Prison employee was sexually assaulted, strangled before inmate escaped, affidavit says

The search for escaped Tennessee inmate continues

LAUDERDALE COUNTY, Tenn. (WMC) - New details from a police affidavit reveal a Tennessee prison employee was sexually assaulted and strangled before she was killed.

The search is ongoing for escaped inmate Curtis Ray Watson. He is suspected of killing a prison administrator, Debra Johnson, in her home on prison grounds Wednesday.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation now has warrants for Watson for first-degree murder, especially aggravated burglary and aggravated sexual battery in connection with Johnson’s death.

Debra Johnson (Source: Tennessee DOC)
Debra Johnson (Source: Tennessee DOC)

According to the affidavit, correctional officers saw Watson on a golf cart at Johnson’s house at 8:30 a.m. Watson was working as a trusty at the prison at the time and was released from the prison on work detail at 7 a.m. for his duties as a mower.

Investigators said Watson stole a tractor and a reflective vest from the prison and drove away sometime between 9 and 10 a.m.

Still no signed of escaped Tenn. inmate

Prison officials realized Watson was missing at 11 a.m. Johnson’s body was discovered at 11:30 when coworkers noticed she had not reported to work. According to the affidavit, a cord was found wrapped around Johnson’s neck and it was determined she was strangled to death. Investigators also found evidence that she had been sexually assaulted. The reflective vest was found inside Johnson’s home.

The tractor Watson is accused of stealing was found at 1:30 p.m., about two miles from the prison. Police also found Watson’s prison identification card.

TBI and TDOC gave a brief update on the search from the prison Friday afternoon. So far, investigators have received more than 200 tips of possible sightings but none have been confirmed.

TBI, DOC update search for Curtis Watson

The Tennessee Department of Correction and Tennessee Highway Patrol escorted Johnson’s body to Smith Brothers Funeral Home in Nashville on Friday. Funeral arrangements remain incomplete at this time.

TDOC, THP escorting the body of Debra Johnson to funeral home in Nashville

Johnson leaves behind three children and seven grandchildren.

“My mother is awesome. To say ‘was’ is not adequate because everything she meant to us is still here,” said Shernaye Johnson, daughter.

Debra Johnson was a Nashville native and went back to see family in middle Tennessee on the weekends. She had moved to Lauderdale County to take the prison administrator job a few years ago.

“She was so passionate about making sure that these inmates had an opportunity beyond getting out to be their best,” said Mychal Austin, son.

Her children say corrections work was all she had ever done and that the woman who was bold and direct had a kind and compassionate side, making her respected by colleagues and even inmates.

“Her life’s work was in the department of corrections and that’s not lost, even though she is,” said Austin.

Johnson’s children said this is what they want Curtis Ray Watson to know:

“Just turn yourself in. You’re not going to get away with this, you will be found. We forgive you. At the end of the day, my mama was a person who forgave and believed in second chances,” said Austin.

There is a $52,500 reward offered for any information leading to Watson’s arrest.

If you see Watson, call 911 and don’t approach him. If you have a tip on where he may be headed, contact local law enforcement.

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