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TBI says escaped inmate was at woman’s home shortly before body discovered

LAUDERDALE COUNTY, Tenn. — Prison administrator Debra Johnson was last known to be alive about 8:10 a.m. Wednesday morning, about 20 minutes before inmate Curtis Ray Watson was seen on a golf cart at her house, and three hours before co-workers found her body in that house, according to investigators.

It's been three days since inmate Watson's escape and Johnson's death, and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation released new details during their search Friday.

TBI's latest update: Watson could be anywhere.

Watson escaped from the West Tennessee State Penitentiary on Wednesday. Shortly after his escape corrections officers found Johnson dead in her home on the grounds of the penitentiary.

Watson was announced as a person of interest in the homicide Wednesday and was upgraded to being a suspect with a warrant out for his arrest Thursday. TBI released the affidavit that went into detail of how Johnson was found.

According to the affidavit, Watson was released for work duty to mow the grass of the grounds. He was a trusty for the prison and had access to prison equipment.

Debra Johnson

After noticing Johnson did not show up to work, authorities checked her home and found the reflective vest like the one Watson was wearing. They also found Johnson's body, which appeared to be strangled.

The medical examiner later confirmed Johnson died from strangulation, and her death was ruled a homicide. It was also found that Johnson had been sexually assaulted.

About three hours later after finding him missing, authorities found the tractor Watson used to escape about two miles from the prison, and it had Watson's prison ID card inside.

Before Wednesday, Watson was a low-security prisoner, allowed to access farm equipment and vehicles for his work there. So when officials spotted him on a golf cart outside Johnson's home Wednesday morning, they didn't think anything of it.

Her body was found soon after that. Now her home is a crime scene.

WREG has obtained charging documents accusing Watson of committing sexual battery against Johnson, and then using a cord to strangle the long-time department of corrections employee.

We've also learned Watson had a history of sexual violence, according to documents from his 2012 arrest in Paris, Tennessee.

Officials say he forcibly and violently raped a woman, also hitting her in the head with bat.

On Friday, Johnson's body was escorted by police from Memphis to a funeral home in Nashville.

 

There are checkpoints set up throughout the area where Watson escaped. Even though law enforcement has a big presence, and TBI officials said they’ve had 250 tips since Wednesday, they said they’ve still had no credible sightings of Watson, which worries neighbors.

“I live here in Henning, so I have to stay locked up in nighttime," resident Felicia McDaniel said. "If he comes in my home, who's going to know that other than me?"

Officials said Watson could be anywhere by now. They urged residents across the state to check for anything unusual or out of place in their property.

“We are literally working around the clock. We have folks with night vision," TBI spokesperson Keli McAlister said. "We want to focus on the fact this is a dangerous man, a dangerous fugitive, and we want to catch him."

If Watson is seen, immediately call 911 or 1-800-TBI-FIND. He should be considered extremely dangerous.

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