Officials refuse to answer questions about prison escape that led to mass murders

“I think the powers that be need to come out and, you know, be real honest.”
KBTX News 3 at Ten(Recurring)
Published: Dec. 6, 2022 at 10:38 PM CST
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CENTERVILLE, Texas (KBTX) -It’s been over six months since a convicted cartel killer escaped from a Texas Department of Criminal Justice transport bus, eluded law enforcement, and killed a family of five in their vacation home in Leon County.

Gonzalo Lopez made a daring escape from a prison transport bus on May 12, as he was being transported to a medical appointment in Huntsville. Officials say Lopez escaped after he broke free from his restraints, cut through a cage, and attacked the bus driver causing a crash in Centerville.

Lopez stayed on the run for nearly a month before being killed in a shootout with law enforcement near San Antonio.

It’s what happened before Lopez was killed that has the community demanding answers. Prior to his death on June 2, Lopez broke into a cabin in Centerville and killed Mark Collins and his four grandsons Waylon, Carson, Hudson, and Bryson.

During the initial search for Lopez and prior to the family’s death, it was discovered that the Collins family home had been broken into but it was never clear if the family or any neighbors were notified of the developments.

The Collins family murder caught the eye of some of Texas’s highest-ranking officials.

In a news release sent to KBTX on June 14, Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick called on the Texas Rangers to conduct an independent investigation into the escape and subsequent murders.

“As to the cabin that was broken into days before the murder, fingerprints and DNA samples were taken, but results were not expected back for 48 hours. By the time the results came back with a positive match to the escapee, it was too late for the Collins family,” said Patrick.

In his media release, Patrick said he wants the following questions answered:

  • How did the prisoner, who was handcuffed and locked in a secure cage inside the prison bus, remove his handcuffs, escape the cage and attack the driver?
  • How did the second guard in the back of the bus not see what was happening?
  • Was the prisoner fully searched as protocol required before getting on the bus?
  • How was the escapee able to elude hundreds of law enforcement, bloodhounds and air patrols for several weeks?
  • Was the community put on high alert after a cabin near the Collins family cabin was broken into a few days prior to their murder?

For months KBTX has been asking questions of state officials about what happened in Centerville and has yet to get any answers and when they have answered, it’s been with a legal ruling.

In a response to an email in September from KBTX, TDCJ officials stated that their investigation was ongoing and a serious incident report is in draft form and being reviewed. When asked about that report TDCJ officials went quiet and did not return our calls or emails. After filing an open record request with the TDCJ asking for a copy of the draft report and any communications or documents related to the investigation our request was denied. We learned Tuesday that the TDCJ won’t make any part of that report public until it’s finalized, arguing it might interfere with the detection, investigation, or prosecution of crime.

We sent a similar request to the Governor’s Office but it was met with the same answer. The state and attorney general’s office said the documents and information requested aren’t required to be disclosed to the public.

Tuesday, nonprofit criminal justice reporters at the Marshall Project worked with the Houston Chronicle to publish an investigation they say proves mistakes by the TDCJ n securing Gonzalo Lopez, and by law enforcement responding to his escape.

Keri Blakinger, staff writer at the Marshall Project, wrote an article called How Texas Failed To Prevent One of the Nation’s Deadliest Prison Escapes detailing what she found out through her investigations.

“There were only two officers on the bus that day instead of three, but something that I think did not really get discussed or had not been released at all, was the fact that the prisoners were not strip-searched that day and they were not given any sort of body scan or metal detector at all that day, so that’s how Lopez was able to get on the bus with two shanks and then after he hijacked the bus and crashed it, TDCJ guards that were on the bus were not able to correctly identify him as the escapee for more than an hour,” Blakinger said.

She says she hopes to learn more in the coming weeks.

“One of the things that are still unanswered is where exactly he got a handcuff key and it seems that he slipped out of his handcuffs,” Blakinger said. “He had some history of doing that, I understand, and then used some type of either stolen or handmade handcuff key to unlock the leg irons. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of clarity around those events. It’s also not clear what the back officer was doing. Obviously, the front officer was driving. The back officer, we don’t have a lot of clarity on why he didn’t see this and I think there might be some more things that come out not only in the coming investigations, but there’s the possibility of a lawsuit by the family, so we may get more information out of local law enforcement in the form of subpoenas.”

Blakinger’s full article can be found online.

KBTX took the Marshall Projects findings to Dr. Mitchel Roth Ph.D., professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Sam Houston State University. He says some of the information learned from the report was disturbing.

“I think the report gave proof to the idea that he took his chains off in the bus, made noise, guards weren’t watching and this was something he did over a period of time,” said Roth. " The thing I think was the most i guess disturbing was the fact that they were supposed to go through two strip searches ahead of time and they didn’t do any.”

“As a result, he had two knives on him, two shanks on him. He had a key that he either fabricated or had stolen and you know all these things would have been found if they’d gone through that process or at least most of them would have been found,” said Roth. " Same thing with going through a metal detector. I mean, this is all part of the protocol that they did not abide by. You got to look at it this way they’re undermanned, all the prisons in Texas are undermanned and perhaps that may have had something to do with why they didn’t do a better search before they left the prison, because by the time they left the prison, everything was, you know, in play, essentially.”

Roth believes reporting by the Houston Chronicle and the Marshall Project will start some movement and information to be released by the TDCJ.

" I think this article will be a stimulus for releasing more information from the official channels. Because, in fact, they might want to counter some of the points made in this article, because it’s quite a damning article.,” said Roth. “ I would imagine that you’ll be hearing, you know, their response, in the very near future. Whether this results in more information being released, we really don’t know.”

KBTX has covered the case extensively. Previous coverage can be found below.