Escape Timeline

Gonzalo Lopez Escape Timeline
Gonzalo Lopez Escape Timeline(KBTX)
Published: Dec. 23, 2022 at 5:14 PM CST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

CENTERVILLE, Texas (KBTX) - On May 12, Gonzalo Lopez, a cartel hitman and convicted killer, escaped from a Texas Department of Criminal Justice transport near Centerville, Texas. Lopez was being transported from his cell at Gatesville’s Hughes Unit to Huntsville’s Estelle Unit for a doctor’s appointment.

An independent review shows the three-week search that followed was characterized by chaos and confusion. Ultimately, a family of five was murdered and Lopez was killed in a shoot-out with law enforcement several hours later.

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 the month prior to the escape, 43% of the Hughes Unit correctional officer positions were vacant, almost 236 positions out of almost 548, according to a report by criminal justice consulting firm CGL Companies. The report states that the vacancy rate actually ”understates the seriousness of the issue at the facility.”

From an outside perspective, the hours leading up to Lopez’s escape on May 12 may seem like any other day at the Hughes Unit in Gatesville. Still, a closer look at each step TDCJ officers took to prepare Lopez for a medical appointment transport showed blatant disregard for security procedures on top of those severe staffing shortages.

On the day of Lopez’s escape, 40% of the Priority 1 posts, positions needed to meet the basic security and operational needs of the unit’s restrictive housing roster, were unfilled.

The day began at 12:48 a.m. when Officer Randall Smith droped two red transport bags at Lopez’s cell to pack his personal property. About 40 minutes later, Smith and Officer Bernard Guishard let Lopez out his cell, violating TDCJ policy that requires all restrictive housing inmates be strip searched before being allowed out of their cell. They also did not place hand restraints on him, another violation.

Lopez handed Smith his bag of personal property and “apparently at the request of inmate Lopez,” walked to another inmate’s cell and droped the bag. According to TDCJ, transferring property between inmates is considered trafficking. The bag with Lopez’s personal property was also never searched, another violation.

At 2:05 a.m., Officer Joshua Watson eventually passed the bag into the inmate’s cell without searching the property, another act of trafficking.

Shortly after 9:30 a.m., Officers Gerardo Vasquez and Dillon Miller went to Lopez’s cell and started a strip search, but surveillance video shows both officers looked away and did not thoroughly search his clothes, yet again, another policy violation.

Velasquez then put hand restraints on Lopez. The inmate left his cell, carrying his mattress and blanket behind him. He droped these items in front of another inmate’s cell, in violation of TDCJ policy, as he was escorted to another room.

Just before 10:20 a.m., Officers Jimmie Brinegar and Miller arrived at the small room and started another strip search of the inmate. Once again, the strip search was not done properly, as Brinegar did not require Lopez to complete all steps properly and his clothing was not searched thoroughly.

Reports say that if just one of the several strip searches that happened that day were completed correctly, the rest of the day’s events could have been prevented.

Brinegar then put hand restraints with a cuff protector on Lopez. Cuff protectors block inmates from “manipulating the hand restraints” and from having access to the keyhole.

Next, leg restraints were put over Lopez’s pantleg, which allowed them to fit loosely around his leg.

Officers started to lead Lopez to the TDCJ bus but failed to sit Lopez on the Body Orifice Security Scanner or “BOSS Chair,” which is designed to quickly detect any metal within body cavities. TDCJ policy requires all restrictive housing inmates to be scanned in the BOSS chair before they are placed on a transport. Reports say this action would have taken less than a minute.

Lopez is eventually placed in the restrictive housing compartment of the bus, where he and other inmates were left without supervision for an extended period of time, a TDCJ policy violation.

At 11:11 a.m., the bus left Gatesville’s Hughes Unit for Huntsville’s Estelle Unit. Officer Randy Smith drove the bus while Officer Brinegar served as the rear compartment officer to watch over the inmates.

Interviews with inmates show that once Lopez got on the bus, he made it clear to the other inmates he was going to escape and asked if anyone wanted to join him.

One inmate told interviewers he was tempted, but once they learned Lopez planned to kill the officers and the unassuming driver of a getaway car, they backed out claiming they “didn’t want the needle.”

Inmates say it took 90 minutes for Lopez to escape from the restrictive housing compartment. During that time he escaped from his restraints with an apparent key he hid in his mouth. With two 8-10 inch metal weapons, he sawed through the bottom of the metal doors of the restrictive housing compartment. Reports say those metal weapons were never found.

During that time, inmates yell, make loud noises, and obstruct Officer Brinegar’s view. Still, the bus continues its journey.

At 1:15 p.m., Officer Smith reported feeling a tug on his handgun, looking down and seeing Lopez climbing out of the hole he cut in the restrictive housing compartment. Smith covered his gun and tried to stop the bus, but the sudden stop flung Lopez further into the driver’s area. A struggle ensued and soon both fell into the stairwell and out of the bus.

Lopez reportedly started stabbing Smith with the metal weapon and gained control of Smith’s gun.

Meanwhile, on the bus, Brinegar thought the sudden stop was due to a crash. He grabbed a 12-gauge shotgun and exited the bus. There he saw the struggle and yelled at Lopez to stop.

At that point, Lopez made it onto the bus. Brinegar drew his handgun and threatened to shoot if Lopez didn’t stop. Lopez placed the bus in forward gear. Brinegar shot twice.

Again, he shot twice as Lopez pulled away.

As Lopez pulled the bus onto Highway 7, Smith grabbed the shotgun and fired once, blowing out the right, rear tire. Lopez drove for several miles with 15 other inmates on the bus. Both officers were left behind.

Soon, the Chief of Police for the City of Jewett, Sean O’Reilly, pulled up and the officers told him what happened. He sped off in pursuit of the bus, again leaving the officers behind.

Eventually, a pickup driver pulled up to the officers and asked if they were with the wrecked bus. They take the officers to the scene.

Law enforcement officers were already on the scene when both officers arrived and said Lopez ran from the bus into the wooded area.

A central command center was set up in Centerville, where surrounding local, state, and federal law enforcement started the search for Gonzalo Lopez.

Less than 24 hours after Lopez’s escape, a $50,000 reward was offered for information that led to his arrest.

The three-week period searching for Lopez is described in reporting as chaotic. During that time, TDCJ officials don’t release much information. In the reports, it is explained that there was a period of time where e law enforcement were not sure who to report to, as there were at least two leaders in charge of the investigation.

Several K9 Units were brought in to search for the inmate, but TDCJ’s serious incident review states the units were potentially searching the wrong area and the search areas were possibly contaminated by staff on foot before the K9s had thoroughly worked the search area.

The weather conditions were hot, windy, and dusty, limiting the amount of time the K9s could work before dehydration and overheating set in.

On May 20, TDCJ announced they were ending the active search for Lopez and expanding their search area outside of Centerville. Highway 7, near Centerville, is reopened for through traffic.

On May 31, law enforcement were informed of a burglary that happened near the area where Lopez escaped. Fingerprints and DNA samples were taken from the scene and sent off for testing. This burglary is not officially reported to residents, KBTX, or other media.

Two days later, on June 2, a concerned family member contacted law enforcement after 66-year-old Mark Collins and his four young grandsons hadn’t checked in while staying in their weekend home in Centerville.

When law enforcement arrived on the scene, they found Mark Collins and his grandsons, brothers 18-year-old Waylon, 16-year-old Carson, and 11-year-old Hudson, and their 11-year-old cousin Bryson murdered in their home.

A white pickup was also missing from the home and law enforcement suspected Lopez had stolen it after killing the family of five. A “be on the lookout” advisory was issued for the car. Law enforcement in Atascosa County recognized Lopez driving the white truck later that day.

Lopez was ultimately killed in a shoot-out with law enforcement, ending the three weeks of chaos and fear.