HOUSTON—Residents of Centerville had become more vigilant over the past three weeks as authorities searched for a murderer who had killed on behalf of Mexican drug cartels and who stabbed and injured the driver of a prison transport bus last month when he escaped custody not far from their small Texas town.
The search for Gonzalo Lopez, 46, ended late Thursday in a shootout about 220 miles (350 kilometers) away. He led officers on a brief chase in a stolen truck before he was gunned down.
Authorities believe while Lopez roamed free, he killed a man and his four grandsons, then stole an AR-15-style rifle and a pistol from their ranch near Centerville, as well as the truck he drove to Atascosa County, south of San Antonio, where he was fatally shot by officers.
“This is something that you can’t imagine ever to happen in a small community like this,” said Tuffy Loftin, 61, a pastor in Centerville who knew the family.
Centerville residents had been worried ever since May 12, when Lopez overpowered the officer who was driving him and 15 other prisoners near their community between Dallas and Houston. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is still investigating how Lopez broke free from his restraints and escaped a caged area of the bus where he had been held.
Following his escape, law enforcement vigorously patrolled Highway 7 and other roads in Centerville, escorting many of the city’s nearly 1,000 residents to their homes to ensure they felt safe.
Jean Davis, 70, who owns a feed and fertilizer store on the east side of town, said her husband wanted her to take a rifle and pistol to work, but she refused.
“The town has really been on edge, especially that first 10 days when he was out missing and nobody knew where he was,” said Davis, who lives about 15 miles (24 kilometers) away in Buffalo.
State troopers, Texas Department of Criminal Justice officers, the U.S. Marshals service and sheriff’s deputies from Leon County—which includes Centerville—searched the area for Lopez for weeks with no luck.
Concerns over his whereabouts were justified: Lopez’s long criminal history included convictions for capital murder, attempted capital murder, kidnapping and aggravated assault. Authorities said he belonged to the Mexican Mafia, which is a prison gang, and was a contract killer for at least two drug cartels.
In a confession to authorities, Lopez said he had been on his way to Laredo to kill a restaurant and bar owner for the Mileno drug cartel from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, in 2004 when he became embroiled in a shootout with deputies who tried to stop his vehicle.
Lopez escaped to Mexico with the help of the Mexican Mafia.
In March 2005, Lopez said he was contracted by La Mana drug cartel from Tamaulipas, Mexico, to kidnap a man named Lupe Ramirez from Weslaco in South Texas because he owed the cartel $40,000, according to court records.
Lopez and another person kidnapped Ramirez and left him “hog tied in an outside room of my mom’s residence” as they went to pick up money and marijuana that Ramirez’s family had left for them, according to court records. Lopez later bludgeoned Ramirez’s head with a pickaxe and buried his body in a desert.
Lopez had been serving a life sentence for capital murder for Ramirez’s death and a life sentence for attempted capital murder for the 2004 shootout with deputies, when he escaped from the prison bus.
Authorities maintained nearly 40 roving patrols, believing he remained in the area around Centerville, possibly entering unoccupied structures to look for food, water and clothing, said Jason Clark, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
At around 6 p.m. on Thursday, authorities went to a home near Centerville for a welfare check and discovered five bodies. In a statement, their family identified the dead as 66-year-old Mark Collins, and his four grandsons: Waylon Collins, 18; Carson Collins, 16; Hudson Collins, 11; and Bryson Collins, 11. Waylon, Carson and Hudson were brothers and Bryson was their cousin.
“These precious people who loved and were loved by so many, will never be forgotten,” the Collins family said in a statement. Steve Bezner, the family’s pastor, described the Houston area family as having “the greatest character, the deepest faith and unrelenting kindness and love.”
At a Friday afternoon news conference, Andy Kahan, the director of victim services and advocacy for Crime Stoppers of Houston, called the family’s killing “absolutely one of the most gut-wrenching scenarios that I’ve dealt with and I’ve seen a lot and been through a lot.”
The Tomball school district in suburban Houston said Friday that the grandchildren were students in its district.
Loftin, a pastor at the Cowboy Church of Leon County, said he used to go to the family’s ranch, which also features a “beautiful fishing lake and a pier,” to help with cattle management. He called them “good, salt of the earth people.”
Authorities believe Lopez confronted the family on Thursday. The Leon County Sheriff’s Office has not specified how they were killed.
Authorities say Lopez took several firearms from the home as well as the family’s white Chevy truck and fled. Law enforcement spotted him just before 10 p.m. in Atascosa County.
Officers with Jourdanton police used spike strips to flatten the truck’s tires, but Lopez kept driving, firing the rifle through a truck window before hitting two telephone poles and a fence, said Atascosa County Sheriff David Soward.
Lopez “exited the stolen pickup truck armed with a rifle and handgun and reportedly fired at officers,” Soward said. Four officers returned fire, killing Lopez.
By Juan A. Lozano and Adrian Sainz