Escaped inmate on run after correctional administrator found dead at Tenn. prison

Curtis Watson (Source: TBI)
Curtis Watson (Source: TBI)
Updated: Aug. 8, 2019 at 5:44 AM CDT
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HENNING, Tenn. (WMC) - A prison inmate is on the run and authorities believe he is responsible for the murder of a corrections employee.

Tennessee Bureau of Investigation issued a Blue Alert for Curtis Ray Watson escaped West Tennessee State Penitentiary.

A Blue Alert is issued when TBI needs help from the public to assist in apprehending violent criminals who kill or seriously injure law enforcement officers in the line of duty. The alert uses the same structure as an Amber Alert to disseminate the information.

The alert was sent to phones and is featured on TDOT signs on roadways across the state.

Thursday morning, TBI released two new pictures of Watson without facial hair in case he has changed his appearance since his escape.

Watson was assigned to work as a farm worker at the prison. He is suspected of killing prison administrator Debra Johnson, who was found dead in her home around 11:30 on the prison grounds. Johnson worked for the department of correction for 38 years.

It is not clear when Watson escaped. Residents are on high alert since word got out that he escaped, taking off on a tractor.

“The officer came and knocked on my door a while ago and said, ‘we’d like to search your house.’ I said, ‘that would be a good idea because I haven’t even done that,’” said Ellen Strong, neighbor.

Ellen Strong lives down from the West Tennessee State Penitentiary in Lauderdale County.

“Immediately following, the facility was locked down. Official inmate count was conducted. At that time Inmate Curtis Ray Watson 363744 was found (missing),” said Tony Parker, correction commissioner.

Authorities launched a manhunt for Watson in the acres and acres of farm fields and woods surrounding the prison. The search was made difficult because of torrential rain. Cars driving on surrounding roads were also checked.

Burt Staggs worked with Debra Johnson for a little over a year more than a decade ago.

Debra Johnson (Source: Tennessee Department of Correction/Facebook)
Debra Johnson (Source: Tennessee Department of Correction/Facebook)

“She was a really fine lady. What I knew of her there was never any conflict with her with staff or inmates. She treated everybody with respect," said Staggs.

Watson was convicted of especially aggravated kidnapping and and aggravated child abuse.

He is 5′11 and weighs 180 pounds. He could have changed his appearance but cannot hide the many tattoos of skulls and devils and other similar images on his body.

The TBI considers Watson extremely dangerous.

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