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Prison escapee wanted for murder of corrections officer in Lauderdale County

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — 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 woman's death.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said the escaped inmate is Curtis Ray Watson, 44.

The woman who was killed was identified by TBI as Debra Johnson, 64, West Tennessee Correctional administrator for the Department of Corrections and a 38-year employee of the state.

Corrections Commissioner Tony Parker says the homicide happened at Johnson's residence at the correctional facility in Henning. After her body was found, the facility was locked down and a count was done. That's authorities noticed that Watson was missing from work detail.

A manhunt was initiated and the TBI was contacted.

"Appropriate protocol was initiated. The TBI was contacted, along with local law enforcement, and a manhunt was initiated immediately," Parker said.

When asked how Watson found Johnson's address, Parker said, "the facility in west Tennessee has eight to 12 properties that administrators live in. Miss Johnson lived in one of those properties that is located on the state facility."

Watson escaped the facility on a tractor that was located about a mile-and-a-half away.

Watson was a minimum custody offender and was doing farm labor at the facility. He was serving 15 years for aggravated kidnapping in Henry County. His 2025 sentence was expired. He was also previously convicted of aggravated child abuse in Carroll County. That sentence expired in 2011.

He has no disciplinary actions since 2007. Prior to that, he had disciplinaries for not going to assigned duties and classes.

Watson should be considered extremely dangerous. Anyone with information should call 911 or 1-800-TBI-FIND.

Several law enforcement agencies are involved in the search. A helicopter was seen flying overhead in the area.

The Lauderdale County Sheriff's Office said the investigation was being turned over to TBI, who said they have agents on the way to the scene.

The prison in Henning houses adult male prisoners in maximum, medium and minimum security custody.

State Rep. Chris Hurt (R-Halls) released a statement on Johnson's death:

“Our community has suffered an immeasurable loss today at the hands of a violent criminal who clearly has no regard for human life. Please continue to pray for the family and loved ones of our fallen Department of Corrections employee and for those working to apprehend the individual responsible and bring him to swift justice," Hurt said.

TBI said Thursday that there had been no confirmed sightings of Watson, despite reports from across the state.

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