As soon as he saw the glint of a shank, Michael Wages knew there’d be trouble.
From the moment he’d climbed on the prison bus to Huntsville that morning, the man in front of him — a heavily-tattooed loudmouth named Gonzalo Lopez — had been asking bold questions: “How much time do you have left? Have you ever thought about escape?”
At first, Wages didn’t think Lopez meant anything by it — and the two guards on board didn’t seem to notice.
They also didn’t notice a few minutes later when Lopez slipped out of his handcuffs, then removed his leg irons. And they didn’t notice when he casually stood up to open the window, his unshackled arms in plain sight.
And they still didn’t notice when, less than 15 minutes into the ride, he whipped out two metal shanks.
Even with his bad eyesight, Wages saw it — and he froze in fear. There was no reason to go to the trouble of sneaking weapons onto a prison bus unless you planned to use them. He caught the look in Lopez’s eye, and thought: “I know he is a killer.”
Wages wasn’t wrong. Just over an hour later, around midday on May 12, Lopez hijacked the bus near the tiny town of Centerville, halfway between Houston and Dallas. By the time police shot him in a standoff three weeks later, the former Mexican Mafia member had killed Tomball resident Mark Collins and his four grandsons in what became one of the deadliest prison escapes in American history.
Since then, officials have shared few details about what exactly went wrong. But an investigation by The Marshall Project and the Houston Chronicle found that the escape was the result of a cascade of security lapses — many of which were preventable.
After tracking down half a dozen witnesses on the bus, talking to sources familiar with the investigation and reviewing previously undisclosed records, the news organizations found: Prison officials skimped on staffing. Guards skipped required strip searches and failed to use metal detectors. For more than an hour after Lopez broke free, officers incorrectly identified the escapee as Wages, the prisoner who sat behind Lopez. And when local law enforcement arrived from the nearby town of Jewett, sources and records show that the first police officer on scene did not give chase or take a shot at the fleeing prisoner.
The chief of the Jewett Police Department — who is also its only salaried officer — said his department was not involved in the investigation and refused to answer further questions. Meanwhile, Texas prison spokeswoman Amanda Hernandez acknowledged some shortcomings, attributing them to “staff complacency and failure to follow established policies.” The Texas Department of Public Safety, which was also involved in the manhunt and investigation, did not respond to a request for comment.
“Some of this is the result of the state trying to do mass incarceration for bottom dollar,” said Rep. Gene Wu, a Houston Democrat. “When your employees are some of the worst paid and worst treated employees in the state, it’s not really surprising that you’re going to have people who aren’t doing their jobs 100% of the time.”
By the time he began plotting to break free, the 46-year-old Lopez already had a long history of violence, with past convictions for everything from misdemeanor assault to capital murder. He’d escaped custody once before, then spent time in solitary in some of the state’s harshest lockups. With his earliest release date still decades away, he was ready to find a way out.
In the months before he finally did, officials confirmed Lopez went on a “significant number” of medical trips, spending enough time on prison buses to grow familiar with the security protocols — and the gaps. Many of those gaps had grown during the pandemic, as staff vacancy rates soared to historic highs. By the end of April, a third of guard jobs were unfilled statewide. The vacancy rate at the Hughes Unit, the maximum-security prison where Lopez started his bus ride, was close to 45%. Prisoners took notice as overworked guards grew increasingly lax about some of the most basic functions of their jobs, like letting people out to shower or searching them for contraband.
On the morning of May 12, Lopez was scheduled to take the three-hour ride from Gatesville to Huntsville, where he had an eye appointment at the Estelle Unit. When high-security prisoners like Lopez go on a medical trip, they’re usually strip-searched twice: Once when they leave their cells, and again just before they board the bus.
That’s how the head of the prison system, Bryan Collier, explained it at a hearing in June, when state lawmakers questioned him about what happened the day of the escape: “He leaves the Hughes Unit, goes through two strip searches at the Hughes Unit and is placed on a transport bus in leg irons and handcuffs,” Collier said.
But according to four prisoners who were on the bus that day, that was not what happened. Some of the men — including Wages, who was also headed to the eye doctor — said they never had to take off all their clothes, and others said they weren’t searched at all.
“That’s how he was able to get on the bus with them knives,” said a prisoner who sat near Lopez on the bus and asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. “He didn’t stash them anywhere weird. They were right there in his pants.”
In theory, the prison’s body-scanning chair could have detected the metal weapons officers missed — but that day, the guards didn’t use it. Instead, they just loaded the men onto the bus. Lopez sat in a caged area in the front, along with Wages and five other high-security prisoners. Behind them, nine lower-security prisoners sat in a separate section, some sleeping or reading.
Before the wheels started rolling just after 11 a.m., Lopez asked to switch seats with another man, snagging a spot behind the driver, Officer Randy Smith. Though prison policy used to require three officers on every bus ride, officials made the third one optional in 2015 amid staffing shortages. So on the morning of May 12, Smith’s only backup was Officer Jimmie Brinegar, seated at the rear of the bus.
As the bus pulled away from Gatesville, Lopez started fidgeting and asking questions. Then, according to the nearby prisoner, Lopez slipped out of his handcuffs and used a handcuff key — either purloined or handmade — to unlock his leg irons.
“Then he just leans over all of us and opens the windows,” Wages said. “He looks at us like, ‘What's up?’”
At that point, Wages thought the brazen man in front of him had only slipped out of his cuffs to get comfortable on the long ride. But when Lopez sat down and leaned over to tie his boots, Wages noticed the shanks. They locked eyes, and Lopez must have sensed his fear, because he offered a quick reassurance that he wasn’t going to attack Wages.
A few minutes later, Lopez started back up with the questions: “Hey homie, you want to escape?”
“Nah, I ain’t got that much time,” Wages told him, settling back in for a long ride.
For the next hour, Lopez kept fidgeting. Over the noise of the bus, Wages couldn’t quite tell what was going on. But the other nearby prisoner said he heard a popping noise every few seconds, and realized it was Lopez prying up the tack welds around a square of metal grating between the high-security prisoners and the driver.
Even at a low volume, it was the sort of activity a third guard would have spotted easily, prisoners said.
“What he was doing wasn’t really loud,” Wages explained, “but the way he had to bend down and face the front of the bus would have never been possible if TDCJ had that passenger seat manned and secure.”
Officials later said the other prisoners helped Lopez by shouting and singing. But Wages and several others said the only extra noise was two men rapping. According to the nearby prisoner, everything else was “a normal volume level on the bus.”
About 90 minutes into the trip, Lopez finally pried off a 9-inch by 18-inch square of grating, and announced: “Y’all hang on cause this is going to be fast.”
Seconds later, he squirmed through the opening, and the escape was on.
Lopez stabbed the driver with one of the shanks, and the two began shouting. The bus shuddered to a stop on Highway 7, and the men kept struggling until they tumbled outside. Lopez tore off the officer’s gun holster, but authorities said he couldn’t figure out how to remove the weapon.
The officer in the back leaped outside, armed with a shotgun and a sidearm. Wages heard the driver begging: “Shoot him! Do it, man! Do it!”
The situation had grown even more dangerous: Gun in hand, Lopez scrambled back into the bus with both guards now outside of it and began to drive away.
The back officer handed the injured guard the shotgun, drew his pistol and fired repeatedly. None of his shots hit Lopez, but the injured guard managed to shoot out one of the rear tires as Lopez drove away. After careening a couple miles down Highway 7 near Centerville, Lopez lost control and crashed into a ditch.
The inside of the bus smelled of burnt metal, and Wages heard some of the men shout out warnings: “They’re going to kill us all! Everybody get on the ground!”
Lopez dove out a window, and took off.
Down the road, Melanie Tieperman, 46, looked on in shock. She’d been driving her son home on Highway 7 when they spotted the prison bus stuck in a ditch. She pulled over, and they watched a man in a Texas prison uniform leap from the wrecked vehicle, jump a fence and start running across an open field.
“And that’s when it hit me,” she said. “This inmate is escaping.”
As Lopez fled, Tieperman noticed a police cruiser parked nearby. Video footage taken by Tieperman’s son shows it was a patrol car from Jewett, an 800-person town with a one-man force run by Chief Sean O’Reilly.
The officer had come across the two stranded guards on his way home from work and, according to a source inside the investigation, began chasing after the bus when he found out what happened. When the prisoners crashed, he was first on scene as Lopez escaped — but Tieperman said he did not shoot at or follow after Lopez.
“The officer did not get out of his car until that inmate was nearly gone,” she said. “He didn’t pursue in any way. He did not have a weapon drawn in case any other inmates were to come out.”
Prisoners on the bus offered similar accounts. In a brief telephone interview, O’Reilly declined to answer any questions, said he didn’t know anything, and then hung up.
When Leon County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Victor Smith arrived sometime after 1 p.m., the guards still couldn’t figure out who had escaped. Smith “requested the name of the escapee but the two guards at the scene could not provide it,” he wrote in a report. “The guards at some point provided a ‘travel card’ for inmate Michael Wages and stated that this could be the escaped inmate but could not be sure.”
Reporters obtained copies of Smith’s report through a public records request, though after sending the materials, county officials called to say they’d released them by mistake and did not believe the records should be public. The 42-page report offers one of the most detailed accounts of the law enforcement response that has been released to date.
According to those records, prison officials took more than an hour to correctly identify Lopez as the escapee. While the prison spokeswoman emphasized that incorrect names were never released to the public, neither officer on the bus commented in response to reporters’ queries.
In the hours and days that followed the escape, law enforcement from across the state flocked to Leon County. The Lone Star Fugitive Task Force, the Texas Rangers and the U.S. Marshals all pitched in, as did nearby constables and police. The Texas Department of Public Safety sent helicopters with thermal imaging, and the corrections department locked down dozens of prisons so hundreds of guards could help with the manhunt.
Though searchers spotted Lopez on the day of the escape, their tracking dogs got caught in heavy underbrush and lost the trail. No one saw him again for three weeks.
In the meantime, hundreds of officers walked the entire search area elbow-to-elbow. Prison guards were stationed every 50 yards around the 7-mile perimeter.
Search teams found a slew of lost radios, flashlights and phones, but no stashes of water or food.
“We never found the spot where we think he was laid up,” said one law enforcement source, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak on the record. “I don’t know if he kept moving day to day or what he was doing.”
By late May, many locals assumed Lopez fled the area, and the escape fell out of the news as the Uvalde school shooting took over headlines.
Then, on the morning of May 31, authorities got a call about a burglarized camp house on Highway 7 in Centerville. They found clues Lopez was responsible: The intruder had bathed with rainwater and stolen food, soda, a jacket and bottled water. Investigators collected forensics to check against the escapee’s DNA, and later searched a neighboring weekend home owned by the Collins family. But nobody told locals that he could still be in the area.
Two days later, on June 2, the Leon County Sheriff’s Office found out the DNA from the burglary matched Lopez. They also learned that a surveillance camera had captured footage of a camouflaged man — believed to be Lopez — near the site of the burglary.
About 20 minutes after learning Lopez was still in the area, the sheriff’s office fielded a call from Chris Collins, a Tomball resident who said he was worried about his three sons. The boys and their cousin had gone to Centerville with their grandfather to visit their ranch house. But now their phones showed the boys in odd locations.
Though law enforcement teams had already cleared the Collins home, they headed back.
Inside, they found the bodies. Lopez had shot and stabbed 66-year-old Mark Collins and his four grandsons — brothers Waylon Collins, 18; Carson, 16; and Hudson, 11; and their cousin, Bryson, 11. The family’s pickup truck was missing.
Around 10 p.m., an animal control officer in Atascosa County spotted the stolen truck heading south from San Antonio. Local police set up spike strips, and Lopez crashed into a utility pole before dying in a shoot-out with police.
After the deaths of the Collins family, prison officials halted all transports and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick ordered the Texas Rangers to investigate what went wrong. The prison agency launched its own review as well as an external audit, the results of which have yet to be released. Local prosecutors are still probing the case, and lawyers for the Collins family have sent the Texas Department of Criminal Justice notice of their plans to sue. Meanwhile, prison officials have disciplined more than two dozen staff and written up 15 prisoners, accusing them of creating a distraction. Some lost privileges, and one said he was in danger of losing his parole date weeks before he was scheduled to go home.
Agency leaders also retooled security policies, closing obvious gaps by requiring a third officer on transports and vowing to install cameras on transport buses. (So far, cameras have only been installed on two buses, though a spokeswoman said Monday that the state is working out a contract for more.) The agency also implemented some restrictions that did little to address the problems that led to the escape, such as banning high-security prisoners from owning boots and prohibiting all prisoners from bringing their belongings with them on the bus when they’re moved to a new unit.
To Melanie Tieperman — the witness who saw Lopez escape — those changes don’t seem like enough.
For weeks, she and other Leon County residents had lived with the constant fear that Lopez might sneak into their homes and attack. At one point, she’d even told her son to hide if Lopez broke in — and not to come out no matter what he heard.
“I don’t think anybody understands what it’s like until you live through it,” she said. Months later, Tieperman is still outraged that the first officer on scene didn’t stop Lopez when he had the chance, and that authorities didn’t warn the community after the May 31 burglary. She remains unconvinced that anything will change at the prison agency to prevent future escapes.
“What good is changing some of the rules and regulations when they’re not following them to begin with?” Tieperman said. “And who’s going to make sure they follow them? Who’s going to hold them accountable?”