An Escaped Inmate Had One Target As He Raced Across Prison Grounds

A Tennessee corrections officer was murdered in her home after an inmate trustee escaped the West Tennessee State Penitentiary.

Debra Johnson, pictured here smiling, was working as a corrections officer was murdered in her home after an inmate trustee escaped the West Tennessee State Penitentiary.

A Tennessee corrections officer was murdered in her home after an inmate trustee escaped the West Tennessee State Penitentiary.

Photo by: Tennessee Department of Corrections

Tennessee Department of Corrections

Curtis Ray Watson was considered a violent offender when he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for aggravated kidnapping in 2012. Still, the facts surrounding his case didn’t stop him from being declared a trustee while incarcerated at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary about an hour north of Memphis.

Trustees are inmates who can gain special privileges for good behavior behind bars. For Watson, that meant he had the privilege of being on a mowing crew that gave him access to large mowers and a golf cart to help him travel around the prison grounds.

According to reporting in The Tennessean, Watson was released from his cell around 7 a.m. on Aug. 7, 2019, to begin his mowing duties. Around 8:30 that morning, a corrections officer saw Watson on the golf cart near the home of Debra Johnson, a prison administrator who lived in one of the residences on the prison property.

It soon became evident that something was very, very wrong.

When Johnson didn’t come to work, a colleague went to check on her and found her lying dead on the floor of her home around 11:30 a.m. It appeared she’d been strangled and sexually assaulted. Officers also realized Watson was also missing from the prison grounds.

The tractor that Watson used to mow was found on the side of the road approximately two miles from the prison. His prison identification was found nearby.

The Manhunt

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation worked quickly to alert the public to the escaped inmate. Reports of sightings poured in from across the state and country, but Watson didn’t make it far at all before he was captured.

According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, residents in Henning, Tennessee, spotted Watson on surveillance footage as he took some drinks from their outdoor refrigerator just a few days after the murder. Authorities discovered him in a soybean field on August 11 and took the man into custody without incident.

In 2021, Watson pleaded guilty to Debra’s rape and murder and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Remembering Debra

Debra Johnson was a 38-year veteran of the Tennessee Department of Correction, and she’d worked her way from correction officer before becoming a warden and then an administrator. In addition to her work with DOC, she was a mother and grandmother.

“Ms. Johnson was an experienced and knowledgeable corrections professional who was

positive and supportive with everyone she encountered. Her fellow employees looked to her as a mentor and role model and nominated her numerous times for recognition of her outstanding contributions to the department. She was a co-worker, mother, sister, and friend and will be missed more than we can express,” said a memorial on the Tennessee DOC website.

A year after her death, the Tennessee Prison for Women was renamed the Debra K. Johnson Rehabilitation Center for Women.

Watson is currently housed at the Morgan County Correctional Complex in Wartburg, Tennessee.

For more on this case, stream See No Evil on discovery+.

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