RECKLESS Episode 2: The Expert

Gonzalo Lopez
Gonzalo Lopez(KBTX)
Published: Dec. 29, 2022 at 2:43 PM CST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

CENTERVILLE, Texas (KBTX) - A cascade of problems. That’s how criminal justice expert and Sam Houston State University professor Mitchel Roth described the atmosphere within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice that allowed a dangerous inmate to escape.

Gonzalo Lopez, a cartel hitman and convicted killer, escaped from a TDCJ bus near Centerville on May 12 during a transport between the Hughes Unit in Gatesville and Huntsville’s Estelle Unit for a medical appointment.

A three-week search ensued that reports and witnesses say was characterized by chaos, confusion, and fear. It all came to an end on June 2 when Lopez killed a grandfather and his four young grandsons. He was killed a few hours later in a shoot-out with law enforcement near San Antonio.

More than six months after the tragedy that brought Centerville to a halt, TDCJ released the first public look at what went wrong that day and throughout the search.

TDCJ’s serious incident review and CGL Companies’, a criminal justice consulting firm, report say critical staffing levels, a disregard for security policies, and a lack of oversight from supervisors all aided in Lopez’s escape.

“There’s supposed to be all these built-in redundancies as far as the security protocols go. If none of them are being followed, then it makes it kind of worthless,” said Roth.

Reports detail that of the three strip searches TDCJ policy would have required Lopez to have the morning of May 12, none of them were completed correctly, and one wasn’t done at all. Conclusions from both reports state that if just one of these searches was done properly, it could have prevented the rest of that day’s events.

In total, 28 Texas Department of Criminal Justice employees broke or outright ignored security policies. Trafficking, falsifying documents, advanced notice of transports, and search issues were all violations mentioned in the reports. Some of these policy breaches are fireable offenses.

“Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong,” said Roth. “[It was a] perfect storm of mistakes. And the main problem is just not having enough staff because you can’t do all of these tasks with a limited amount of correctional officers, and the Hughes Unit is even worse off as far as lacking officers than most of the other units.”

On the day of the 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 at the Hughes Unit.

Critically low staffing levels were a problem TDCJ, and the Hughes Unit in particular, had been dealing with for some time. In the month before the escape, 43% of the Hughes Unit correctional officer positions were vacant. That means of the 547.5 authorized positions, 235.5 were unfilled.

The CGL reports says the Hughes Unit vacancy rate actually understates how dire the situation was. On top of filling the open positions, the unit also had a difficult time retaining staff. CGL found 96 officers left the Hughes Unit in the first six months of 2022.

That high turnover also means there’s less experienced staff.

“With almost over 40% positions unfilled, they’re being required to do more tasks than they were hired for their positions, and it’s human nature, really, not to follow through on some of these,” said Roth.

Before leading Lopez out to the TDCJ bus, officers also failed to sit him on the BOSS, or Body Orifice Security Scanner, chair. That chair is designed to quickly detect metal objects within the body cavities of inmates. All restrictive housing inmates are required to be scanned before being placed on a transport. This action would have taken less than a minute, according to reports, and would have detected the two metal weapons and key Lopez smuggled on the bus.

Inmates were left unsupervised for an extended period once they were loaded on the bus. TDCJ buses operate without surveillance cameras and the bus was traveling with only two officers, instead of the preferred three.

“While these staffing shortages, especially at the Hughes Unit, may have been a factor in inmate Lopez’s ability to escape, they are not an excuse for the multitude of security lapses that occurred in preparing Lopez for transport,” the CGL report states.

Since the escape, TDCJ is now testing surveillance cameras on transports.

All of this aided Lopez in his escape, and it didn’t help that this wasn’t his first escape from prison.

“Recognizing that a person that has been caught trying to escape in the past would be somebody you wouldn’t want on these transports,” said Roth. “And evidently, Lopez had on his record that he had tried to escape before, and so not only did they not check him properly, but he was kind of a walking red flag to a great extent.”

On top of outlining what went wrong, both reports also suggest what policy changes TDCJ needs to institute to prevent another tragedy like this from happening again.

CGL Companies made 19 recommendations for TDCJ, including increasing salaries to stem the loss of employees, upgrading technology that would allow for more telemedicine and cut down on transports, and requiring random reviews of strip searches to ensure policy compliance. For a full list of recommendations, click here.

“It’s very simple things like having them not wear boots, having them wear slip-on shoes, having them wear just their boxer shorts when they leave their cell and give them the clothes that they’re going to wear. I mean, these are all kind of common sense things,” said Roth.

While a timeline for when or how these recommendations would be implemented has not been released, Roth suggests they shouldn’t take too long to be common policy.

“I think a lot of these things could be initiated right away,” said Roth. “This protocol has been used in the past and it wasn’t a court issue. It’s more a case of just not following through with it when you’re understaffed and you have an avalanche of prisoners tossed on you and you don’t have the manpower to deal with it.”

The Texas legislature convenes on Jan. 10, and right now, TDCJ reform doesn’t seem to be on the shortlist for legislators.

In September, the agency asked state lawmakers for an extra $1.39 billion to solve issues they call “exceptional.” That’s on top of the agency’s $3.5 billion yearly budget.

Roth remains optimistic that change within Texas’ criminal justice system will happen.

“The problem with humans in bureaucracies is that change doesn’t occur until there’s some type of stimulus like this that gets the public opinion directed in one way or another. And this will definitely stimulate this change so that this doesn’t happen again, or at least for another 20 years.”

To listen to Mitchel Roth’s full breakdown of the reports and how TDCJ forward, click here to listen to RECKLESS: The Gonzalo Lopez Escape.