HUNTSVILLE, Texas — The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has released its findings into the escape of Gonzalo Lopez, the convicted murderer who investigators say killed a man and his four grandsons in Centerville while on the run earlier this year.
As a result of the investigation, TDCJ took disciplinary action against more than 20 staff and supervisors.
Lopez made his escape on May 12 and attacked a corrections officer while being transported from Gatesville to Huntsville for a doctor's appointment. He was on the run until June 2, when he was killed in a shootout with police near San Antonio, not long after the five family members were killed.
The internal review found failures to properly follow policy, like strip-searching or using metal detectors and improper placement of restraints, contributed to Lopez’s escape. The review also blames correctional officers for not following proper procedures and policies.
The report says on the bus, there were nine general population and seven
"restrictive housing" inmates. There were two corrections officers on the bus, including the driver.
The 'restrictive housing' area is right behind the driver's seat.
The final report details correctional officers failing to perform strip searches and properly restrain Lopez who was serving back-to-back life sentences for shooting at a Webb County, Texas sheriff's deputy in 2004 and killing a man with a pickax in Hidalgo County after holding him for ransom on a drug debt.
At 11:11 a.m., a transport bus left with three seats for officers but only two officers left with inmates at the Hughes unit located in Gatesville, Texas, en route to the Estelle Unit near Huntsville. The report notes inmates began instigating loud noises and banging while blocking the rearview mirror of a correctional officer driving the bus.
Witnesses report Lopez was able to remove his restraints and break and enter the restrictive housing compartment in the front of the bus.
The report said as the bus neared Centerville, the corrections officer who was driving reported feeling something tugging at his holster. He looked back and reportedly saw Lopez coming through the bottom of the restricting housing compartment door. The officer tried to keep Lopez from getting his gun while stopping the bus.
Once the bus came to an abrupt stop, the struggle continued, according to the report, with the officer’s elbow hitting the door release, and both the officer and Lopez falling outside the bus. Lopez then reportedly stabbed the officer with a metal object and was able to get his holstered gun. The other officer, assuming the bus was in a wreck, got out with a shotgun and saw Lopez and the officer struggling. That’s when the report says Lopez got back onto the bus and in the driver’s seat and started to pull away.
One of the officers fired at the bus, hitting a tire, but Lopez continued to drive toward Centerville.
The bus was later found wrecked.
Prison staffing shortages
The TDCJ report suggested prison staffing shortages were at 'critical levels.' It noted that the issue was especially bad at the Hughes Unit, where Lopez was housed. Staffing was at 57%, with 318 of 556 officer positions filled. On the day of the escape, the report said that 21 general population positions and 12 restrictive housing positions weren't staffed.
The report also noted security lapses, saying 'The combination of several inadequate strip searches, failure to search property, poorly applied restraints, and failure to use the BOSS (Body Orifice Security Scanner) chair improved Lopez’s odds for a successful escape."
According to the report, before the transport, corrections officers at the jail "failed to conduct a proper strip search or place hand restraints on inmate Lopez prior to opening the inmate’s cell door." An officer was "observed retrieving one bag of property from inmate Lopez without searching the property to determine the contents of the bag and placing it in front of a neighboring cell."
The report says one of the corrections officers "left the bus unattended for approximately 30 minutes after inmate Lopez was loaded into the restrictive housing compartment."
When prisoners are transported, there are cuff protectors -- also called 'black boxes' -- that go between the handcuffs to keep inmates from getting access to the keyhole. The report said that some cuff protectors didn't fully cover the keyholes, which may have allowed Lopez to escape.
The report also suggested that certain staff were found to have "falsified documents regarding cell searches, or security rounds performed."
The report also found that inaccurate information about Lopez was found in his records, as staff failed to classify him as someone who had previously escaped. His photo also wasn't up to date, per the report.
The report also deals with how the department moves forward with a list of recommendations including addressing staffing needs and overall policy structures.
Among the recommendations:
- Increasing to three staff members on all transports
- Putting video surveillance on transport vehicles for staff to monitor inmates
- Expand inmate transportation supervision; supervisors are now required to monitor video of corrections officers doing their job. They'll also monitor live video from transport vehicles
- Improve understanding of strip search requirements through training
- Expanded search requirements for transport inmates
- Change in transport clothing/property requirements
- Hand restraints/cuff restraint protector
- Enhance vehicle security package
- Holster requirements
- Reducing transports
- Establish high-risk inmate categories
- Visitation cancellations, based on available prison staffing
The TDCJ report comes days after the Marshall Project and Houston Chronicle outlined failures that led to Lopez's escape.
Gonzalo Lopez escape timeline
- May 12 – Investigators say Lopez escaped his shackles, attacked a corrections officer and hijacked a prison bus in Leon County while being transported between prisons
- May 13 – The search turned into a massive manhunt with resources from around the state coming to the Centerville area
- May 18 – New photos were released of Lopez from before the hijacking They showed him cuffed while being led to the prison bus
- May 25 – More new pictures were released by U.S. Marshals, showing Lopez’s tattoos as they continued to ask for help
- June 2 – Authorities say Lopez killed a family of five, stole their truck and made his way to a rural area near San Antonio where he was killed in a shootout with police
Lopez was serving back-to-back life sentences for shooting at a Webb County, Texas sheriff's deputy in 2004 and killing a man with a pickax in Hidalgo County after holding him ransom on a drug debt.
Lopez managed to hide from law enforcement for an extended period of time on other occasions. In 2004, he was able to run away from a police chase in South Texas and stayed hidden with the help of a cartel associate, he told investigators at the time.