Mark Collins had brought his four grandsons Waylon, Karson, Hudson and Bryson up to his ranch north-west of Houston on Thursday for what sounded like a southern boy’s dream: shooting guns, taking boats on big ponds and fishing.
While Collins knew authorities had been looking in the general area for a convicted murderer with ties to a Mexican drug cartel who had broken free from a prison bus three weeks earlier, he may not have known that the fugitive had apparently burglarized a home next door to the ranch, according to family friend David Crain.
And within hours of their arrival, Collins and his grandsons were dead at the hands of the escapee, 46-year-old Gonzalo Lopez, who stole guns, clothes and a truck from the ranch before police shot him dead more than 200 miles away.
Officials with Crime Stoppers of Houston late on Friday identified Mark Collins, 66; Waylon Collins, 18; Karson Collins, 16; Hudson Collins, 11; and Bryson Collins, also 11, as the five family members murdered by Lopez in the final hours of his run from the law.
Waylon, Karson and Hudson were brothers, and Bryson was their cousin, the family’s pastor, Steve Bezner, said at a news conference on Friday.
The boys played football and baseball, and they had gone up to their grandfather’s ranch to hunt, fish and spend time on the water a week into their vacation from classes at the Tomball independent school district, which serves a suburb of Houston.
Waylon had recently graduated high school. Bryson had just been baptized into the Christian faith in his family’s swimming pool three days earlier.
“What happened to the Collins family is just unspeakable – those kids were bright, shining stars,” said Crain, the family friend. “Even [for] the hardest of the hard – this is really difficult to take.”
On 12 May, three weeks before Thursday’s violence, Lopez managed to remove his restraints and crawl out of a caged area of a bus driving him from a Texas state prison in Gatesville to one in Huntsville for a medical appointment. He attacked the bus driver, who was stabbed in the hand, before ducking gunfire from officers and running off into the woods in Leon county, a rural area between Houston and Dallas whose local government is headquartered in Centerville.
Law enforcement agencies launched a manhunt involving hundreds of officers, a search plane and a reward of $50,000 for information leading to Lopez’s capture.
Police knew Lopez was serving two life sentences for shooting a sheriff’s deputy in Webb county, Texas, in 2004, then in 2005 using a pickaxe to kill a man he had kidnapped near the state’s border with Texas and held for ransom over a $40,000 drug debt owed to the La Maña cartel from Tamaulipas, Mexico.
Officials leading that search had looked in the Collins family ranch multiple times while Lopez was at large, Crain said. It was clear each time.
But then, citing information from state authorities, Crain said investigators had determined that Lopez had broken into a neighboring property on Monday. Crain isn’t sure his friend Mark Collins received that information before bringing his grandchildren to the ranch on Thursday morning.
When Mark Collins didn’t check in with another family member later on Thursday, that relative called police and asked them to check on the ranch. Officers went and found the bodies of the four children and their grandfather, and their white pickup truck was missing.
Investigators have said they suspect Lopez broke into the home at the ranch and killed everyone there, though they haven’t said exactly how.
Police in Jourdanton, a Texas community about 220 miles south-west of Centerville, saw Lopez driving the truck and pursued him. Officers disabled the truck by putting down a strip of spikes that Lopez drove over, authorities said.
Armed with an AR-15 rifle and a pistol that were apparently stolen from the Collins ranch, Lopez subsequently died in a shootout with police. No officers were wounded.
Bezner, the Collins family pastor, said the victims’ loved ones remain pious. “None of us can understand why, but [we] continue to trust that God is good and he is with us under these circumstances,” Bezner said.
Nonetheless, Crain said those grieving the Collinses are closely monitoring an ongoing investigation into exactly how Lopez escaped and then managed to elude capture for so long.
“If steps can be taken to make sure it doesn’t happen again, then there’s where we go,” Crain said.
Andy Kahan of Crime Stoppers Houston asked the public to consider donating to an online GoFundMe campaign meant to cover funeral expenses for the slain Collins family members.
“This is the worst that you can possibly imagine,” Kahan said. “It doesn’t get any worse.”