Texas authorities were searching early Friday for a convicted killer who they said fled a correctional bus the day before after stabbing the driver’s hand and forcing the vehicle off a freeway and into a cow pasture.
Authorities used dogs and helicopters to search for inmate Gonzalo Artemio Lopez, 46, who was serving a life sentence for killing a man with a pickaxe.
“As you can see from his record, he’s very dangerous,” Robert Hurst, a public information officer for the state Justice Department, said in a phone interview Thursday night.
Multiple police departments joined the search for the occupant at an intersection of two major freeways in a rural area of Leon County near the city of Centerville, Texas, which is midway between Dallas to the north and Houston to the south. News footage from the manhunt showed police officers, some on horseback, searching farmland near the crash site, inspecting a fence and stopping vehicles.
Mr. Lopez escaped Thursday afternoon as the long white bus carrying several prisoners was traveling east on Highway 7. He took him from a prison in Gatesville, Texas to a doctor’s appointment in the town of Huntsville, named Mr. Hurst.
“Somehow – we don’t know how – he manages to free himself from his restraints and then manages to get into the driver’s compartment of the bus,” which was separated from the passenger compartment by a door, Mr Hurst said.
Mr Lopez had an altercation with the driver, Randy Smith, who stabbed him in the left hand with a gun and forced the bus off the freeway, Mr Hurst said, adding that the prisoner, as the officer on the bus, Tommie Brinegar, had escaped. fired shots at him. He said authorities did not know what type of gun Mr. Lopez used to stab the driver.
The other 15 occupants on the bus were in handcuffs and would not exit the bus, Mr Hurst said. The driver’s wound is not life-threatening, he added.
Mr. Lopez was convicted of capital murder for killing a man in Hidalgo County 17 years ago after kidnapping him and attempting to extort a ransom from the victim’s wife, Mr. Hurst said. His record includes eight other felonies in Texas, including attempted capital murder and aggravated assault, all but one in Hidalgo County, prisoner files show. Mr. Hurst said that Mr. Lopez was convicted of attempted manslaughter for firing shots at the Webb County sheriff’s deputy.
“The most notable thing is that he killed a guy with a pickaxe,” he added.
Mr. Lopez’s first parole test is scheduled for April 2045, prisoner records show. Its expected release date was not available.
The escape occurred about a mile west of Centerville and about two-thirds of the 160-mile journey from Gatesville to Huntsville. A section of the freeway was later closed, and the Leon County Sheriff’s Office warned nearby residents to keep their doors and vehicles locked.
Mr Hurst said prisoner escapes were rare in Texas and that authorities planned to continue the search for Mr Lopez in an approximately 10 square mile area that is somewhat hilly and includes farmland, forests and streams.
“We will not stop the search until we find him,” he said.