Escaped inmate charged with murder, sexual battery as manhunt continues

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — An escaped West Tennessee prison inmate has been charged with first-degree murder, especially aggravated burglary and aggravated sexual battery.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation announced Thursday that warrants for those charges had been obtained for fugitive Curtis Ray Watson, who is a suspect in the murder of an administrator at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary, where he escaped Wednesday.

Despite a statewide manhunt and plenty of leads, there have been no confirmed sightings of escaped inmate Watson, the TBI said Thursday, as the search continued for a second day.

Gov. Bill Lee and the heads of the TBI and Tennessee Department of Corrections provided updates in the search Thursday afternoon. More than 75 tips had come in by Thursday morning, with alleged sightings coming in from all over Tennessee and outside the state, but none of those sightings were confirmed.

"We will not rest until this offender is brought to justice," TDOC Commissioner Tony Parker said.

Lee said the state is offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to Watson's arrest and conviction. That's in addition to the $2,500 reward from TBI and $5,000 from ATF, a TBI spokesman said.

The FBI and U.S. Marshals later added $10,000 more each to the reward, bringing the total to $52,500.

"Make no mistake, we need Tennesseans to be vigilant," Lee said, urging anyone with tips to call authorities.

TBI Director David Rausch said Watson is now a suspect in the homicide of prison administrator Debra Johnson, no longer just a person of interest. Officials are working to obtain warrants on Watson.

Debra Johnson

Johnson was found dead in her home on prison grounds at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary in Henning on Wednesday, and prison workers later noticed Watson was missing.

"Her coworkers and the people in Tennessee will certainly miss her, and we will be praying for her family as well," Gov. Bill Lee said.

Watson escaped the area on a tractor, which was abandoned about 2.1 miles from the house where Johnson was killed. Watson had access to the tractor because of his job duties at the prison.

The search for Watson is focused on an area surrounding where the tractor was recovered, a rural area near the prison in Lauderdale County.

Rausch asked people in the state to check outbuildings like sheds, barns and dog houses and trail cameras on their property.

"He could be anywhere," TBI spokesman Josh DeVine said.

Watson was serving a 15-year sentence  for a 2012 aggravated kidnapping charge in Henry County.

Henry County Sheriff Monte Belew said he's been in touch with at least five of Watson's relatives in the Paris area; all are cooperating with law enforcement.

They asked people in Henry County to be especially vigilant to any suspicious behavior.

He is considered dangerous and anyone who sees him is asked to call 911 or 1-800-TBI-FIND.

TBI  is involved in both the search for Watson and the investigation into Johnson's homicide.

Johnson's autopsy has not been completed, authorities said.  According to TDOC, she lived on the prison property and it would not be unusual for her to come in contact with inmates.

Watson's last known address was in Henry County in northwest Tennessee.

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