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'I had this gut feeling' | Ending a crime spree as big as Texas: An insider's view

The Atascosa County Sheriff praised his team for stopping a mass murder suspect.

ATASCOSA COUNTY, Texas — The manhunt was intense when escaped prison inmate Gonzalo Lopez was speeding south through the San Antonio area and headed for the border on June 2.

Offering a window into the effort to stop a killer, Atascosa County Sheriff David Soward detailed the fast-moving, multi-faceted effort that ended with no harm to anyone except the accused.

At a time when Texans are still reeling from the massacre of Uvalde school children and teachers, Soward said he is grateful his team was successful in bringing a killing rampage to a halt in the heart of a quiet, small town neighborhood.

Soward said when he received intelligence that Lopez, accused of killing a family of five in the Centerville area northwest of Houston, might be headed into the heart of his community, he told his wife he would personally lead the hunt.

“That night I had this gut feeling that this guy was going to end up in our county and I didn’t want my guys to get into something with this fellow and me not be there,” Soward said, adding “ The most important thing – and everybody knew it – but we never talked about it - is that if this guy shows up? He doesn’t get away. He doesn’t get away with a chance to kill again.”

“The last thing we wanted him to do is get into a residential area, get into a house and take a hostage,” Soward said, adding “He had already killed five people so he’s going to kill again and we wanted to avoid that, most of all.”

Soward said with a massive cooperative effort underway by every law enforcement agency in the region, they had only moments to come up with a plan.

“Something just told me – I don’t want any of our officers stopping this guy, not knowing who he is, so I sent a message to all my officers to be on all the possible routes he would take,” Soward said.

Soward said he gathered his things and left home, knowing that the man they were after was desperate and maybe deadly.

“He did have an AR-style rifle, and we knew he would be armed.  And of course, we knew he was dangerous and had nothing to lose, serving a life sentence in prison when he escaped,” Soward said.

But the hastily assembled plan to neutralize an accused killer was developed and successfully executed in a matter of minutes and Soward said he could not be more proud or grateful that when his people had to stare down a murder suspect – they didn’t blink.

The effort was massive and included Atascosa County deputies and constables and officers from Pleasanton, Jourdanton, Poteet, Lytle, DPS troopers and U.S. Marshals.

Soward said “Everybody was pleased that no officer got hurt, no civilians got hurt, nobody else was killed except the suspect and frankly we just didn’t really care about him.  He had a gun and he was trying to kill us.”

A review of audio transcripts of the takedown on Broadcastify, and an interview with Soward, offers an insider’s view of an almost perfect operation.

“On this night, everything went smooth.  Everybody worked together, and it did go down pretty much textbook,” Soward said.

A few minutes after 9 pm, lawmen from various agencies detailed the net they cast over several south Texas highways.

Soward said when they received intelligence that Lopez was headed south “We covered all the major roads in the county heading south, Interstate 35, Texas 16, US 281 and IH 37.”

At 9:48 pm the radio crackled: “He is armed with an AR-15 and a pistol and a whole bunch of ammo in the San Antonio area and is going to McAllen.  He is in that pickup and he is armed.”

Lawmen knew what they were after:  a white Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck had been stolen during the Centerville murders.

The takedown drama began around 9:57 pm when Atascosa  County Chief Investigator Henry Dominguez, who works for the county’s Animal Control Authority, announced he had the suspect in his sight. Just 19 minutes later, at 10:16 pm, radio transmissions show it ended in a firefight that caused no collateral damage to any innocent civilians.

While some officers discussed how they planned to deploy spike strips to disable the truck, Dominguez announced he was following the truck.

Dominguez calmly announced he had the license plate they were after “I got a white Chevy. DPV is the first three (letters).”

Soward said at that point, they knew the battle was set, and he quietly reminded Dominguez to be careful.  

Soward can be heard on the radio advising “Do not attempt to stop until we have plenty of backup,” while Dominguez replied “10-4.  He’s weaving in and out of traffic.”

As Dominguez kept the truck in sight, others got ahead of the action, and deployed spikes.

Soward said the Jourdanton Police Chief set up the trap just north of town on Highway 16. 

“The plan was to spike him out there and hopefully never allow him to get into town,” Soward said, adding “The spike was successful.  We hit all four tires, but he kept going and we chased him into the edge of Jourdanton.”

The radio transmission calmly indicating “He’s still southbound but he’s starting to lose it. He’s going 50 mph but it was a good hit and he is losing rubber.”

After a few twists and turns west of Highway 16, the chase turned even more dangerous.  Soward said “He went through a field, circled around behind a truck stop and came back out on the highway.”

At 10:13 pm there was an urgent warning to all the lawmen converging on the scene:  “He’s got a gun! He’s got a gun! He hit a telephone pole. He’s still going!”

Soward said he heard the exchange of gunfire start because he was close by and he had rolled down his window so that he could track the chase.

“I heard several shots from a semi-automatic rifle, which had to be coming from him because none of our guys shot at him while he was driving on Cypress Street,” Soward said, adding Lopez was holding a rifle out the window, shooting at oncoming deputies.

“He ran off the road, jumped a curb, went down an embankment, hit a telephone pole and knocked it down and kept going until he hit a fence and that was as far as he could go,” Soward said, adding that his deputies, running toward rifle fire, returned fire.

One minute later “Shots fired! Shots fired!” was the urgent call on the radio,  “He is running with a weapon!”

Soward said four lawmen returned fire to end the attack and by 10:16 pm the firefight was over.

The same deputies who stopped the rampage immediately began resuscitation efforts, but the damage, from multiple shots, was too great and Lopez was pronounced deceased, ending a crime spree that spanned 22 days and more than 400 miles across Texas. 

In the intervening weeks, Soward said he has had time to reflect on the importance of bravery in the face of overwhelming danger, a topic that is top of mind for many Texans now.

Speaking of his team, who are like family members, Soward said “It’s always tough to send them out on dangerous missions, but that’s what they pay us to do.”

Soward said when it was over “It’s an overwhelming sigh of relief that’s hard to describe.”

After the heartbreak of the Uvalde massacre, Soward said Atascosa County residents have been expressing their gratitude for the way this incident ended.

“It’s pretty much like I haven’t seen it before,” Soward said, adding “I have had phone calls and messages from all over the area and I hardly think anyone has paid for a lunch in weeks, I mean, everybody wants to buy your lunch!”

“It’s good that the community appreciates law enforcement when law enforcement does something good because nowadays there’s been a trend across the United States to bash law enforcement,” Soward said, adding “but in this county we see that the citizens want and respect good law enforcement.”

“It’s good when they show it and mention it, good job, good job, I’ve heard it a hundred times in the last few weeks,” Soward said.

Soward said because he has experienced tragic results, he’s especially grateful for this outcome.

“The good guys got to go home, and that’s what we’re supposed to do, but most of all we’re supposed to protect the citizens.  They’re supposed to be alive and well at the end of the night, even if we’re not.  That’s our job,” Soward said.

Soward said in law enforcement, sometimes officers can go a while and not draw a lot of attention to their efforts.  “I always tell people ‘Don’t pay us for what we do, but pay us for what we’re willing to do,’ and Thursday night, June the second, is a good example of that.”

“Of course I told them they did a great job and I handed out 14 commendations, and there was more people than 14 that were out there that night, but these 14 were there when it went down, in the middle of it pretty much,” Soward said.

When the shooting stopped, Soward said the job of making sure everyone in the area was safe rushed forward.

“The shooting happened in a yard and those people were not home. I think the good Lord just had that planned. I thank God they weren’t home,” Soward said, adding that the area is home to a number of senior citizens.

“There was an elderly housing unit off to the south of us, so officers knocked on all the doors and checked on people,” Soward said, relieved that no innocent person was hurt.

Soward said the officers who traded shots with Lopez were given a few days off after the Thursday gun battle, but they all were anxious to return to duty.

“We gave all those guys three days off to chill out and relax and be with their families and offered them more, but they were all ready to come back to work.   They all wanted to come back on Monday and it says a lot about them,” Soward said.  

The long-time sheriff, with decades of service, said “It’s a good feeling when everything goes right and it pretty much went right that night and everybody went home except the bad guy - so I’m grateful.”

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