Leon County (NewsNation) — New details are emerging on how Gonzalo Lopez was able to escape from Texas corrections officers who are now reeling following the murder of a family of five at the hands of an inmate under their watch.
In an interview with NewsNation, Texas State Sen. John Whitmire said, “it’s a high, high possibility” that Gonzalo Lopez’s escape from a prison bus was an inside job.
Whitmire, chair of the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said despite there currently being no criminal investigation of correction officers, “you’re talking about multiple mistakes.”
“Whoever patted him down did a complete failure,” he said. “The guy had a key.”
Whitmire said Lopez had planned his escape and had on his possession a key or replica key to his handcuffs.
“They haven’t found it,” he said. But “they’re speculating, the authorities, that another inmate got the key, which is scary.”
Whitmire did not say where or how prison inmates got the key used in the escape but citing a conversation he had with an ex-inmate, “you can get a handcuff key for 20 stamps, postage stamps.”
Whitmire said he was not surprised Texas has problems with contraband in its prisons.
“We suspect Lopez had a cellphone,” he said. “You know, I’m really shocked that he stayed in that area for three weeks. I thought he probably had a pickup.”
Despite dogs, drones, heat-seeking equipment, helicopters, airplanes and hundreds of law enforcement officials, it took weeks for Texas authorities to catch up with Lopez, who had been on the run since May 12.
“Lopez, in my judgement, should have never been placed on a bus with 16 other inmates,” Whitmire said.
Whitmire said some of the other inmates participated in distracting the armed correction officer in the back of the bus.
“The other inmates knew what was coming down,” Whitmire said. “He had told other inmates, ‘this is your chance to escape, I’m going to break out.’”
“They all started singing, jumping up and down to distract that correction officer,” Whitmire said.
Authorities say Lopez broke out of his restraints, stabbed the prison transport driver, took control of the bus and eventually ran away through a field.
“I think some inmates probably get charged with assisting in the breakout,” Whitmire said.
While on the run, Lopez killed five members of the Collins family: Mark, 66; Waylon, 18; Carson, 16; Bryson, 11; and Hudson, 11. They were at a vacation home in Centerville, Texas, when police say Lopez broke in and murdered them, and then stole their guns and truck.
“They are ruined. They will never have another happy day. The family will never have a happy day,” Whitmire said.
Whitmire blames prison understaffing for the lapses in security.
“They’re understaffed, they’re underpaid, the morale is bad,” he said. “And do they really aggressively check out who’s got the handcuff key?”
Whitmire says correction officers work in horrible, dangerous conditions “for very low pay.”
That’s the problem, he said. “Because of the low pay, in all the respect to some of the really fine correction officers, the qualifications are very low.”
Since the escape, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has suspended transporting prisoners.
“We can’t compete in West Texas with the oil industry,” he said., “They can pay somebody to drive a water truck — which is used in fracking — and make more driving a truck than you can in a dangerous environment like prisons.”