Escaped Tennessee inmate caught after prison employee’s death

Curtis Ray Watson. (Photo: Tennessee Bureau of Investigation)

HENNING, Tenn. — A Tennessee convict suspected of killing a corrections administrator before escaping prison on a tractor was captured Sunday, authorities said.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said on Twitter that 44-year-old Curtis Ray Watson was caught hours after a confirmed sighting of him in the west Tennessee community of Henning, where he escaped from the West Tennessee State Penitentiary on Wednesday.

Details of the capture weren’t immediately released.

TBI said a resident who saw Watson on his property had alerted authorities Sunday morning.

Photos provided by the resident show Watson dressed in camouflage bib overalls and a hat and carrying a camp backpack.

Dozens of officers had been seen mobilizing in the area after the sighting.

The state police agency said Watson was on lawn mowing duty when he sexually assaulted and strangled a Department of Corrections administrator employee Wednesday at the penitentiary in Henning.

TBI said Watson escaped prison grounds and the tractor was found nearby. Authorities launched an intense manhunt after Debra Johnson’s body was found with a cord wrapped around her neck Wednesday morning.

TBI secured warrants for first-degree murder, especially aggravated burglary, and aggravated sexual battery on Thursday.

Rewards totaling $57,000 were offered for information leading to Watson’s arrest.

Watson was discovered missing about 11 a.m. Wednesday, several hours after he was seen near the house where the 64-year-old Johnson lived on prison grounds.

According to a TBI affidavit, Watson had been released temporarily for mowing duties at 7 a.m. earlier that day, and had access to a golf cart and a tractor.

As a “trusty” at the prison, he was allowed to use the equipment and had to wear a reflective vest while working on prison grounds.

Phone records show Johnson was talking on the phone at 8:10 a.m., just 20 minutes before corrections workers saw Watson in a golf cart at her house, according to the affidavit.

He drove away from the prison sometime between 9 and 10 a.m. on a tractor, the affidavit said.

When Johnson didn’t show up for work, co-workers discovered her body at her home at 11:30 a.m., according to the affidavit, which notes that agents found a cord wrapped around Johnson’s neck.

The medical examiner declared her death a homicide by strangulation, the affidavit said.

Watson had been serving a 15-year sentence after pleading guilty to especially aggravated kidnapping in Henry County.

Watson illegally confined his wife while using an aluminum baseball bat in July 2012, court documents showed. His sentence began in 2013 and was set to expire in 2025, officials said.

Watson had previously been convicted of aggravated child abuse in Carroll County. His sentence in that case expired in 2011, officials said.

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