By Ed Lavandera and Elizabeth Wolfe, CNN
New details have emerged revealing how convicted murderer Gonzalo Lopez escaped a prisoner bus in Texas and what he did before killing a family of five, police say.
Lopez’s escape last month triggered one of the largest inmate search efforts in state history as hundreds of officers scoured the wooded area where he was believed to have been hiding. Authorities say the fugitive killed a family in their Leon County home last week, and he later died in a shootout with police.
Just days before he killed 66-year-old Mark Collins and his four grandsons, Lopez broke into a neighboring property, according to spokesman Robert Hurst of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Collins and his grandchildren had been visiting the family’s weekend ranch outside Centerville, Texas, located near where the inmate had escaped three weeks prior and within the perimeter police were searching following the escape, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Lopez broke into the neighboring home of the sprawling Collins ranch property “24-48 hours in advance” of his attack on the family, Hurst said. No one was home at the neighboring house at the time.
Law enforcement officials did not appear to alert residents that there were signs of suspicious activity at the home next to the ranch, according to CNN conversations with local residents. In response to questions about why locals were not alerted as soon as law enforcement suspected a break-in had taken place, a Texas prison spokesman said DNA testing was needed to confirm it was Lopez who broke into the home.
Mark Collins and his four grandchildren were shot and stabbed to death, according to Crime Stoppers of Houston director of victim services and advocacy Andy Kahan, who says he met with the Collins family in the days after the killings.
After killing the family, Lopez stole their truck and was quickly named by authorities as the prime suspect in the killings. On June 2, the fugitive was killed in a shootout with police officers in the town of Jourdanton, hundreds of miles from the Collins’ home, DCJ said.
Officers were able to disable the truck with a spike strip, causing Lopez to crash. He then engaged in a firefight with officers, DCJ said.
“He fired several rounds at officers and was armed with an AR-15 and a pistol,” Jason Clark with the DCJ said, adding they believe the firearms were likely stolen from the home in Centerville where the family was killed. No officers were injured.
The grandchildren killed by Lopez were identified as brothers Waylon, 18, Carson, 16, and Hudson, 11, and their cousin, Bryson Collins, 11.
The family’s pastor, Steve Bezner, called Collins and his grandsons an “amazing family” that was “close-knit and of deep faith.”
Other prisoners created a distraction, state says
The prisoner escaped on May 12 as he was being transported to a medical appointment in Huntsville, Texas, according to authorities. Lopez, 46, who was serving two life sentences for capital murder, attempted capital murder and aggravated kidnapping convictions, was in a “separate, caged area of the bus, designated for high-risk inmates,” according to a statement from Texas DCJ.
As the bus approached Centerville, the 15 other inmates on the bus started causing noise and distraction, allowing Lopez to carry out his escape, Hurst told CNN.
Inside the caged area, Lopez used a “prison-made knife and key” to break free from his handcuffs and to cut through the cage to reach the prison correctional officer who was driving the bus, according to Texas State Sen. John Whitmire, who is chairman of the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice and routinely receives briefings from state law enforcement.
DCJ authorities have previously said that the prisoner cut through the bottom of the cage before stabbing the driver with “some sort of object” and unsuccessfully attempting to grab the officer’s service weapon.
Lopez and the driver got out of the bus, and a second officer at the back of the vehicle got out and began approaching the prisoner, DCJ said. Lopez got back in the bus and drove a short distance, authorities said.
The officers shot out the back tires, causing Lopez to crash a short distance down the road, according to authorities. The inmate then ran off into the woods along Highway 7 in Leon County.
For three weeks, Lopez avoided police as a massive manhunt for him was underway. For the first two weeks of the search, prison officials held multiple briefings on search efforts that included about 400 officers on the ground, searching the wooded area where Lopez was believed to be hiding.
“We had no clue where he was,” Hurst told CNN. “How he managed to give everybody the slip was incredibly frustrating.”
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CNN’s Andy Rose, Christina Maxouris and Ray Sanchez contributed to this report.