with your little dispensary,” he said. “And my patrón wants your million dollars.”
“I don’t have a million dollars!” Michael cried.
“Oh, you better have it, ese.”
Michael invited his captors to clean out his pot shop in nearby Santa Ana — take the weed, $30,000 in cash. The men only got angrier, threatening to hurt Michael’s loved ones if he didn’t reveal where he had buried the cash. They knew his girlfriend had red hair and drove a Jetta. They knew his parents’ home address.
The men kept asking a question Michael had no answer for: “Where did you bury the money?!” Michael’s mind raced. He didn’t have anything close to a million dollars. And he didn’t have a beef with anyone to justify this violence. One of the men sparked a butane torch and began searing Michael’s flesh.
After two hours, the van slowed, finally turning off the highway, winding up a gravel road. The assailants stopped, opened the van doors, and dumped Michael and Mary onto the sands of the Mojave. The predawn desert was achingly cold. The lead attacker, notably more sadistic than the others, told Michael that if his patrón didn’t get the million dollars, he would have to kill them. There was talk of guns. And then a booming command. “Shoot him in the head!”
But no shots came. Instead, Mary could hear the lead assailant talking in the distance, as if on a cellphone, the fake Spanish accent flashing in and out. He walked back to Michael. “We have to bring our boss back something,” he said. “My patrón says if I can’t bring him the million dollars, then he wants me to bring him your dick.”
The assailants ripped down Michael’s pants and cinched a zip tie at the base of his penis. Wielding a kitchen knife, one of the assailants began to cut, using a singsong voice to match his motions: Back and forth; back and forth; back and forth . . .
It took no more than a minute.
Michael passed out. But searing pain jolted him back to consciousness. The attackers were dousing his body. “If you’re going to burn me, just shoot me instead,” he pleaded. But the liquid wasn’t gasoline; it was bleach. It ate into his flesh everywhere it was bruised and burned.
Then a man came up to Mary and pressed the knife to her hand. “I’m going to take this and I’m going to throw it,” he told her. His voice had a chuckle in it. “If you can get to it and cut through your zip ties . . . today’s your lucky day.”
WHO WAS BEHIND this hideous kidnapping and mutilation?
Michael didn’t owe money. He didn’t sleep around. He couldn’t fathom who hated him this much. But Michael made his business at the gray edges of a black market. (Due to the nature of the crimes against his person, Michael’s last name won’t be used in this story; in court proceedings he was referred to as Michael or Mr. S.) The crime in the desert took place a decade ago, in October 2012, when medical marijuana was just inching into respectability. The risks of theft and raids from the DEA were constant. Dispensary owners like Michael rubbed shoulders with needy patients and committed stoners, but also criminals, strongmen, and bad guys.
One of those men was a monster.
This is the story of that monster’s descent into darkness. It’s the tale of a promising young immigrant who became a popular high school wrestler, a hopeful soldier turned Marine Corps washout who looked to weed to make a living — and instead left nothing but misery and wreckage in his wake.
It’s a story, too, of second chances: About a man whose recklessness killed a friend, but whose charm enabled him to skirt punishment. He was just the kind of guy — handsome, vulnerable, magnetic — whom everyone wanted to get his life back on track. Even after he abused his wife.
His name is Hossein Nayeri, sometimes known as Adam. He is, as described by the Orange County district attorney, “manipulative, sadistic, egotistical, narcissistic, and very smart.” Another prosecutor, Heather Brown, who helped bring Nayeri to trial, once likened him to Hannibal Lecter. “He’s sophisticated. But he is a sociopath, too — he’s not based in reality on many occasions,” Brown tells Rolling Stone. “Which is a very dangerous combination.”
The plot against Michael “was 90 percent genius, 10 percent remarkable stupidity. And thank God for that 10 percent.”
This account of Nayeri’s life of crime and chaos — of domestic violence, a high-speed car chase, an attempted dog murder, and other unspeakable acts — is reconstructed from police reports, grand-jury investigations, California appellate-court findings, and state-bar-court documents, as well as more than 1,800 pages of transcripts from Nayeri’s trial, where his victims and Nayeri himself testified in open court. It is informed by accounts of the trials of co-conspirators, as well as by hours of interviews with attorneys and former top law-enforcement officers, some of whom spoke freely for the first time, including discussion of evidence that was not presented at trial.
With the aura of a cult leader, Nayeri schemed for a payday with dim-bulb high school pals in a bungled plot that left an innocent man mutilated for life. To bring him to justice, the authorities — including not only Orange County cops but also U.S. Marshals, the FBI, and Interpol — would have to catch him first. And then they’d have to catch him again, following one of the most brazen jail escapes in U.S. history.
WHEN MARY COULD no longer hear the tires of the departing van, she dislodged her blindfold with her knees. Sagebrush and Joshua trees spotted the desert. An object glinted in the sand and Mary “butt-scooched” to it. She struggled for a couple of minutes to cut her ankles free.
Mary stumbled to Michael, pulling off his blindfold and cutting his gag. “Oh, that feels so much better already,” he said weakly, begging Mary to cut the ties from his wrists. But his skin was swollen over the plastic and Mary, her own hands bound, couldn’t manage. Michael was losing blood.
Mary spotted car lights in the distance. “I’m going to get you some help,” she said. She hobbled, barefoot, down the gravel road.
At the side of Highway 14, a stroke of luck: Mary flagged down a passing Kern County sheriff’s sergeant. He called for backup and EMTs. The sergeant took photos of the zip tie binding her wrists and the broken one still attached to her ankle. Mary dropped the bloody stainless-steel kitchen knife. The sergeant bagged it for evidence.
Mary directed the drive back to Michael. They were not far from an abandoned mining settlement called Reefer City. Michael lay on his right side, pants and boxers at his knees. His eyes swollen shut, Michael moaned.
When paramedics arrived, they cut away at Michael’s bleach-saturated clothes, discovering the prints from his assailants’ shoes chemically seared into his skin. Rolling him over they found the “severe injury” to his genitals, a black zip tie still cinched tightly there.
An officer who interviewed Michael at the crime scene described what he witnessed to jurors. “As he was talking, they were tending to him. I saw that there was a mass of shredded meat, it looked like — like hamburger meat, ground meat, that you see in the supermarket, over where his penis was at,” the officer said. “I’ve never seen something like that.”
As an ambulance drove Michael to the Antelope Valley Hospital, police staked out a grid search of the desert, hunting for the missing member, in hopes it could be reattached.
It was never found.
THE PLOT AGAINST Michael S. was cunning but intermittently amateurish. “It was 90 percent genius, 10 percent stupidity,” says Matt Murphy, a former Orange County deputy DA who served as a lead prosecutor on the case. “And thank God for that 10 percent.”
The bungalow where Michael lived is a row house backing onto an alley where residents access their garages. During the midafternoon of Oct. 1, 2012 — hours before Michael’s abduction — a neighbor across the alley, Teresa, heard the racket of an extension ladder. She peeked through the blinds, spying three men in the street. One wore a hard hat. The men kept repositioning the ladder against the side of her back neighbor’s house, but never climbed it.
As Newport police gathered evidence from the bloody crime scene at Michael’s residence the next day, a cop canvassing the neighborhood knocked on Teresa’s door. She gave a description of the two men she saw clearly. She thought they were, perhaps, Mexican. One was “good-looking.” Another shorter and a bit stout. She pegged them as men in their thirties, maybe early forties.
Teresa then handed over a piece of paper. She’d jotted down the license plate of the trio’s white pickup — CA 37063C1 — and the words “big dent,” noting damage on a front fender. Law enforcement were speechless. “That never happens,” says Murphy.
A DMV search led police to a late-Nineties vintage Dodge Ram registered to an address in Fountain Valley. The rental, on a corner lot, resembled a haunted cousin of the Brady Bunch house: a mishmash of stucco, dark wood, and Spanish tile. The pickup was registered to the stout man, Kyle Handley.
Ryan Peters, the clean-cut lead detective on the case, recalls the report he got from the cops staking out the scene. “This guy is just smoking weed in the living room,” they told him, “and he looks nervous as hell.”
Police arrested Handley on Oct. 6, four days after the attack. Searching the property, they found Handley’s certification as a medical-marijuana grower, a $1,477 past-due Edison electric bill, and receipts from a hydroponics shop. They turned up panda paper and a bleach-splattered sweatshirt. (Bleach not only cleans up spills, it destroys DNA.) Out back, they logged black garbage bags full of white towels, stained with blood and bleach. They discovered a cut zip tie inside one of the bags and sent it out for DNA analysis.
The Ram had a camper shell, and when investigators opened the back, “they almost got knocked over by the smell of bleach,” Murphy recalls. The Ram was clean, except for one detail: A pair of blue nitrile gloves had been left behind. DNA from those gloves would eventually hit a match to a longtime friend of Kyle’s: Hossein Nayeri.
NAYERI’S BEEF WITH Michael S. had begun innocently enough, law-enforcement sources tell Rolling Stone, with a rebuffed pot deal and a bruised ego.
Nayeri didn’t know Michael personally. Kyle sold pot at Michael’s dispensary in Santa Ana, the gritty urban center of Orange County, far inland from the yachty luxuries of Newport and Huntington Beach.
As he was talking, they were tending to him. I saw what looked like a mass of shredded meat, like hamburger meat. I’ve never seen something like that.
Michael knew Kyle as a small-time grower who trimmed his own weed and only sold Bubba Kush, an indica strain known for its stupefying body high. Kyle would sell a pound or so at a time. During their transactions at the shop, he and Michael would talk cultivation. Michael would take him into the back to gawk at the inventory. Sometimes Kyle bought some weed and smoked up.
“The victim in this case is one of the nicest human beings on the planet,” says Brown. “He wasn’t a big stoner. He believed in the pure quality of the bud and had a lot of pride in his product. He was doing really well.”
In 2012, recreational marijuana was still illegal in California. But state voters had approved a freewheeling medical-marijuana law in 1996 that gave safe harbor to both critically ill patients and everyday potheads who could claim ailments like anxiety to get an Rx card. Under the letter of the law, dispensaries were supposed to operate as “collectives” or “cooperatives,” and to source their weed from small-time growers, cover their costs, and pay themselves modestly. In practice, medical shops of the era were often fast-paced enterprises that made bank for their owners, sourcing weed from the black market. “The only way to make really good cash,” recalls Peters, the former detective, “was to go outside of the law.”
Michael’s shop catered to an upscale clientele. It had roughly 30 employees and dealt with at least 100 vendors. DEA busts were still common, and the shop ran on a just-in-time financial model, buying weed daily and paying out employees after each shift. “At any minute, we could be shut down,” Michael would testify. “Our policy was, at all times, our books are clear. That way, we have no running tabs with anybody. . . . We’re all paid up.”
Nayeri wanted a piece of this action. “He’d been trying to break his way into the marijuana grow business,” says Brown, who recently left the DA’s office after more than two decades of service. Nayeri and Kyle had a side-grow together, but when Kyle tried to sell that product, Michael wasn’t impressed. “He’s like, ‘Ehhh, I don’t think your bud’s pure enough.’ And that pissed Hossein off,” Brown insists. “I think the real motivation behind this [crime] was Hossein Nayeri’s pride.”
But Michael continued to buy from Kyle and even brought him into his friend group. The dispensary owner liked to party in Vegas. “He had fun with money,” Brown says. Michael included Kyle on a pair of gambling trips. During one, they traveled like rock stars, chartering a bus. A high roller in the group hooked them up with a massive suite at the Hard Rock costing at least $6,000 a night. Everything was bankrolled in cash. The group partied at clubs. Kyle and Michael played poker and blackjack. They chatted about going into business together. “He meshed well with the group,” Michael testified. Kyle was “just cool, we thought, to be around.”
But after the second trip, in the spring of 2012, Kyle ghosted Michael. He never came by the shop to chat or sell weed. Kyle was under the sway of his jealous, domineering friend Hossein. And the two men would soon be watching Michael’s every move.
IF NAYERI WASN’T going to make money selling to Michael, he’d get rich by robbing him blind.
Because of federal prohibition, banks wouldn’t touch pot-dispensary money. “Everybody — criminals and good guys — knew it was a cash business,” Peters says. From the outside, dispensaries looked like gold mines. “For a guy like Nayeri,” adds Murphy, “these guys presented tempting targets to rip off.”
Nayeri had known Kyle since high school, and as adults they were on-and-off partners cultivating weed. Nayeri grew obsessed with Michael — the Las Vegas hotshot — and what he fantasized were the dispensary owner’s boundless riches. And he roped Kyle into his burgeoning plot. “Kyle’s not a mastermind,” says Peters. “Kyle’s just a tagalong dopey little kid that smokes a lot of weed.”
Then 33, Nayeri was living with his wife, Cortney Shegerian, in a townhouse at the gated Newport Bluffs apartment complex. Cortney and Nayeri were a hot SoCal couple: she, tall and thin and in her early twenties; he, muscular, 185 pounds, with a shock of dark-brown hair and a passing resemblance to Robert Downey Jr.
Smart and high-achieving, Cortney attended law school in Costa Mesa and held down a job as a law clerk in Cerritos. Her family was rich. Nayeri, by contrast, was trouble. He’d started dating Cortney when she was underage. He was now on probation for a serious felony.
Everyone who entered his orbit admitted that Nayeri could be magnetic. But he could also turn violent. “There was the nice, charming, manipulative, draw-you-in part,” Cortney would testify of his personality. “And then there was this angry, crazy, temper-driven, scary part. And it could go from zero to a thousand in a minute.” She added: “Of course, I was in love with him.”
Cortney had been pocketing money from her parents for years to support Nayeri in a string of ill-fated schemes to break into the marijuana business. Her parents were in the dark; they didn’t even know that Cortney had married Nayeri in 2010.
She compartmentalized her increasingly violent marriage. In one episode, in early 2011, Nayeri went off his antidepressant meds and was abusing alcohol and Adderall, staying up for “weeks at a time,” according to a protective-order request Cortney filed. She described how Nayeri knocked her over in a chair and stood on her neck and chest as he slapped her face. When she tried to flee in her car, Nayeri put her in a chokehold and punched her thigh. He was jailed after making threats about killing Cortney with a box cutter.
In the court document, Cortney described Nayeri as suicidal and a threat: “When he gets out . . . he could definitely come and try to hurt or kill me.” Nayeri checked into a rehab facility called the Oasis in February 2011. Eventually, the couple reconciled. In one of many second chances, Nayeri bargained down a criminal battery charge, receiving court-ordered domestic-violence classes.
In documents filed in state-bar court this year — contesting what the California bar decried as her “crime spree” with Nayeri — Cortney claimed to have been beaten at least 60 times by her husband and said she was diagnosed with PTSD and Battered Person Syndrome. She followed his orders, her lawyer argued, not out of “free will,” but because of Nayeri’s “10-year, systematic, violent manipulation and . . . abuse.”
Cortney declined to be interviewed by Rolling Stone, insisting: “I cannot possibly contribute anything new to your story.”
CONVINCED THAT MICHAEL was rolling in unbanked cash, Nayeri wanted to know everything about him: his friends and relations, his daily movements. Nayeri got Cortney to use her law school Lexis account to run a background search on Michael.
By February, strange packages had begun arriving at their townhouse — GPS trackers and magnetic sleeves for mounting them on cars.
Nayeri first suspected Michael had stashed cash at his parents’ home in Huntington Beach. He set up cameras at their residence. But there was a problem. The parents’ dog, Bailey — a black Lab/pit-bull mix — always barked at Nayeri, threatening his plan to break into the home. He told Cortney: “I have to shut the dog up.”
Nayeri sent Cortney to buy hamburger patties, and donned gloves to mix a blue agricultural toxin into the burger. When he was done, he shoved the pan at her and told her to throw it out. “We can’t eat on this skillet anymore. It has poison on it.”
Cortney came across Nayeri and Kyle horsing around with a butane torch, cackling and shrieking in mock agony. Other props piled up: a ski mask, a fake construction-worker outfit.
Bailey later ate the tainted meat. But much to Nayeri’s agitation, the dog survived.
Nayeri ordered Cortney to move money around — depositing hundreds of dollars at a time into the account of another of his Fresno high school friends, Naomi Rhodus. Recently estranged from her husband, Rhodus had two kids; Nayeri was the godfather. In court, one of Naomi’s best friends would testify that Nayeri was cheating on Cortney with Naomi. (Nayeri denied they were engaged in a sexual relationship.) According to multiple law-enforcement sources, Naomi was also a victim of Nayeri’s violence. She’d bought the GPS devices using a fake name. Nayeri would lean on her, again and again, to cover his tracks.
Nayeri assembled a tormentor’s toolbox. He discovered a taser in the townhouse that his wife kept for self-defense. “I’m going to use this,” he told Cortney. He showed up another day brandishing a handgun; she insisted he not keep it in the apartment. Cortney later found a printout of a shotgun in her office. As detailed in court, the weapons used in the crime were purchased by Naomi: a Glock 19 semi-automatic 9mm pistol, and a 12-gauge, pistol-grip, pump-action shotgun.
Cortney came across Nayeri and Kyle in the garage, horsing around with a butane torch, cackling as Nayeri pretended to burn Kyle, who shrieked in mock agony. Other props piled up: a ski mask, a fake construction-worker outfit. Nayeri tried to nick up a new hard hat in the gravel. “Does this look like it’s been used?” he asked.
In September, Nayeri took Cortney with him to put up a camera outside of Michael’s Newport Beach residence. The digital surveillance was time-consuming. The GPS tracking devices on Michael’s vehicles required frequent battery changes, and the memory cards in the cameras had to be swapped out daily. But the payoff, as Cortney told the court, was that Nayeri would sit home and watch the data dance around on maps on his laptop.
One day, Nayeri looked up from his computer, brimming with excitement. The GPS data showed Michael’s truck out in the Mojave. “Why would someone be out in the desert, you know, circling?” Nayeri asked.
Cortney said she didn’t know.
“Seems like a perfect place,” Nayeri said, “to bury some cash.”
THE PLOT SKIPPED sideways — and nearly unraveled altogether — with a CHiPs-worthy motorcycle chase on the night of Sept. 26.
It was near midnight when a Newport Beach cop clocked a gray Chevy Tahoe pushing 70 mph in a 55 zone. Nayeri, fresh off a pot sale, had toked up in the car. His eyes were bloodshot. The Tahoe reeked of weed. He had $36,000 in cash and at least five ounces of marijuana in the SUV — in addition to a stash of surveillance equipment he’d been using to spy on Michael. He was on probation. It was, as Nayeri would admit in court, “an ugly scene.”
When the motorcycle cop flashed his lights, Nayeri floored it. He was only blocks from his townhouse but knew he’d get held up at the gate of the complex, so he blew by the turnoff, leading the officer on such a high-speed chase that the cop later faced discipline for topping out at 117 mph.
Nayeri roared through Newport Center and Fashion Island Mall — the luxe shopping center, with a then-brand-new Tesla store — at the heart of Newport Beach. Reaching the far side, Nayeri cut toward the Pacific, blasting past the city’s police station doing nearly 90.
He careened across a two-lane bridge to Balboa Island — the formerly kitschy community, now home to multimillion-dollar homes, where the fictional Arrested Development family had their banana stand. Nayeri blasted past yachts in the still waters and through the island’s commercial drag, past real-life frozen-banana shops.
With the motorcycle cop just a block behind, Nayeri cut a hard right toward the western tip of the island. When he turned again, the cop lost sight of him. Nayeri ditched the Tahoe on a side street, grabbing the cash and weed. The officer found the Tahoe nosed against the curb, stinking of burned brakes, its hood scalding to the touch.
Despite the arrival of a helicopter and a pair of backup squad cars, Nayeri couldn’t be found. Law enforcement believes he was hiding in the water and swam off the island. (Nayeri claimed in court he spent the night at a friend’s house and got a ride home.)
The Tahoe was registered to Cortney, and police showed up at the townhouse in the early morning hours to inform her the SUV had been involved in a high-speed chase. She told them, vaguely, that her husband had the car that night, but then backtracked and sent them away.
Nayeri appeared near dawn, soaking wet. “I know the police were here,” he said. Nayeri didn’t explain anything but was furious that Cortney had spoken to the cops. He told her she needed to file a fake police report that the car had been stolen, which Cortney would do the next morning. (In court, Nayeri denied telling Cortney to lie.) But first, she took him to Kyle’s house for a nap.
EVEN THE CONFISCATION of the Tahoe — filled, unbeknownst to police, with hours of incriminating surveillance footage — didn’t deter the plot against Michael, now accelerating to its bloody conclusion.
Nayeri demanded logistical support, tasking Cortney to buy burner phones — and even to get the hapless Kyle’s up and running.
A couple of nights before the exploit, Nayeri took Cortney to a birthday dinner in Newport Beach. On the ride back, he detoured by Michael’s house, where a white cargo van was parked. Naomi had gotten a friend to rent a Ford Econoline — the crime van — a few days earlier.
Peters, who retired as a lieutenant in 2022 and now serves as public-safety supervisor for the NFL’s Titans, describes the crime in the desert as immaculately orchestrated, except when things slipped out of Nayeri’s control. “It was so well thought out. But it was well thought out by one guy; he’s this mastermind. The problem was when he gave someone else a task, like Kyle, and getting gas, he screwed that up.”
The crime against Michael took place in the wee hours of Oct. 2, with his tormentors abandoning the dispensary owner and Mary in the desert at dawn. But by 8 a.m. Nayeri realized he needed a fixer. Kyle had fucked up again. He’d parked his truck in a metered spot near Michael’s house and was soon going to get a ticket that could link them to the abduction.
Law enforcement lived in fear for their own lives. Nayeri had left printed-out pictures of the prosecutors on his bunk. “I was worried,” one recalls. “This guy is capable of chopping off people’s body parts.”
Nayeri demanded Cortney feed the meter. He also needed four new burner phones. Cortney handed them off in the parking lot of a fast-food joint, where Nayeri arrived driving Kyle’s dented Ram. As Nayeri reached out of the truck window to take the phones, Cortney eyed his swollen hand and bruised knuckles. “I’ll explain later,” he said.
Nayeri spent the next three days lying low near Fresno. Cortney tried reaching her husband on his burner — and Naomi answered. The Econoline was returned on Oct. 3. But by Oct. 6, Nayeri reappeared at the townhouse, exasperated, demanding to borrow Cortney’s car. “Kyle isn’t answering his phone,” he said.
Nayeri returned waving a pink piece of paper — the receipt from the warrant executed on Kyle’s place. The couple feverishly began destroying evidence. Cortney flushed the SIM card from her burner phone, and Nayeri destroyed her device and his. He smashed other electronics in the house, tossing them away at a gas station off the Pacific Coast Highway.
Cortney rented Nayeri a car so he could get the tracking equipment he’d left scattered across the county. They drove to Kyle’s house. Nayeri took TVs, watches, anything of value, and told Cortney to sell it for cash.
Nayeri’s demeanor — usually cocksure — became unhinged. He dispatched Cortney to Kyle’s arraignment on Oct. 10. She returned with news that Kyle had been charged with kidnapping, and Nayeri flipped out. Cortney recalled him as paranoid, terrified.
Her husband bought a one-way ticket, and four days later, on Oct. 14, Nayeri lifted off from LAX for his native Iran, which has no extradition treaty with the United States.
THIS WASN’T THE first time Nayeri had fled to Tehran to elude the long arm of the law.
Hossein Nayeri was born in Iran in 1978 and immigrated to the United States after middle school with his mother and sister. His father, trained as a doctor, was already in the States with his brother. The family settled in Fresno, in California’s Central Valley.
Nayeri arrived speaking only Farsi, but learned English quickly at Clovis West High School, on the north side of town. He joined the wrestling team. In pictures of that time, he has arms like Jose Canseco’s, with rippling biceps. Nayeri made friends with Naomi, and with her future husband, Ryan Kevorkian, a fellow wrestler in the same class.
Kyle and Nayeri ran in different circles. Senior year, the two cliques of boys clashed over a girl. (Hossein’s friend, the story went, had stolen Kyle’s girlfriend.) Kyle brought friends from the football team as backup. Nayeri got the worst of the fight. A kick broke his jaw, leaving him with a concussion and missing teeth. His jaw was wired shut for months.
Graduating in 1997, Nayeri joined the Marines, attending boot camp in San Diego. But Nayeri was a screw-up. First, he got caught shoplifting polo shirts from an outfitter on base with a couple of buddies. Then he got hurt. Stationed at Camp Pendleton, he went surfing and wiped out, hitting a rock. The impact knocked him out. A friend pulled him out of the water. But Nayeri was hospitalized with a skull fracture and a busted ear drum.
After Nayeri returned to barracks, he almost immediately went AWOL. “I took my sea bag and threw it back in the car,” he would tell a jury. When the military tracked him down in Fresno, he got 47 days in the brig. He was given a choice: Recommit to the Marines, with demotions, or receive a “bad conduct” discharge. Nayeri chose the latter.
He hadn’t been a stoner in high school, but a friend introduced Nayeri to the marijuana game. He was fascinated by the botany of it. By 2003, he had a grow in his two-bedroom condo. His hobby became a business around the same time he met Cortney.
Nayeri had a day job as a server at a Mimi’s Cafe that Cortney liked to visit with her cousin. Nayeri was 23 at the time. Cortney was just 16, but told Nayeri she was a freshman at Fresno State. They began dating, and were physical. When she came clean about her age weeks later, shortly before her 17th birthday, Nayeri says they broke up; Cortney says they continued to see each other (and kept up a sexual relationship) for a few more months before breaking it off.
Nayeri would testify in court that he built his weed business with a man, Ehsan Tousi, whom he characterized as an established dealer. Tousi brought in his longtime friend, and former Nayeri nemesis, Kyle. The trio, Nayeri said, began growing in a defunct dance studio north of town. Nayeri sold to dispensaries — illicitly, through the back door.
When Cortney turned 18, the couple began dating again. Nayeri’s life was looking up, but his recklessness caught up with him. The day after Christmas in 2005, Nayeri and Tousi partied with friends at a tribal casino in the foothills north of Fresno. Wasted, Nayeri volunteered to drive home, but careened off the road and flipped their SUV. Tousi died at the scene. Nayeri was airlifted to a hospital. His leg was badly burned: He required skin grafts; lost toes.
Nayeri had been drunk and high. Toxicology showed cocaine in his bloodstream. Charged with gross vehicular manslaughter, Nayeri made bail. A couple of months later, he fled. He got a ticket to Iran, where his mother and father had returned. And during two years in exile, Nayeri put down roots. He secretly married an Iranian woman, but kept stringing along Cortney.
Finally, when it seemed like the law was off his trail, Nayeri sneaked back into the U.S., traveling, he later testified, on a U.S. passport that Cortney gave him, which belonged to her cousin. Nayeri returned to the marijuana business. He built out a grow operation, working in Seattle near the Mariners’ ballpark. According to court testimony, he was relying on money fleeced from Cortney’s father.
Working at her dad’s electronics-recycling business, Cortney used the company credit card to rack up $150,000 in charges for Nayeri’s scheme. “Hossein would put pressure on me for things that I wasn’t able to afford . . . and so I would charge my parents’ American Express,” Cortney testified. “I was terrified of Hossein at this point. . . . I didn’t feel like I had a choice to cross him.”
In 2009, Nayeri was collared. He pleaded no contest in the death of his friend. And as the judge weighed sentencing, Nayeri and longtime friends put on a charm offensive, writing letters to the court. Calling the accident “the biggest mistake of my life,” Nayeri wrote: “I wished I wouldn’t have gained consciousness.” Ryan Kevorkian told the court Nayeri had “punished himself more than anyone else ever could.” Naomi, then Ryan’s wife, praised Nayeri as “one of the most amazing people I know,” adding, “I am thankful that God put him in my life.”
Nayeri could have faced years in prison. But the judge chose leniency, handing him a suspended sentence and five years of probation.
WHEN NAYERI FLED to Tehran a second time, Cortney supported him. They used burner phones and vanishing-message apps like Viber. According to allegations filed by the State Bar of California in a disciplinary proceeding, Cortney even “filed false probation reports” on Nayeri’s behalf to “make it appear that he was still in compliance.” (Her lawyer did not answer questions on this matter.)
According to law-enforcement sources, Nayeri told Cortney details of what had transpired in the desert. He referred to his accomplices by using code names from Reservoir Dogs. Kyle was “Mr. Pink.” The third man, the muscle, was “Mr. Brown.”
The couple rendezvoused abroad: in Turkey that December, in Dubai during January and again in March 2013. Cortney brought clothes, medicine, and cash — close to $60,000 across the three trips — money she’d wheedled from her parents. (Unbeknownst to Cortney, Nayeri received similar visits from Naomi, who visited him in Thailand and Istanbul.)
Kyle was in custody, charged with kidnapping and mutilation. And detective work by the Newport Beach police was generating hard evidence. The blue gloves found on the floor of Kyle’s truck came back from the lab in early January with a match for Nayeri’s DNA.
Until that point, Nayeri had not been implicated in the plot. But police knew him as a person of interest in the motorcycle chase. Disappointment at realizing Nayeri had fled the country was tempered by the excitement of realizing they still had the Tahoe in the impound lot. “I served a warrant on that car and found the cameras and all the footage of Michael’s,” Peters recalls. “I’m like, ‘Oh, this is awesome.’ ”
The Tahoe was more than a trove of evidence. It was a trap. Police called Cortney that spring and asked her to retrieve her possessions. Nayeri pressed her to go down to the station: Test the temperature and see what the police know.
Peters met Cortney: “I lay all this stuff out on this table. And I tell her, ‘We’re gonna release the car, but you gotta sign for all the paperwork.’ ” But the paperwork was not routine. It stipulated, according to a source in law enforcement: These are my objects. I know everything that’s on them. I was responsible or at least I played a role in capturing these images. It was meant to give cops leverage. Cameras rolled as the law student read the document — and then signed it.
“It was the middle of the night. The room is pitch-black, and all of a sudden, I felt something cold on the back of my neck. I knew it was the barrel of a handgun.”
Peters then informed Cortney that police were serving a warrant on her home. They weren’t handing over shit. And that by claiming the equipment, he said, Cortney had just implicated herself in a serious crime. Peters hoped Cortney would be shocked into cooperating. “I wanted her to be on the ‘witness bus,’ ” he says. Instead, Cortney blew up and stormed off.
She tipped off Nayeri. “She let him know, ‘The cops are onto you — and us,’ ” says Brown. The couple broke off communications.
With Cortney clamming up, police were aiming to charge her. Peters believed Cortney could “be looking at multiple life sentences.” But at Brown’s urging, Peters reached out to Cortney’s father, who called him back from a private jet. Peters broke the news that Cortney was married — and involved with her husband in a violent crime.
Once her dad got involved, Cortney later testified, it was like the Big One had struck. “The whole world was crashing down,” she said, describing a collision of reality and “this totally delusional, mentally messed-up state I was in.” Cortney started four-day-a-week therapy. With distance from Nayeri, she would tell a jury, she was filled with remorse. “I couldn’t live with what I had done and contributed to.”
The family lawyered up exquisitely, hiring a defense attorney who’d formerly been a star prosecutor in the Orange County DA’s office. By early May, Cortney was sitting at Newport Beach Police Department headquarters, laying out damning details that implicated her as an accomplice in the plot against Michael.
There was no guarantee of immunity on the table. But for Cortney, the only path to stay out of prison herself was to come clean. She offered details and plot points the police wouldn’t have uncovered without her, including the description of the white rental van used in the crime and Naomi’s role in buying the guns. Cortney confessed to feeding the meter for Kyle’s truck. She even volunteered the story of poisoning Michael’s family dog. As she’d tell the jury, “I knew that it was going to make me look like a monster.”
MURPHY DID NOT trust Cortney at first. The DA still had designs to charge her. But as he conferred with Cortney’s lawyer — his former mentor — Murphy would become sold on an audacious plan: Use her to lure Nayeri out of Iran.
The first hurdle: Get Nayeri to re-engage. When an uncle of Nayeri’s died, cops told Cortney to accompany Nayeri’s sister to the funeral. “We thought word would get back to him that she showed up,” Brown says. “We told her, ‘Just wait.’ ”
By June, Nayeri risked contact and called Cortney. And he kept calling, as Cortney recorded their conversations. The strategy paid dividends: Nayeri himself gave up the third conspirator. In one conversation, Brown recalls, Nayeri told Cortney: “ ‘You know who Mr. Brown is.’ And she’s like, ‘I do?’ And that’s when he told us about Ryan Kevorkian.”
The hulking Ryan, Nayeri’s old friend and wrestling teammate, was a state-prison guard who’d been fired for impregnating an inmate — an event that had also ended his marriage to Naomi. As presented in court, Nayeri had also been abusive toward Ryan, beating him up with a baseball bat in 2011. (Nayeri would deny this incident.) He was the type of person Nayeri could both trust and dominate.
To corroborate the tape, cops trailed Ryan to a 24 Hour Fitness, where they posed as gym rats. “They snatched up his gym towel when he set it down in the bathroom,” Brown says. The sweat matched the DNA on the cut zip tie found in a garbage bag in back of Kyle’s house.
The dark contours of the caper were coming to light. But justice had to wait. Cops knew Nayeri scoured the news back home. So prosecutors filed a secret arrest warrant for him that wouldn’t appear in the county’s computer system. “We needed to swoop in on Naomi, Ryan, and Hossein all at the same time, so that he wouldn’t get tipped off,” Brown recalls.
Cortney made weekly visits to the police department to download the audio of her calls. Peters kept in constant contact. “I wanted to keep her focused on the mission,” he recalls, “and not have this guy twist her up again.”
International extradition is a legal tangle. The foreign country has to have a treaty with the U.S. and recognize a given crime as clearing the bar for arrest and deportation. Through her lawyer, Cortney received a list of nations that Nayeri could be nabbed in. She needed to plan a trip.
Cortney kept it light, proposing to Nayeri’s sister Negar, “Hey, let’s go to Spain after I graduate from law school.” Negar didn’t know the ulterior motive of the trip to Barcelona. “He trusted his sister,” Brown says. “It seemed legit. Not anything to do with law enforcement.” They could each, legally, bring Nayeri $10,000 in cash.
Nayeri emailed Cortney headshots, and she, with a wink from the cops, visited a seedy operation in downtown Santa Ana to secure a fake U.S. green card. Nayeri said he needed it to obtain a visa to reach Spain undetected.
For Cortney, every conversation with Nayeri felt fragile, as if the entire ruse could crack wide open. By this time, she was dating another man, but still had to play the fawning wife. At the end of September, she sent Nayeri a card: “I love you so much. Cannot wait until I see your precious face. Less than 30 days.” She signed it with a heart and “Ms. C.”
The plan was for Nayeri to join Cortney in Spain, via a layover in Prague. The Czech Republic fit the bill for capturing the fugitive; the FBI even had an attaché stationed there. As the plan neared fruition, “we’re nervous,” Peters recalls. “Like, what if there’s a conversation that we don’t know about? What if she now goes on the run? We’re screwed.”
But then, suddenly, seamlessly, the trap sprang shut. Nayeri’s visa came through. He boarded his flight. He walked off the plane in Prague — where the FBI seized him. When the news reached Southern California, Murphy recalls, “It was high-fives and hugs. We couldn’t believe it actually worked.”
IN CZECH CUSTODY, Nayeri played dumb. Border police questioned him about whether he knew Mary and Michael. “No. How would I know them?” Nayeri lied. “Do they know me?”
With Nayeri locked up in a dank, Nazi-era Prague prison, police moved in on Naomi and Ryan. They got each of them to flip, making proffers to reduce their criminal exposure. They offered the same deal to Kyle, but he refused to cooperate.
With new evidence, the prosecutors’ theory of the crime grew somehow even more horrific. “Hossein was in the middle, and the web was from him out,” says Peters. “Ryan and Naomi were estranged. Neither of them knew that the other one was involved in any way. Cortney had no idea that Naomi was having an affair with Hossein.”
Naomi’s fear of Nayeri was similar to Cortney’s. “The day he made her get the van,” Brown recalls, “he was in an ‘episode.’ That’s what she called it. He’d go into these ‘episodes,’ where he was so crazy that she would do anything to just kind of bring him down to earth.”
“He got a lot of women to do his dirty work for him,” Brown adds. “He is truly on the edge. To the point where these women were afraid, ‘If I don’t go along, he could kill me.’ ”
Kyle, they knew, was neck-deep in the plot, but he was a “numbskull,” Brown insists. Kevorkian was a late addition, brought in for the muscle. At trial, Nayeri would insist he only surveilled Michael, and wasn’t even in the desert that night. Prosecutors were piecing together a much different account.
On the night of the break-in, police were told, Nayeri had initiated a struggle with Michael, while Ryan helped subdue him. In the van, Kyle had been behind the wheel, Brown says. Meanwhile, in the back, Nayeri tortured Michael with what Murphy describes as an “almost gleeful sadism.”
The conviction that Michael had a cache of treasure was real. “Hossein truly believed he’d buried money,” says Peters. But by the time they reached the Mojave, the hope of a payday was dashed. “They wouldn’t have drug the bodies out of the van had they believed Michael was going to say, ‘Take the next left, and drive up the road.’ ”
The severing of the penis, law enforcement believed, was a joint effort. “It was Kyle’s job,” says Peters. “Hossein knew that Kyle was the weak link. And Nayeri wanted him involved in the violence — that part of it — so he couldn’t tattletale.”
But Kyle balked at the task. He began to retch. “He couldn’t do it,” Peters says. “It got to the point where he almost got sick. And then Hossein finished it.”
He sang while he cut.
“And then they put it in a bag,” Peters says, “and got in the car.”
NAYERI LANGUISHED IN Prague for nearly a year before extradition papers were finalized. In September 2014, he was flown to New York. Detective Peters watched the FBI frog-march him into a police precinct behind the terminals at JFK. After nearly two years, it was the first time he’d laid eyes on Nayeri. “It’s surreal,” he recalls.
With his partner and a pair of federal agents, Peters flew Nayeri, handcuffed, back to Orange County. The FBI dropped federal charges, entrusting California law enforcement to bring the sadist to justice.
Nayeri was booked into the Orange County Central Men’s Jail in Santa Ana, about eight miles from Disneyland. And from here, he staged a jailbreak to rival any Hollywood production.
Nayeri was “white banded” in the jail — given a wristband denoting the facility’s least restrictive designation. “That’s like a guy who’s doing local time for a DUI,” says Murphy. “They put you in a dormitory and do approximately one or two [prisoner] counts a day.”
A homeless man spotted the men in a Whole Foods parking lot and alerted police: “Hey, that Hannibal Lecter guy you’re looking for is over there in that van.”
With this latitude, Nayeri began to build a new crew, starting with an impressionable teenager, Jonathan Tieu, who was facing a murder charge related to a drive-by (he wasn’t the gunman) and had alleged links to a local Vietnamese gang.
Inmates had the run of the jail, built in the 1960s. According to a grand-jury investigation after the breakout, closed-circuit cameras were scatter-shot. And prisoners set up “ratlines” — makeshift ropes — and “tenting” with bedsheets to create privacy around their bunks.
Nayeri targeted a helper on the inside: an ESL teacher he’d charmed. “He took 240 hours of English as a second language,” Brown recalls. “He speaks perfect English!” The woman — who was arrested but never prosecuted — allegedly provided Nayeri a Google Maps printout of the jail.
It’s not clear how Nayeri obtained his cutting tool. But careless contractors had left equipment within reach of inmates, and Sawzall blades were found in “inmate areas” twice in the months leading up to the escape. Nayeri sawed off a corner of a metal bunk bed, gaining access to an air-vent grate behind it. He cut that, too, and wriggled through, reaching a maintenance cavity. Inside the walls, he scaled a ventilation shaft with a bedsheet ladder. Nayeri cut steel bars blocking the ascent to the roof, five stories up and surrounded by razor wire.
Late in the game, Nayeri brought in a third man, Bac Duong, fortysomething, with a dragon tattoo on his back. Duong was jailed and awaiting trial for attempted murder; he’d shot a man at a gambling house in Orange County’s Little Saigon. He had underworld connections.
An associate of Bac’s on the outside compiled contraband, including cellphones, and helped smuggle it into the jail; the inmates cut the razor wire and lowered a bedsheet rope from the roof to retrieve a backpack from the man. “On the night of the escape,” the grand jury describes, “the trio had the supplies they needed: three sets of clothing, three pairs of shoes, [and] two coils of rope.”
Brazenly, Nayeri shot video of their escape, popping out the bed leg, removing the grate, and snaking into the tunnel. He even gave the cellphone camera a thumbs-up from the other side.
In the predawn hours of Jan. 22, 2016 — a month before Nayeri’s trial was to begin — the inmates rappelled off the side of the roof. No alarm sounded. Nobody hit them with spotlights. No one from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, housed next door, looked out to see Bac get stuck halfway down. He struggled with his carabiner for 10 minutes, until he finally loosened it and lowered himself to the ground.
Their getaway driver — Bac’s contraband man — piled the men into his car. The escapees cruised around Orange County, collecting booze, money, and a gun.
THE ESCAPE WASN’T discovered until a roll call nearly 15 hours later. And even as deputies tried to sort out who’d gone missing, a fight broke out among the inmates. This, too, was part of Nayeri’s plot — a staged distraction, according to a sheriff’s department review.
The jailbreak was met with horror and disbelief. Brown had dozed off playing Words With Friends when her phone buzzed at midnight. “It was a text message from Detective Peters,” she recalls. “My first thought was ‘Oh, my God, Cortney. He’s gonna go kill Cortney.’ ”
Their getaway driver had ditched them, so Nayeri’s crew called a cab -driver, 71-year-old Long Ma. Long met the men at a Santa Ana restaurant and agreed to drive them around for the night for $100. He took them to a Target near L.A., where Nayeri stocked up on cellphones and clothes. While they put the items in the trunk, Nayeri allegedly pulled a knife on Bac. “We’re going to take the cab driver,” he said.
As Long later described to a reporter, the men forced him into the back seat of the Honda at gunpoint. They’d use Long and his driver’s license to cash checks and sign motel registries. The old man believed his captors might kill him if he tried to escape. They would debate killing him anyway.
The trio wanted another set of wheels and found a white GMC Savanna van on Craigslist. Bac allegedly took the vehicle for a test drive and never returned it. (A jury would deadlock on his responsibility for this crime.)
The escapees and their hostage lay low at the Flamingo Inn, a Spanish-tile motel with weekly rates in Rosemead. Everyone but the cabbie partied, downing bottles of Jack Daniels and beer. As Long recalled, the escapees would awake, hungover, and monitor Orange County Sheriff’s news conferences, reveling in their success. Yet even triumph was tinged with torture: According to evidence presented at Bac Duong’s trial, -Nayeri forced Bac to burn his arm with a cigarette in a display of -loyalty. And he filmed it.
Law enforcement lived in fear for their own lives. Nayeri had left printed-out pictures of Brown and Murphy on his bunk. “I was worried,” Brown recalls. “This guy is capable of chopping off people’s body parts. I don’t want to have my kids find my head at the bottom of the stairs.”
As days stretched on without recapture, Murphy told Brown, “We need to alarm the public.” She’d soon give an interview to an Orange County Register reporter that included a quote, intended to be off-the-record, of her reaction to Nayeri’s escape: “Oh, my God, they let Hannibal Lecter out.”
The article created a shitstorm for Brown — she was briefly kicked off the case. But for catching Nayeri, “it ended up being a godsend,” she says, turning the local story into national news. Despite the embarrassment of the escape, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department leaned into the cinematic caper to fan the media frenzy. Authorities offered a reward that would swell to $200,000.
The escapees fled north on Jan. 26 to another cut-rate motel, in San Jose. Nayeri allegedly decided the group needed to kill the cab driver and dispose of the body. The cabbie didn’t speak English, and couldn’t fully comprehend Nayeri’s intentions. But he later said his captors bought a rope and marched him out to the end of a wharf in the nearby beach town of Santa Cruz.
Bac had taken a liking to the old cabbie and refused to let Nayeri hurt him. Their disagreement turned violent. Nayeri, the former wrestler, pinned Bac to the ground and beat him, breaking his nose. The next day, when Nayeri and Jonathan left to get the windows of the van tinted, Bac made a break for it with Long and the gun, and drove back to Orange County to turn himself in. He had strangulation bruises across his neck.
“He’s terrifying,” Brown says of Nayeri. Bac, she adds, concluded, “I’d rather spend my life in prison than be out on the lam with this guy.”
Nayeri and Jonathan drove on to San Francisco, where they filmed themselves stoned in the Haight-Ashbury district. It was a homeless man, who’d been following media coverage of the fugitives, who foiled their great escape. He spotted the men in a Whole Foods parking lot and alerted police: “Hey,” he said, “that Hannibal Lecter guy you’re looking for is over there in that van.”
AUTHORITIES CONFINED NAYERI to an individual cell at a maximum-security jail in the city of Orange. The escape pushed back his trial date; Nayeri’s lawyer argued the publicity surrounding the escape complicated jury selection. But nearly a year-and-a-half later, in July 2017, Nayeri launched a bizarre public-relations blitz of his own, aimed at embarrassing law enforcement and reshaping public opinion. Through his lawyer, he released a 15-minute video documenting his escape.
The video began with a montage from inside the jail, set to “Under Pressure,” followed by footage of Nayeri’s crew climbing through the air shaft to the Mission: Impossible theme song. In an eerie voice-over, Nayeri spoke of Long Ma as a “hero” who “decided to help us” and mocked Bac as “the first man in history to try to collect reward money on himself.”
In San Francisco, Nayeri and Jonathan had filmed themselves inside the van. Nayeri held a pot pipe; Jonathan lofted a bottle of whiskey. “We are not killing anyone. . . . We are not kidnapping anyone,” Nayeri said to the camera. “Just trying to weather the storm. This is our casa right now. We’re smoking weed and eating bananas.”
Addressing the public, Nayeri turned on the charm. “We scared the hell out of people and caused a lot of anxiety and fear. At the end of the day, I can’t say I feel good about that,” he said. “I don’t know any club-tie, velvety words to express this, but I do know with every ounce of my being I absolutely feel terrible for every single person who was affected.”
Then he turned nasty, railing against cops. “I got totally crushed by the reality-distortion machine a couple of years before the escape,” he said. “Was it insanely wrong wanting to give them one back?”
Nayeri closed the video with an incantation worthy of a 1970s cult guru, asking: “Really? Who polices the police? Please think for yourself. Question authority. Think for yourself. Question authority.”
The PEOPLE v. Hossein Nayeri opened in July 2019. Murphy — trim, a lifelong surfer, with 26 years of experience — took the lead in what would be the final trial of his career as a prosecutor. He tag-teamed with Brown. Detective Peters sat at the prosecution table.
Mary, the roommate, proved a vivid storyteller: “It was the middle of the night. The room is pitch-black, and all of a sudden, I felt something cold on the back of my neck,” she told the jury. “As soon as I woke up, I knew it was the barrel of a handgun.”
When Michael took the stand, he demystified his first trip to the Mojave. A dispensary regular, Chaz, had hit him up with a chance to invest in a gold mine, and on a lark, Michael agreed to check it out, driving his Tacoma to the desert — unaware of the GPS tracker pinging back to Nayeri. Michael wasn’t impressed, telling the jury: “It just sounded like a big scam.”
When he recounted the crimes of violence, Michael seemed to be describing an out-of-body experience. “They pulled me out of the van,” he told the jury, matter-of-factly. “They held me down and then proceeded to cut off my penis.”
For the prosecution, Cortney was the star witness. While Murphy and Brown had been skeptical of her at first, Murphy says they both “came full circle on her. She was the victim of horrific abuse by Hossein Nayeri.” Her cooperation with law enforcement was rewarded with a deal providing full immunity from prosecution in 2017 — no charges.
Cortney laid out hours of damning evidence against her former husband. (Seizing on Nayeri’s secret marriage in Iran, Cortney had their union annulled.) The jury heard Cortney describe that violent marriage as “off-the-charts dysfunctional.”
On cross-examination, Nayeri’s lawyer painted Cortney as serial liar who’d “tricked” Nayeri into having sex with her when she was underage, stolen her parents’ money, lied to the cops, and misled Nayeri’s sister — suggesting she was only interested in saving her skin by fabricating lies about her ex.
Prosecutors weren’t worried. The case against Kyle Handley had been a slam dunk. He didn’t testify to offer his version of events, and a jury returned a quick guilty verdict. “We’re high on that,” Peters recalls. “We thought Hossein’s would be even easier.”
But then Nayeri took the stand. “He became argumentative, and spun everything, and lied,” Peters says. “It swayed the jury a bit — had them inside their own head. They weren’t just looking at the facts.”
Nayeri offered an astonishing counternarrative. He claimed he’d leaped into “the big leagues” of marijuana cultivation and socked away $1.9 million in profits. (The money, he testified, had been stashed at Cortney’s parents’ house, “in her brother’s bedroom; all hundreds, $50,000 vacuum-sealed, each” — yet mysteriously later disappeared.) Nayeri said his dream was to grow, and save, until Cortney passed her bar. “I would have to get out of the business,” Nayeri said. “Switch over to regular life, I guess you can call it, and start a family.”
The surveillance of Michael? That was a favor to Kyle, whom Nayeri painted as a pot kingpin. In Nayeri’s tall tale, Michael owed Kyle $300,000. “He ripped him off,” Nayeri blurted in court. For the sum of $1,000 a week, he said, Kyle paid him to keep an eye on the supposed deadbeat, eventually paying him $32,000. The aim of the spycraft? “If he was going to disappear,” Nayeri said, “at least we could find him.”
Nayeri’s testimony spanned the turbulent sweep of his life: the death of his friend, his troubled relationship with Cortney. “He put on a performance of a lifetime,” recalls Beth Burbage, the jury foreperson, then 61. “Denying everything — even crying.” A young juror seated next to Burbage was eating it up. “She cried when Nayeryi cried on the stand. She totally bought into this story.”
Murphy had prepared for cross-examination with the mindset of a bullfighter waving a red flag. “I’ve got an egomaniacal psychopath” on the stand, he recalls. “The danger is he’s gonna keep his cool.” But Nayeri made no effort to hide his anger. When Murphy baited Nayeri to admit his guilt, Nayeri snapped back: “I didn’t have a frigging clue it was going to happen!”
In quieter moments, Nayeri incriminated himself. Murphy got Nayeri to confirm Cortney’s account of watching Michael’s GPS signals from the desert, and dreaming of cash. “I said — in a jokingly manner — ‘The dude must be a Scrooge,’ ” Nayeri said. “ ‘I think the Scrooge is burying his money out there.’ ”
When Murphy took a final swing, Nayeri flashed red. “I just have one last question for you,” the DA said. “When you were out in the desert with Michael S. and you cut off his penis, why couldn’t you just leave it there in the hopes it could be reattached?”
“You’re done?” Nayeri said.
“You want to give us an answer for that?”
“I’m going to give you an answer for that,” Nayeri snarled at Murphy. “Personally.”
IN CLOSING ARGUMENTS, Murphy pointed to Nayeri’s explosions on the stand. “He’s in a courtroom. He’s behaving like that,” Murphy said. “What’s he doing in the . . . van when he’s not getting what he wants?”
Nayeri was a shameless liar, the DA insisted: “That $1.9 million?” Murphy said of Nayeri’s supposed vacuum-sealed riches. “It is preposterous . . . virtually inexhaustible supply of cash. And he’s doing surveillance for Kyle Handley?”
And Murphy pointed to Nayeri’s jailbreak as evidence of his audacity and influence. “Who’s the mastermind” of the plot against Michael, he asked. “Idiot Kyle Handley? Moron Ryan Kevorkian? Or the guy who figures out how to pull a Shawshank Redemption and escape from the Orange County jail?”
The case closed after more than three weeks of testimony. Nayeri’s fate was now in the hands of eight women and four men. Their deliberations began on Aug. 11. And dragged on. One day stretched to two. Two days stretched to three, then four.
“I was losing my mind,” recalls Murphy. “My very last trial, and deliberations are taking way too long.”
Notes from jurors piled up in the chambers of Judge Gregg Prickett. One alleged: “Juror B wants 100 percent certainty for a guilty vote, but only a one-percent certainty for a not guilty vote, period.”
Inside the deliberation room, the vote was 11-to-1. The young woman who’d sat next to Burbage could not be convinced of Nayeri’s guilt. The jury only avoided a mistrial thanks to a tireless woman in her thirties, who was a whiz with a whiteboard, laying out logic maps and evidence. “She kept going through these points with the holdout — over and over and over again,” Burbage recalls. “Finally, we convinced her that she couldn’t say he was not guilty.”
On Aug. 16, Nayeri sat, impassive, in a gray suit, his head rocking slightly, as the clerk read out the verdicts: Guilty on three charges — felony, kidnapping “for ransom, reward, or extortion” of Michael and Mary, and felony torture of Michael. The jury deadlocked on a felony mayhem charge that required it to find Nayeri had personally disfigured Michael. On a sentencing enhancement, the jury found “not true” that prosecutors had proved Nayeri “personally inflicted great bodily injury on Michael S.”
AT HIS OCTOBER 2020 sentencing, Nayeri didn’t take responsibility. He appeared in a Covid mask, wearing a red, short-sleeve jail shirt, with newly bulging biceps, reminiscent of his days as a wrestler.
To Michael and Mary, Nayeri said only that he was “truly sorry for what you all have been through.” He then painted himself as a victim of “distorted reality” and “incomplete facts,” insisting: “John Wayne would have been dazzled by this wild, Wild West style of justice in Orange County.”
Nayeri received two consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole for kidnapping, plus another seven-years-to-life for the torture charge. Nayeri has filed an appeal; his lawyer declined to discuss it.
His co-conspirators have also been adjudicated. In 2018, Kyle Handley received four life terms — two without possibility of parole. Handley’s appeal of his conviction was denied. He’s serving at Centinela State Prison near the Mexico border. He did not respond to a letter requesting an interview.
Ryan Kevorkian pleaded guilty in May 2021 to two kidnapping counts, burglary, and assault with a firearm. Reflecting his cooperation, he was sentenced to just 12 years. Now at Corcoran State Prison, he is eligible for parole in 2023. He did not respond to a letter requesting an interview.
“He carries that crime scene with him every day. That’s a mental prison that no one deserves to suffer.”
After a year in custody, Naomi Rhodus was freed on her own recognizance, working in real estate in Fresno. She reached a deal in March 2022: Prosecutors dropped felony charges, and she pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge, receiving three years of informal probation. Rhodus did not agree to an interview, but her lawyer characterized her as “a victim of Nayeri” who was “under his control out of fear.”
Cortney Shegerian became a member of the California bar in 2014, three years before she received her immunity deal in 2017. She co-founded a law firm, serving as primary trial attorney, even arguing cases before the California Supreme Court. But Cortney’s Nayeri saga continued: In June 2022, the California bar belatedly sought to strip her of her law license, alleging she’d failed to “disclose her involvement . . . in an extensive crime spree with her then-spouse Hossein Nayeri.” In response, Shegerian insisted she’d never been charged with a crime, had made proper disclosures, and was in fact “the primary person who caused Nayeri and all three of his accomplices to be . . . convicted of their heinous crimes.” In a November settlement, stipulating she made “false statements to the State Bar,” Cortney was disciplined with a “public reproval,” ongoing oversight, and required ethics education, but kept her law license.
Michael S. remains in the marijuana business, which — even a decade on, and despite state legalization — remains dangerously unbanked. The House passed a landmark bill in 2021 that would offer safe harbor for financial institutions that service state-legal cannabis businesses. The Senate has not yet introduced a companion measure.
At Nayeri’s sentencing, Michael told the court he’d married the red-haired girlfriend his captors once threatened. But he said he remains haunted — “I live with the feeling of always looking over my shoulder” — and denounced the “violent savagery” he still lives with, including the injury that made the case infamous and the scars from having been bound, whipped, and burned. “He carries that crime scene with him every day,” Brown says. “That’s a mental prison that no one deserves to suffer.”
Nayeri did not respond to a letter seeking an interview. His trial lawyer did not respond to interview requests or questions relating to Nayeri’s crime.
In late 2022, Nayeri prepared to go on trial for his jail escape, kidnapping, and auto theft. Despite the documentary he made of his getaway, Nayeri has pleaded not guilty to all charges. Jonathan Tieu is also awaiting trial for his role in the escape; his lawyer contends Tieu fell under Nayeri’s sway, adding of the escape: “He had nothing to do with planning any of it.” (Tieu’s murder charge was resolved as a conviction for assault.) Fellow escapee Bac Duong was convicted of kidnapping and is serving 20 years.
The horrid details of Hossein Nayeri’s crimes shock the conscience. He had every tool for success: Handsome. Athletic. Charming. Industrious. Adept at planning and leading others through complexity. But behind Nayeri’s attractive facade was a void. His fragile ego led him to frame each leap to the dark side as a justified response to some perceived slight or persecution: Look what you made me do.
Nayeri’s appetite for violence made him a problem the justice system should have solved. Yet it hasn’t prevented his depravity so much as struggled to contain it. Long before his 2012 spree, two judges looked on him with sympathy: one who gave him probation for manslaughter; another who sent him to classes for domestic violence. Today, he continues to rack up new felony charges while in custody — the most recent for drug possession. His current attorney described these counts simply as “jail stuff.”
The trail of destruction he left after the crime in the desert — three people in jail, two women recovering from years of abuse, a man mutilated for life, to say nothing of the housemate, Mary — is enough to make a law-and-order hardliner out of even the most progressive advocate for criminal-justice reform. There are some men, it seems, from whom the only viable protection is to throw away the key.
Following Nayeri’s sentencing, Orange County DA Todd Spitzer denounced his “depraved heart,” calling him “the poster child for how evil a person can be, and still be in this form we call a human figure.”
A defense attorney close to the destruction wrought by Nayeri surprises herself by agreeing. “I’m not pro life-without-parole sentences, ever,” she says. “But Nayeri is absolutely dead behind the eyes. Just a terrifying individual. He is truly an evil human.”