Nearly seven months since cartel killer Gonzalo Lopez fled from a prison bus near Centerville, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has finally released its internal investigation, which shows multiple failures led to his deadly escape that took the lives of five family members.
The reports by TDCJ and an independent consulting group sent to 25 News found a "multitude of security lapses that occurred in preparing Lopez for transport."
This comes as state officials with TDCJ, Texas Department of Public Safety and other law enforcement agencies repeatedly gave scant details during the search for Lopez and blocked numerous requests for information by 25 News.
The findings revealed more than 20 staff and supervisors failed to comply with TDCJ policy during the escape and search for the killer.
A small homemade tool kit was found inside Lopez’s boot, raising concerns if guards searched him before transport and why he was allowed to wear his own shoes aboard the prison bus from which he would later flee.
Lopez got on board that bus on the morning of May 17 with everything he needed to escape.
In fact, he was so confident in his plan, he asked other inmates on board if they were "ready to rock and roll" and showed them what looked like a handcuff key and metal shanks, according to witness testimony.
During the return trip from Gatesville to several prison units in Huntsville, the guard behind the wheel of the bus "felt a tug on his handgun holster while driving."
He looked down to find Lopez coming out of the bus’s restrictive housing unit, which is reserved for the most dangerous offenders, and found him trying to grab his weapon.
The driver slowed the bus down to 30 mph, while the transport traveled on SH7 in Leon County, then engaged the vehicle's air brake handle.
He brought the bus to a sudden stop, "thrusting inmate Lopez further into the driver’s compartment."
Lopez and the driver fought for control of the weapons inside the tight vehicle compartment, which led to the corrections officer tumbling out of the bus after striking the door's release switch.
The convicted killer then came after the guard and stabbed him with a metal shank. Lopez was able to grab the handgun from the officer but had difficulty releasing the holster's safety latch.
The other guard at the back of the bus got out as soon as the driver slammed on the brakes, thinking they had been in an accident.
Armed with a shotgun, he made his way to the front and saw Lopez and the driver fighting on the ground. The other officer did not fire his weapon nor did he try and stop the inmate.
Instead, after yelling, "for inmate Lopez to get off Officer Smith," he helped the driver get to his feet, while the prisoner reentered the bus – this time getting behind the wheel.
The other corrections officer fired two shots into the windshield, which missed Lopez, while warning him to stop what he was doing. Instead of complying with the officer, the inmate shifted the bus into gear and drove off.
The wounded driver blew out one of the vehicle’s tires with the shotgun, but Lopez continued rolling down SH7 with a transport full of inmates, minus the two guards.
CHIEF OF POLICE ARRIVES
The TDCJ report said just moments after Lopez took control of the bus full of inmates, the City of Jewett's police chief arrived on scene, asked the guards what happened – then took off in search of the transport on SH7.
Now it's unclear what the police chief did next, but the guards say they were left behind and had to run on foot after the bus, eventually getting separate rides from members of the public.
Why both men traveled apart from each other is also unclear, but one of the civilians said the prison bus had crashed farther up the highway.
Both men arrived at the crash site, finding police officers securing the scene – but there was no sign of Lopez.
All of this happened quickly. The report shows only five minutes passed between Lopez first trying to grab the driver's gun and the last moments law enforcement saw him fleeing into the woods that day.
The manhunt for the convicted cartel killer lasted 21 days but ultimately turned up nothing.
TDCJ said more than 350 of its employees searched for Lopez each of those days on a 24-hour rotating schedule.
Part of that response included several scent dogs assigned to local prisons, using the inmate's socks in an attempt to catch his trail.
The report found the dogs were no match for the Texas heat, wind conditions and dense brush at the search area.
Law enforcement also mounted on horseback and spread out on foot in a grid pattern but also found nothing.
The report left out any mention of aerial surveillance or heat-sensing technology, like those in the capture of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in 2013.
25 News reached out to TDCJ during the 21-day search for Lopez to ask about these assets, and a spokesperson for the agency said a Texas DPS helicopter was being used in the search but provided no further details.
Two days before Lopez murdered a grandfather and his four grandsons, law enforcement received a burglary report in the area where Lopez escaped.
Investigators lifted fingerprints and DNA samples from the scene for testing.
It took 48 hours for the results to come back positive for Lopez. That same day, police got a call from a concerned family member, saying they had lost touch with a loved one in the area.
Law enforcement found brothers Carson, 16, Hudson, 11, and Waylon Collins, 18, their cousin Bryson, 11, and their grandfather, Mark Collins, 66, murdered inside a Leon County home.
TDCJ’s internal review found that staff at the Hughes Unit in Gatesville had become "complacent, and circumvented security procedures in favor of hastily completing responsibilities in a cursory manner."
Most striking, the agency found its staff falsified reports in the course of the search for Lopez and the subsequent investigation.
The pandemic also played a significant factor. Due to orders from state leaders, TDCJ prisoner transports were limited to only two guards, not the usual three, in an effort to stop the spread of COVID.
TDCJ didn't have cameras on the bus during the transport.
"They have since begun piloting adding video equipment on buses," said the report.
The rest of the investigation is based on information from interviews with witnesses and staff.
TDCJ says security lapses had become a regular practice at the Gatesville facility. The combination of several inadequate strip searches, search property, poorly applied restraints, and other security shortcuts helped Lopez escape.
The investigation also placed the blame on agency supervisors.
"We found there is no policy identifying when/where facility leadership are to conduct rounds and the frequency of those rounds," the report said.
COVID-19 played a role in staffing issues and employee shortages in the Hughes Unit, where inmate Lopez was housed, and correctional officer vacancies were high.
BEFORE THE ESCAPE
In preparation for Lopez's medical appointment, staff on May 12, 2022, started preparing the inmate charged with capital murder for medical transport. His personal property was inventoried.
TDCJ policy requires inmates to do a strip search before leaving their cell and any property including clothing be searched.
- 12:48 a.m. On May 12, 2022, a TDCJ employee arrived at Lopez’s cell and issued Lopez two red bags.
- 1:26 a.m. The cell door was opened Lopez was let out of his cell. This was a violation of TDCJ policy and security practices. Lopez never went through the search.
- 2:05 a.m. A sergeant opened the pass-through on the cell front and handed Lopez his property bag through without a search.
- 9:34 a.m. Three Correctional Officers went to prepare staff can be seen talking among themselves and looking away from the cell. The video shows the guards talking to each other and Lopez's clothing wasn't searched.
- At 10:18 a.m., When the transportation crew arrived another search should have been done but it wasn't and constant observation of Lopez was not maintained.
"The fact is that if one of these actions was followed in compliance with existing policy, it is likely that the escape could have been prevented," the report said.