WESTMINSTER, California – A 74-year-old taxi driver expected to die when an escaped jail inmate put a gun to his stomach and kidnapped him. But on Wednesday, the driver instead thanked the man for saving his life.
Cab driver Long Hoang Ma detailed the harrowing week he spent with the three violent fugitives who escaped on Jan. 22 from the Orange County jail and the unexpected kindness from one of them, Bac Duong, a fellow Vietnamese immigrant.
Ma said his ordeal began after he unknowingly picked them up just hours after their jailbreak and Duong pulled the gun.
But Duong called him "uncle" — a friendly term of respect in Vietnamese — and told him from the start he wouldn't harm him if he helped, and eventually whisked him to freedom from a motel in San Jose, California, where the fugitives had holed up during a manhunt.
"From the bottom of my heart, I can say Bac Duong saved my life, and I'm so grateful and thankful to him. I thought I was dying," Ma said in Vietnamese through a translator at Nguoi Viet, a newspaper in Westminster, whose Little Saigon is among the largest Vietnamese communities outside Vietnam.
Ma said he speaks limited English and did not know from minute to minute if he would live or die as he was forced to travel 400 miles (650 kilometers) with his captors and they fought over his fate.
Nayeri, 37, Tieu, 20, and Duong broke out of the jail by cutting through a metal grate that led to a plumbing tunnel. The trio then crawled through piping to the jail's roof, where they rappelled four stories to freedom using a rope made of bed linens. An accomplice picked them up and drove them to safety.
Duong surrendered Friday in Santa Ana after fleeing San Jose with Ma. Nayeri and Tieu were arrested Saturday in San Francisco after a homeless man reported seeing a white van matching the description of a vehicle that authorities said had been stolen by the fugitives.
Ma's ordeal began late Jan. 22, when Duong called his cellphone to order a cab. The grandfather of eight, who is from Ca Mau Province and was a captain in the South Vietnamese army during the Vietnam War, advertises his independent cab business in Vietnamese-language newspapers.
He took Duong and the other men several places, including a Target and a coin-operated laundry. Later in the evening, Duong pressed the gun into Ma's stomach, took his cellphone and said, "'We need you. You have to help us for a few days,'" Ma recalled.
Nayeri took the wheel and drove to a motel in Rosemead, California. The next morning, Duong turned on the TV and the trio gloated as they saw their mug shots splashed across the screen.
Associated Press photographer Nick Ut contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show the name of the newspaper is Nguoi Viet, not Ngoi Viet.