An inmate in a Tennessee prison has escaped on the same day that the body of a corrections officer was found on the premises.
Curtis Ray Watson is a person of interest in the death of Debra Johnson, News Channel 3 reported Wednesday. The 44-year-old was imprisoned on a kidnapping conviction and rode off on a tractor from the West Tennessee State Penitentiary on August 7. Now, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is looking into the incident after Johnson, 64, was found dead in her home on prison grounds that morning.
Watson was discovered missing after the prison went on lockdown following the discovery of the body of Johnson, who was an administrator for the Department of Correction and had been employed by the state for 38 years.
With helicopters and search dogs roaming Lauderdale County, a Blue Alert has been issued, meaning Watson is a “violent criminal who [can] kill or seriously injure law enforcement officers in the line of duty. ” A manhunt has since been underway for Watson, who was considered a minimum custody offender and did labor work at the prison. He fled from the penitentiary on a tractor, which was located a mile-and-a-half away.
No further details on Watson allegedly killing Johnson have been disclosed.
By Thursday, the TBI said there had been no confirmed sightings of Watson, despite reports from around the state. At a press conference that day, Governor Bill Lee announced a $25,000 reward for information that can lead to Watson’s arrest.
“I just want to express deep sorrow, heartfelt condolences to the family of Debra Johnson,” Lee told reporters Aug. 8. “To her mother, her daughter, her sons. To her brother, to her sisters. We in the state of Tennessee and Tennesseans lost a dedicated worker but they’ve lost a family member. Debra Johnson was a dedicated public servant to the people of Tennesee …. she served as a sergeant, deputy warden, warden and most recently in charge of the west region of Tennesee’s correctional administrator. … We will certainly be praying for her family.”
Additionally, WZTV reported The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has offered a $5,000 reward while the TBI posted an award of $2,500.
The TBI warned that Watson is “considered extremely dangerous” and authorities said Thursday he “could be anywhere” at this point. The public has been warned not to approach him if he’s found.
The state agency has also released several images of the escaped inmate, including pictures of his distinctive tattoos and mugshots from prior incarcerations with the Tennessee Department of Correction in case his appearance had been altered since bolting from prison.
Watson, who has family in middle Tennessee, was serving a 15-year sentence for an especially aggravated kidnapping conviction in 2013. That sentence was set to expire in 2025. Additionally, Watson has previously been convicted of child abuse.