His face was blasted all over the world as one of the inmates who made a daring jail break in California. Now, in a Crime Watch Daily exclusive, Jonathan Tieu's family breaks their silence.
"He's not some crazy guy who's going to go out, go shoot people," said Tiffany Tieu, Jonathan's sister. "I believe that when Johnny escaped, his idea was not to harm people."
The family of captured Orange County fugitive Jonathan Tieu is trying to make sense of his foiled shot at freedom.
Tieu is part of a trio of inmates who escaped from the Orange County Men's Central Jail and eluded law enforcement agencies across the state of California, capturing the nation's attention.
Tieu's own family spoke exclusively to Crime Watch Daily. They said they were stunned upon finding out on the news he had broken out.
"When I heard the news he escaped, I assumed they got the wrong person, you know, that he was in the jail but they just couldn't locate him at that time period," said Tiffany.
Sister Tiffany told Crime Watch Daily her brother couldn't bear five years of incarceration, and she thinks that motivated his escape.
"He goes up to the roof, he sees how close he is to being outside, free, he says why can't that be him," said Tiffany.
Tiffany and her mother, Luann Nguyen, overwhelmed with emotion as they recount their own harrowing days of panic and worry.
Every minute Jonathan Tieu was on the run was a lifetime of agony for his family.
"I feel like my life is over because it's just scary every moment. I don't know what my son is doing out there. How he lived, especially how people treat him," said Luann.
The pubic was shaken by the warnings from authorities: these three men were extremely dangerous. The trio took a cab driver hostage at gunpoint for several days.
An argument broke out among the fugitives as they hunkered down in motel rooms with their prisoner over whether to kill him. Bac Duong, 43, ultimately turned himself in, leaving 20-year-old Jonathan with 37-year-old Hossein Nayeri, whom this family feared would harm him.
Nayeri and Tieu were captured on Saturday, January 30, in Northern California.
"My biggest fear is that the other guy is going to realize that Johnny is just going to weigh him down, and have to get rid of him, have to kill him, because he's not going to let my brother go and tell the police about his plan of escaping," said Tiffany.
The family shared with Crime Watch Daily exclusively the contents of a letter written and mailed by Jonathan while running from the law, alluding to a plan sheriff's detectives say was six months in the making.
"I'm sorry I couldn't let you guys know cuz I know you would freak out...
"Mom, I know you don't approve of my decision in this, but hey, at least be happy for me. I'm finally free after five years...
"This part is to you mom: hopefully one of these days I'll be able to hold and kiss you again. Be strong. You're a strong woman, I love you more than anything."
The road to criminality seemed an unlikely path for a young Johnny Tieu, once a straight-A honor student with a penchant for drawing and a dream of designing video games.
The future was promising, until Luann divorced her husband, whom she says cut ties with his children.
Jonathan, his brother Tony, and sister Tiffany were profoundly impacted by the split.
"I had a father who I know is out there and alive, and he didn't want us," said Tiffany.
Once their father left, Jonathan and his brother got involved in a gang, which led to their arrests for murder in a 2011 shooting. Though neither brother was the shooter in the case, each is being tried for murder.
Tony is awaiting trial, but Jonathan was scheduled for a retrial in March after the jury in his first trial could not convict.
"He was so glad when the jury couldn't decide if he was guilty or not guilty," said Tiffany. "He told me he could sleep better at night time, that he could lay in bed and thank God that he could watch over him."
Once showing a willingness to get his life back on track, Jonathan received his high school diploma behind bars, even writing a graduation speech proclaiming: "For me, I had to take the hard way in order to wake up. My stay here in this institution has made me think about my future almost every single day."
What motivated Jonathan to take such a huge risk? Only he knows. But Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas tells Crime Watch Daily that there will be consequences.
First, there's the retrial for murder for which Rackauckas insists Jonathan Tieu was intricately involved.
"His part is not as the actual shooter, although he had an active part, so he was in the conspiracy and committing that crime for the benefit of the gang," said Rackauckas.
And now there's a host of serious additional charges for the jail escape.
"It'll be a few days or weeks before we are able to have all of that evidence laid out to the point where we'll be able to determine just exactly what we want to file," said Rackauckas.
For his family, the bright light that once shined on Jonathan's future is now overshadowed by an ever-darkening, daunting cloud.
"Was this the life he wants to continue leading on, or does he want to change, be a better person for my mom? So she can show him off to the world, like, 'Look at my son, I'm so glad he's my son,'" said Tiffany.