HOUSTON (AP) — A multitude of security lapses such as inadequate strip searches, poorly applied restraints, a staffing shortage and an environment where correctional officers became complacent created the conditions that led to the May escape of a Texas inmate, resulting in the deaths of five people, according to two reviews of the incident that were released Thursday.
After Gonzalo Lopez, 46, fled a prison bus on May 12 during an escape in which he was able to break free from his restraints and cut through a caged area of the vehicle. He remained free for three weeks. Authorities fatally shot Lopez on June 2 but not before he had killed 66-year-old Mark Collins and his four grandsons — Waylon Collins, 18; Carson Collins, 16; Hudson Collins, 11; and Bryson Collins, 11 — on the family’s ranch near Centerville, located between Dallas and Houston.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, or TDCJ, conducted an internal review of the escape and also hired an outside firm to do an independent review.
Both reports found correctional officers who worked at the Hughes Unit, where Lopez was housed, and who were with him on the bus had violated procedures by not properly strip searching him and not ensuring that his handcuffs were secured and free from being tampered with.
If proper searches had been done, it’s likely they would have found what resembled a handcuff key that Lopez at one point hid in his mouth, as well as two 8-to-10-inch metal weapons that he used to cut through the metal grating of a security door, allowing him to overtake the driver, according to the reports.
“The fact is that if one of these actions was followed in compliance with existing policy, it is likely that the escape could have been prevented,” according to an independent review conducted by Miami-based CGL Companies.
In its internal review, TDCJ uncovered several errors. Correctional officers failed to use on Lopez a device known as the Body Orifice Security Scanner, or “BOSS chair,” which is designed to quickly detect metallic contraband within body cavities of inmates. Leg restraints were improperly placed on Lopez, leaving them loose. A device that's put between handcuffs to block inmates like Lopez from accessing the keyhole was apparently not placed correctly and didn’t cover the keyhole, possibly helping his escape.
Additionally, two officers had falsified search logs indicating Lopez’s cell had been searched when it had not.
In some cases, violations such as forging an observation log or similar internal document have led to criminal indictments or disciplinary actions against Texas jailers. The Leon County District Attorney’s Office declined to comment on whether they would pursue charges against any officers.
“Public safety is the core mission of TDCJ, and as an agency, we failed to meet that mission,” the agency's Executive Director Bryan Collier said in a statement. “The agency has worked diligently to hold ourselves accountable, identify the failures that led to the escape, and take steps to ensure it never happens again.”
On the bus, Lopez, who had killed on behalf of Mexican drug cartels, tried to recruit some of the other 15 prisoners on board to join him, asking them if they were, “ready to rock and roll,” according to the reports by TDCJ and CGL Companies, the outside reviewer. One inmate initially said yes but changed his mind after realizing Lopez planned to kill the two officers on the bus, drive the bus to Interstate 45, hijack a car, murder the occupant, and drive to San Antonio until the search scaled down, according to the reports.
Both reviews found staff at the Hughes Unit “had become complacent, and circumvented security procedures in favor of hastily completing responsibilities in a cursory manner. These breakdowns appear to have become routine and a matter of regular practice rather than isolated incidents,” according to CGL's report.
CGL said the escape also could have likely been prevented if staff at the Hughes Unit “would have scanned Lopez in the BOSS chair prior to transport, a task that would have added less than a minute onto the process.”
The conclusions by the two reviews are similar to many of the findings found in an investigation published earlier this week by the Houston Chronicle and The Marshall Project. The joint investigation also found that the first police officer who arrived after the bus crash didn’t chase or try to shoot Lopez as he fled and despite finding signs that Lopez was hiding out in the Centerville area, authorities failed to warn residents that Lopez could still be in the area.
The reports by TDCJ and CGL briefly mention the deaths of the Collins family but did not provide information on whether Centerville residents should have been warned when Lopez’s DNA was found inside a burglarized cabin on May 31.
Collins and his four grandsons, who were killed June 2, died from gunshots, sharp force injuries and stab wounds. Authorities say that after killing the family, Lopez stole an AR-15-style rifle and a pistol from their ranch, as well as a truck that he drove about 220 miles (350 kilometers) to Atascosa County, south of San Antonio. He was killed there by police.
Attorneys for the Collins family have notified the Texas agency that they plan to file a lawsuit against it over the deaths.
After its investigation, TDCJ initiated disciplinary action against more than 20 staff and supervisors. The agency has made several security changes since the escape, including increasing the required number of officers to three on every transport bus, and beginning the installation of video surveillance equipment on buses.
CGL also made several recommendations, including suggesting TDCJ reconfigure transport buses to improve security and develop strategies to reduce its staff vacancies. In the month before Lopez’s escape, 43% of correctional officer jobs at the Hughes Unit were vacant.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: twitter.com/juanlozano70
Associated Press writer Acacia Coronado in Austin, Texas contributed to this report.