Before he was killed in a shootout with Texas police Thursday night, escaped inmate Gonzalo Lopez had managed to elude authorities for three weeks, dodging their attempts to find him in a rural part of the state until he happened upon a family on vacation.
Lopez, a 46-year-old who was serving life in prison for convictions of capital murder and attempted capital murder, crossed paths with the family of five earlier in the day. He killed them all and continued to flee, before being intercepted and fatally shot by police in Atascosa County.
As the deadly encounter concluded Texas’ largest concentrated manhunt in nearly 20 years, an investigation is underway into how Lopez escaped, where he went those first weeks on the run, and what led to the killing of a family that authorities said had no connection to him.
A baffling escape
On May 12, Lopez and several other inmates were being transported on a bus from a prison in Gatesville to Huntsville, in central Texas. Lopez, who was being driven to a medical appointment, had been placed in a separate caged area because of security concerns, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has said.
Despite an officer being stationed in the back of the bus, authorities said Lopez somehow freed himself from his shackles, cut through metal and crawled underneath the cage into the driver’s compartment before he stabbed the driver in the hand. The bus swerved off the road, eventually stopping. Lopez and the driver ended up outside the bus and got into a physical fight. For a few moments, Lopez got a hold of the driver’s handgun, but he did not fire the weapon, which has been recovered, authorities said.
Within minutes, Lopez made his way back to the bus and started driving away before one of the officers stationed in the back shot the rear tire causing the bus to veer off the highway, officials said.
The rural farms and ranches about halfway between Houston and Dallas proved a perfect hideaway for Lopez as he jumped off the bus and fled on foot “across the pasture,” Robert Hurst, a spokesman for the Texas Criminal Justice Department, said. The other inmates remained restrained on the bus.
His escape led law enforcement to lock down the nearby Centerville Independent School District. The school district canceled classes the next day and asked students and families to “shelter in place” due to the “ongoing situation.”
“We don’t know what he used” to cut through the metal area, Hurst said, a week after Lopez’s escape, adding that it was also unclear at that time what Lopez had used to stab the driver’s hand.
A dangerous man
Lopez had a history of criminal activity stretching back almost two decades.
He was convicted in 2006 of kidnapping a man and killing him with a pickaxe in Hidalgo County in 2005, according to court documents, a crime for which he was sentenced to life in prison.
Lopez, who authorities have said had a history with U.S. and Mexican gangs, was convicted of murdering the man on an order from a Mexican drug cartel after a ransom was not paid, according to court records.
In 2007, Lopez was convicted of attempted capital murder in a 2004 incident in Webb County, which borders Mexico. Lopez and another man evaded a traffic stop by police and began shooting at sheriff’s deputies during a chase, according to court documents. Lopez escaped on foot while the other man was apprehended by Border Patrol, records show.
He would later testify that, following his escape in Webb County, he was helped to Rio Grande City and then moved to Mexico by the Mexican Mafia, court records show. In that statement he also gave details about the murder in Hidalgo County, according to the records.
A multi-agency manhunt
After his escape on May 12, Lopez stayed on the run for three weeks as authorities ramped up efforts to apprehend him. They upgraded the search to an “expanded phase” after he hadn’t been found for nine days.
Several local and federal law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Marshals, FBI and the Texas Department of Public Safety, eventually joined the hunt which spanned several counties. More than 300 law enforcement officers were assigned to the case, with authorities offering a $50,000 reward for tips that would lead to his whereabouts.
“He’s hoping we’re gonna give up. We’re not gonna give up. We’re gonna stay after him until we get him,” Hurst said during the manhunt.
A family on vacation
As state law enforcement was preparing to enter the fourth week of its search, on Thursday a family of five was coming up 100 miles north from the Houston area to a vacation home in Leon County, authorities said.
Officers were dispatched to the home after law enforcement agencies received a call from an individual who had become concerned after not hearing from an elderly relative, said Jason Clark, chief of staff for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.They discovered the bodies of one adult and four children inside.
It is unclear why Lopez went to the home, but authorities said he had no connection to the family.
While authorities have not identified the victims, the Tomball Independent School District in Tomball, Texas, about 30 miles north of Houston, released a statement Friday saying that “the lives of four Tomball students and their grandfather was taken from us Thursday by the escaped Texas fugitive near Centerville.”
The statement did not identify the family by name.
The vacation home was inside the perimeter where law enforcement had been searching for Lopez and was checked and cleared “multiple times,” Clark said.
After killing the family, authorities said, Lopez took off with their truck, a white Chevrolet Silverado, to continue his escape.
The stolen truck was spotted 250 miles away by police in Jourdanton, 10 miles south of San Antonio, late Thursday night, Clark said. Officers pursued the truck for a short while before stopping it using spike strips, Clark said.
Lopez stepped out of the truck and shot at officers, who returned fire, killing him, Clark said. The officers were not injured. The escapee was found armed with an AR-15 and a pistol, Clark said, though it was not immediately clear where the firearms came from and which was used in the shootout.
“This is a tragedy that you had five individuals who lost their lives,” Clark said Thursday. “I am thankful that tonight Gonzalo Lopez is unable to harm anyone else.”