RECKLESS Episode 3: The Journalists
CENTERVILLE, Texas (KBTX) - When tragedy strikes, news reporters are often among the first at the scene, holding a responsibility to share critical public safety messages and inform their community.
On May 12, KBTX reporters were among the first to arrive on the scene of what would become a massive manhunt after convicted murderer Gonzalo Lopez escaped from a Texas Department of Criminal Justice transport near Centerville, Texas. Lopez was a cartel hitman serving back-to-back life sentences for capital murder and attempted murder.
The search for Lopez took three weeks, moving forward publicly only after Lopez killed a family of five. Ultimately, Lopez was killed in a shootout with law enforcement near San Antonio.
To the public, the face of the manhunt for Gonzalo Lopez was TDCJ spokesperson Robert Hurst, who held regular press conferences from a makeshift headquarters in the parking lot of Centerville’s Dairy Queen. While updates came often, they were generally vague, and questions from reporters were rarely answered directly.
Meanwhile, Centerville residents were outspoken about their frustrations with the search.
More than six months later, TDCJ’s own report and outside analysis have confirmed chaos, confusion and a disregard for security policies in the aftermath of Lopez’s escape.
It was a situation few anticipated. KBTX investigative reporter Donnie Tuggle and senior reporter Morgan Riddell recounted their experience in covering the Lopez case to Karla Castillo.
“I thought that this was just going to be, like, a one-night deal, that [TDCJ was] going to catch him rather quickly, but I never expected it to turn into what it did,” said KBTX investigative reporter Donnie Tuggle.
On a normal day, it takes about one hour to drive from KBTX’s broadcast facility in Bryan to Centerville. On May 12, though, Highway 7 was shut down leading into Centerville, a town suddenly pockmarked by Texas Department of Public Safety troopers and police cars.
“It took me an extra 30 minutes just to navigate my way to [KBTX senior reporter Morgan Riddell] that afternoon. So that kind of shed light on how serious the situation is that I can’t even get to the command post,” said Tuggle.
The command center became home base for Tuggle, Riddell, and reporters from across the state for several weeks as the search continued. What reporters expected would be a quick breaking news story turned into something much more.
“I would say reality sunk in that this wasn’t going to be an easy assignment on day two or three,” said Tuggle. “We started getting multiple sightings. Anytime somebody saw a person with similar facial features or dressed a certain way they called and reported it. I imagine that took resources from the search area, too, and tied up law enforcement from surrounding counties to go check out those possible sightings.”
From the Dairy Queen parking lot, reporters got only a glimpse of the search area. A hill obscured the wooded horizon and reporters weren’t permitted to enter the area.
“You really don’t know what’s going on behind that search perimeter because there’s a hill,” said Riddell. “The updates that we’re getting felt like you were just hearing the same thing, and you’re in your head thinking, ‘Is he even still here? Is this worth it to be standing right here waiting for him in Centerville, or is he somewhere else by now?’”
Trying to fill in the gaps that law enforcement left blank as they investigated, rumors started swirling among residents.
“You’re hearing these rumors of ‘Oh, he’s already in Mexico by now. Oh, he was spotted in this area. He was spotted in this town,’” said Riddell. “There was one rumor that I heard from people living in the area that they thought the cartel put a hit out on Lopez and he was already dead.”
Even information coming from TDCJ was debated within its own ranks. When a press release went out stating the active search for the inmate was ending and the search area was expanding, there was consternation when KBTX reported on it.
“I set up for my press conference and back at the station they got that up on the website,” said Riddell. “I got my microphone on TDCJ spokesperson Robert Hurst [for the press conference]. He stands in front of the cameras and he gets a call from his boss. All of a sudden I hear ‘Where’s KBTX?’ and he started screaming in my face.”
This lack of communication within the agency was echoed in an independent review of the search.
“Even though [Hurst] was the one that wrote that press release, put it out. They approved it and we used their words and got yelled at for that,” Riddell furthered.
“You know, it kind of shows there was confusion on the other side of that hill that we weren’t able to see,” said Tuggle. “There were two people as acting commander at the same time on scene and people didn’t know which one they were supposed to report to.”
Weeks after the active search in Centerville ended, reporters heard there was a major update to the case. Both Riddell and Tuggle rushed to Centerville, unsure of what exactly they were about to learn.
“I got a call from Melanie Tieperman and she lives within the search perimeter, had her scanner on and she called me and said ‘There’s people dead. I heard it over the scanner. You need to head over.’ and I said ‘I’m on my way.’”
Within several hours of getting to Centerville, TDCJ released the news that 66-year-old grandfather Mark Collins and his four grandsons, brothers 18-year-old Waylon, 16-year-old Carson, and 11-year-old Hudson, and their 11-year-old cousin Bryson, were found murdered in their weekend home within the search perimeter.
“The anger hit when I began reading these reports. Just hearing how avoidable this situation was, how obvious it was that Gonzalo Lopez was preparing to escape. It was so infuriating to read how this could have been avoided,” said Tuggle.
Serious incident reviews from both the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and CGL Companies, a criminal justice consulting firm, blame a series of missteps and failures that led to the escape of convicted killer Gonzalo Lopez and the subsequent senseless murder of the Collins family.
“Knowing that there’s  correction officers facing discipline and there were 32 on duty that day, that’s almost all of the officers on duty,” said Riddell. “And some of these charges are trafficking, falsifying documents. There were [several] failed strip searches and the documents themselves say if one of those was performed correctly, this whole situation would have been avoided.”
More than six months after the tragedy, the fallout from the Lopez escape continues, as does the heartache for Collins family and the residents of Centerville.
TDCJ says fixing security lapses are a priority, but it’s a problem their independent review called “endemic.”
The Texas Legislature convenes on Jan.10, and right now, TDCJ reform doesn’t seem to be on the short list for legislators. In September, the agency asked state lawmakers for an extra $1.39 billion to solve issues they call “exceptional,” in addition to the agency’s $3.5 billion yearly budget.
KBTX is still waiting on criminal investigations and official word from TDCJ on how employees were disciplined. We also expect an independent report from the Texas Department of Public Safety.
KBTX is also battling state and local authorities for outstanding open records requests. Right now, many of the answers we seek are exempt under state laws that allow investigations to remain private until they’re completed.
For all of RECKLESS: The Gonzalo Lopez Escape, click here to listen or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
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