Family of murdered correctional administrator relieved after arrest of Curtis Ray Watson, vows to look into correctional processes

New questions from Debra Johnson's family

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The family of prison administrator Debra Johnson was preparing for her funeral when they heard the inmate authorities said was responsible for her death was captured Sunday.

Watson is being held in the Tipton County jail in segregation, at the request of the state. Johnson’s family said they are thankful he was captured before her funeral in Nashville this week.

“It gives us added relief that we can really bury our mother knowing the person that harmed her has been apprehended,” said Shernaye Johnson, her daughter.

Loved ones of Debra Johnson said for five days they lived in fear, not knowing where Watson was or even if he would come after them.

“We didn’t know if he took her cell phone. We didn’t know if he knew our addresses. We didn’t know if she was targeted,” said Johnson.

Prosecutors said Watson, a trusty at the prison, strangled Johnson at her home on the grounds and sexually assaulted her. He spent days trying to hide from authorities in the fields and rural terrain around the prison, but was discovered about 11 a.m. on Sunday, after being caught in the early morning hours on home surveillance video in Henning.

“We want to know why. Because my mother was an advocate for inmates,” said Mychal Austin, Johnson’s son, “She was humble in life, but we can’t let you be humble in death, because you were amazing.”

Debra Johnson worked for 38 years in the Tennessee Department of Correction, rising to become a model employee and leader.

Johnson’s family said they want to celebrate her life and bury her this week.

But they have more questions about how Watson could have carried out the act in the first place. As a trusty, he had access to a tractor and a golf cart. The golf cart was seen by correctional officers at Johnson’s home that morning.

“After we bury her, we need to focus on why this occurred, how this occurred, how processes allowed this to occur, and so those are additional answers,” said Johnson.

Monday Tennessee Governor Bill Lee said protocol was followed by prison officials before Watson’s escape, but his administration wants to take a closer look at correction procedures in the wake of her killing.

The Tennessee Department of Correction did not respond Monday to written questions by WMC Action News 5 regarding policies and procedures and if there was an open investigation.

The Tipton County Sheriff’s Office said they have no disciplinary incidents of Watson to report since he was placed into their custody Sunday. He will go back to Lauderdale County Wednesday for his first court appearance.

Funeral arrangements for Debra Johnson are scheduled for Thursday and Friday in Nashville.

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