RECKLESS Episode 1: The Eyewitness
CENTERVILLE, Texas (KBTX) - Melanie Tieperman and her son were driving home from school on May 12 when she saw a wrecked Texas Department of Criminal Justice transport on the side of Highway 7.
TDCJ buses are a common sight in Centerville, a small town of fewer than 1,000 people located just 45 minutes from Huntsville’s Estelle Unit. Still, a wrecked bus is far from normal.
Melanie immediately knew something was wrong. When she saw a man in a white jumpsuit running into the woods, she made sure it was caught on camera. Melanie’s video became the first and only footage of escaped inmate Gonzalo Lopez that KBTX received.
Lopez was a convicted killer, serving back-to-back life sentences for a cartel hit and opening fire at a sheriff’s deputy. His escape brought three weeks of chaos, fear, and confusion to the small town. It ended June 2, when Lopez killed 66-year-old grandfather Mark Collins and his four, young grandsons, brothers 18-year-old Waylon, 16-year-old Carson, and 11-year-old Hudson, and their 11-year-old cousin Bryson.
Lopez then fled south in their truck. He was stopped near San Antonio, where he was killed in a shootout with law enforcement.
The murders happened just down the street from Melanie’s home.
“The first thing I did with my son was to tell him that we needed to make an emergency plan,” Melanie said. “I showed him a place to hide in our home, and to cover up and to have his phone with him to dial 911 and sit quietly. Do not move. Do not come looking for me, and if you hear anyone else in the house, even if you hear someone say they are going to kill me, do not come out.”
“Safe” was a word any resident would have used to describe their home in Centerville, but the escape changed many residents’ perspectives, including Tieperman’s.
“I feel very secure in my home. There’s a lot of times I don’t even think about locking doors at night before this happened,” said Melanie. “That’s definitely something that has impacted us to the point where it’s changed us forever.”
The search took over the town and for most, it was right in their backyard.
“To see a helicopter the very next day in your backyard flying over the top of your house with a guy holding an assault rifle hanging out, looking, scanning your back woods, your backyard for this dangerous man. I can’t describe it. It’s a terrible way to have to live in fear like that,” said Melanie.
During that time, Melanie and other residents grew frustrated. She said law enforcement was quiet and residents felt they were in the dark as the search dragged on.
“I know they gave us a warning, but I really, honestly never fully comprehended what he was capable of. That he could take.... it’s bad enough to take lives, but children’s lives without...I don’t think I quite realized what he was capable of.”
When Melanie found out that Mark Collins and his grandsons were murdered in their weekend home in Centerville, she wanted to do anything she could for the family.
“When we talked to [a family member], he broke down because, at that point, we evidently had found out about the murders before all of the [Collins] family members had even been notified,” said Melanie.
The Collins family had been trying to get in touch with law enforcement to get a wellness check confirmed on their weekend home, Melanie said, but no one had been able to get a response.
“I hate that we were the ones that kind of broke the news to this [family member]. But we were very concerned,” said Melanie. “I can’t imagine being in their shoes and hearing that kind of news, it’s heartbreaking.”
The devastating murders brought the community to its knees and its breaking point. More than six months after the tragedy, TDCJ’s own report and outside reports say critical staffing shortages, a reckless disregard for security procedures, and a lack of oversight from supervisors are to blame.
“In so many ways, they failed to do their job, and I think a majority of the citizens are very upset with the fact that if they had just done one, maybe one, of the many [strip] searches [Lopez] should have had, all of this could have been prevented,” Melanie said, referencing the report findings.
While they’ve received some answers, residents say it’s not enough, suggesting the lingering trauma will stay with the community and Collins family long after TDCJ moves on from this incident.
“Now when I see a prison bus, my heart skips a little bit. That anxiety comes back. Because it’s still with me. And it’s very real,” said Melanie.
While she’s not sure she’ll ever get all the answers, she wants to make sure the Collins family receives justice and is never forgotten.
“I’ve heard about the lawsuits and I know it’s never going to bring their family back but I just hope that them doing that will be a part of the change that really needs to happen within our prison system. To make sure this never happens again,” said Melanie. “You know those buses still continue to come through here, and it’s something that I pray to God never happens again.”
To hear Melanie Tiperman’s full story, listen to RECKLESS: The Gonzalo Lopez Escape.
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