Tennessee inmate escapes from prison where official found dead

Tenn. escapee at victim’s home earlier
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Authorities are searching for an inmate who escaped Wednesday from the West Tennessee State Penitentiary in Lauderdale County and is a person of interest in a homicide.

Authorities in western Tennessee are searching for a inmate who escaped Wednesday, the day a longtime corrections official was found dead in her home on the grounds of the prison.

Officials discovered the body of Debra Johnson, a employee of 38 years who oversaw the facilities in the western part of the state, Wednesday morning about 11:30. They believe Johnson, 64, was the victim of a homicide. A Tennessee Bureau of Investigation spokesman said Thursday that escaped inmate Curtis Ray Watson is a suspect in Johnson’s death.

Watson, who was serving a 15-year sentence for especially aggravated kidnapping, was discovered missing when officials put the facility on lockdown and conducted a check of inmates.

The total reward for information leading to his capture and arrest is $32,500, according to the TBI.

“Today we lost a very beloved and respected member of our TDOC family,” the Tennessee Department of Corrections said in a statement. “We are extremely saddened by this tragic loss and committed to working with our law enforcement in bringing the person responsible to justice.”

TBI Director David Rausch said at a Thursday afternoon news conference that, although the bureau has received 75 alleged sightings of Watson from the public, none have been “credible” so far. The bureau is not only involved in the search for the escapee but also conducting the investigation of Johnson’s death, in which Watson is a suspect, he said.

The TBI added Watson to its Most Wanted list and tweeted pictures of his tattoos and his face. Later, the bureau added two additional mug shots of Watson “in case he altered the appearance of his facial hair after his escape yesterday.”

Rausch asked those who live in West Tennessee to check their property for anything that looks out of place as well as to check outbuildings, crawl spaces and dog houses — anywhere someone could hide. Those with trail or property surveillance cameras should check those. And, while the suspect remains at large, checking on neighbors would also be helpful. “He could be anywhere,” said Rausch.

“Rest assured that we will find this offender and bring justice to the family of Debra Johnson,” Commissioner Tony Parker of the Tennessee Department of Correction said. “Debra is known as a very dedicated, professional correctional employee respected both by the offender population and the people who work for our department.”

Tennessee officials have issued a blue alert — only the third since the designation’s inception in 2011 — which is done when a law enforcement officer is killed, sustains life-threatening injuries or is missing.

The West Tennessee State Penitentiary is in Henning, about 45 miles northeast of Memphis.

Watson, 44, is 5-feet-11 and 140 pounds. A photo on a wanted poster shows him with a bald head and mostly white beard that is closely cropped except at his chin, where it extends several inches.

“This is a serious situation and we ask the public to stay vigilant, to stay aware,” Rausch said. “We need to get this dangerous individual into custody.”

Officials said Watson worked on a farm detail and apparently used a tractor in the escape. It was found about a mile away from the facility.

This is Watson’s second prison stint. He previously was in prison for aggravated child abuse and was released in 2011. He returned to prison in 2013.

Parker said Watson had no disciplinary issues since 2007 and was a minimal custody offender. There are eight to 12 residential properties on the prison grounds, Parker said.

CNN’s Susan Scutti contributed to this report.