By Amy Simonson, Steve Almasy and Susannah Cullinane, CNN
An escaped murderer with alleged ties to the Mexican mafia was added Friday to the Texas most-wanted fugitives list as more than 300 law enforcement personnel searched for the man who fled from a prison bus Thursday after breaking out of his restraints and attacking an officer.
Authorities are offering $22,500 in reward money for a tip leading to the apprehension of 46-year-old Gonzalo Lopez, who was serving two life sentences for a 2006 capital murder conviction and a separate attempted capital murder charge.
He had killed a man with a pickaxe in 2005 and attempted to shoot a sheriff’s deputy the year before, officials said.
“I cannot reiterate enough how dangerous this man is and how the public’s help is needed in locating him,” said Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesperson Robert Hurst on Friday. “If anybody has seen him, if anybody has any reason to believe he’s been on their property please contact local law enforcement officials by way of 9-1-1.”
Lopez is 6-feet tall and weighs 185 pounds with “tattoos on his back, abdomen and chest,” according to the Texas Department of Public Safety Bulletin. He also has a burn scar on the right side of his neck.
Lopez is from the Rio Grande Valley and affiliated with the Mexican mafia, the agency said.
More than 300 law enforcement personnel were searching for Lopez in the rural area near Centerville in Leon County, about 120 miles north of Houston, aided by canine teams and helicopters, according to Hurst.
He stressed that members of the public should not try to take on the inmate themselves. “If he’s managed to get someplace else please contact law enforcement there tell them that you think you’ve seen this escaped convict and you want to get him in custody. Do not try and engage him yourself — he’s just too darned dangerous.”
Shots fired at Lopez during escape
The transport bus, with 16 inmates on board, had been traveling on Highway 7 when Lopez escaped his restraints and entered the protected driving compartment, Hurst said.
The driver, Officer Randy Smith, managed to stop the vehicle while being assaulted by Lopez and a second officer — Officer Jimmie Brinegar — exited the back of the bus and shot out the back tires while his colleague and Lopez were struggling outside.
“Then Lopez got back on the bus and drove it about another mile down the road with its back tires shot out,” Hurst said. “The other inmates never got off the bus.”
As Lopez fled the bus, Brinegar fired with his service weapon as well as a shotgun, Hurst said at a media briefing Thursday. “We do not know if the inmate was hit by any of these shots. Last we saw him he was fleeing across the cow pasture west of Centerville.”
Asked about forecasts of close to 100 degree weather Saturday, Hurst said he expected such conditions would make it harder for the felon.
“It’s going to make it real difficult for him if he’s still here. If he’s still in this area he’s getting real thirsty, and he’s getting real hot and he’s going to start being very uncomfortable if he’s not already.”
Hurst said that Lopez’s white prison uniform had not yet been found but that it was still possible he could have changed his clothes. Highway 7 between Interstate 45 and Marquez was closed and the public was still also being asked to avoid highway 79 between Buffalo and Marquez, he said.
At an earlier news conference Friday, Hurst said the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the US Marshals Service had joined the manhunt and again warned residents to keep their distance.
Meantime, the investigation was continuing as to how Lopez was able to break free from his restraints and get through the compartment where the officer driving the bus was seated. There is a secured door with metal mesh around it, Hurst said.
“Somehow, we don’t know yet how that happened,” Hurst said. “He got up underneath. He used some type of a device to cut out the bottom of that door. He got down underneath the door — he crawled underneath the door and when he got it when he got through that opening that he cut open, that’s when he started struggling with the officer.”
When asked whether Lopez had help, Hurst said the investigation had not answered that yet.
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