55-year-old Matthew Hay-Chapman looks like your average Upper Haight vagabond whom you probably wouldn't let borrow your cell phone if he asked. And that's exactly what happened last Saturday when he was headed to the McDonald's on Stanyan to read the paper and suddenly recognized a van in the Whole Foods parking lot across the street that fit the description of the one being driven by the two escaped inmates from Southern California who'd been described in the news. As the Chronicle reports, it helps that Hay-Chapman is sharp-witted news junkie and not, as you might assume from his recent homelessness and straggly hair, an addict of some kind. He's just a guy who's had some personal tragedies and a back problem that's kept him depressed and out of work, but his engagement with the daily news of the world is what has put him first in line to collect the $140,000 reward for the inmates' capture.
As Hay-Chapman has now told multiple news outlets including ABC 7, "The main thing I noticed was that people were sleeping in [the van], because the windows were all steamed up." He saw one man get out of the van on Saturday, and followed him to McDonald's where he got in line. He recognized the man as Hossein Nayeri, the Iranian-born fugitive who was one of two still on the run. (As LAist discussed this week, Nayeri is kind of a scary dude who was originally jailed for torturing a SoCal marijuana shop owner with a blowtorch and cutting off his penis.)
Hay-Chapman made sure Nayeri was the guy he'd seen in the newspaper, and then went outside the McDonald's where he asked to borrow a stranger's cell phone. After they refused, he walked the few blocks to Park Station, and told police what he'd seen. Soon thereafter, the SFPD made the arrests of both Nayeri and Jonathan Tieu, who had been on the run for eight days. (For a full account of their days on the run, including a taxi driver whom they kidnapped and almost murdered, read this.) The third escapee, Bac Duong, had already surrendered to authorities, possibly under pressure from Vietnamese gangs with whom he was affiliated who were feeling extra pressure from police after his escape.
But, somewhat comically, the arrest was nearly foiled by a perfectly Haight Street scene: The cops came back to the McDonald's with Hay-Chapman, but just as they're standing outside waiting for Nayeri to emerge, a random man walks up to them and collapses into the arms of one of the cops. They're then preoccupied as Nayeri calmly walked out of the McDonald's with his coffee, sees them, attempts to hide between some cars, and then bolts into the park but little did he know he was running right toward the police station, where he was captured.
"Would that every citizen would be paying that much attention,” says Police Chief Greg Suhr of Hay-Chapman. “God bless him for having courage and for being that observant and that sharp."
Hay-Chapman, who'd been sleeping in the Botanical Garden of Golden Gate Park before a friend recently let him crash on his couch, will hopefully now get a chance to get his life back on track with the reward money. As that friend tells the Chronicle, he deserves it too. "He is really a straight-up guy. He is a guy who is into doing good things for people even though he is homeless."
Previously: Escaped Inmates Kidnapped A Taxi Driver & Shopped At Target, Police Say [LAist]