Court finds probable cause in Curtis Watson hearing, case moves to grand jury

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Curtis Watson is led out of the courtroom after his hearing Wednesday.

Data pix.

LAUDERDALE COUNTY, Tenn. — Several months after he escaped from the state penitentiary and allegedly killed a prison administrator, a court found probable cause for a case against Curtis Watson to move forward Wednesday.

The case was bound over to a grand jury. Watson will be held without bond.

Several witnesses took the stand in the Lauderdale County courtroom, including Correctional Officers Kenneth Edwards and Austin Jones, and Corporal David Shelton, all of whom worked at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary where Watson escaped from in August 2019.

Edwards testified that Watson signed out around 7 a.m. on the morning of his escape and was eventually located by prison officials in a golf cart. He said that it wasn't unusual to see Watson around this type of equipment considering the job he had at the time.

Jones told the court that later that day Watson told him he "needed to run to maintenance."

Several hours later, Watson went missing again, but this time on a large tractor. They later found that tractor about 10 miles away about an hour after Watson went missing.

During that time he was missing, authorities said Watson sexually assaulted and then murdered a prison administrator named Debra Johnson after taking off on the tractor. Her body was found 30 minutes after prison staff realized Watson was gone.

Trinity Minter, the warden for the women's side of the penitentiary and a friend of Johnson, said she had texted with Johnson at 8:03 the morning she was killed.

When she heard Johnson hadn't reported for work, Minter got keys from an administrator and went to Johnson's home on prison grounds.

"I walked into the house ... and I could see Debra laying on the bed, with her right leg up, and her left leg down. I knew at that point, that something was really wrong," Minter said.

She said Johnson wasn't clothed from the waist down and had what looked like a black cell phone cord around her neck.

A nurse who arrived at the scene testified she didn't find a pulse on Johnson, and said the cord had been wrapped around her neck three times.

Both correctional officers said they didn't witness any interactions between Johnson and Watson prior to the incident.

But Robert Walden, an inmate at West Tennessee Penitentiary who worked in the prison lawn mower shop with Curtis Watson, testified he saw Watson at Johnson's house that day.

Walden said he saw Watson "beating on the door" of Debra Johnson's home around 7:30, and they acknowledged each other.

That was before Watson was first lost-and-found. He later saw him traveling away from the prison on a tractor.

Zachary West, an inmate who worked with Watson in the mower shop, testified that Watson approached him for the tractor that West was washing, then asked for and took West's orange work vest.

"Watson says, 'I'm in a hurry, I need that tractor,'" West said in court.

West said he witnessed Watson putting air into the tires of a car believed to be Debra Johnson's.

He said Watson told him that the woman wanted to have sex with him, and he was going to have sex with her.

"He was seriously convinced [that she wanted him]," West testified.

TBI special agent Chuck Baker read results in court from a rape kit that had been performed on Johnson's body.

The profile, he said, was consistent with Curtis Watson, and Watson could not be excluded from the male DNA profile.

Watson was on the run for five days before authorities located him about 10 miles away in a bean field.

According to the judge, the charge of felony escape carries a penalty of 1-6 years; especially aggravated burglary, 8-30 years; aggravated sexual battery, 8-30 years; and first degree murder could carry the death penalty, life in prison without parole or life in prison with parole.

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