LAUDERDALE County, Tenn. (WMC) - WMC Action News 5 is piecing together a new timeline into the escape of inmate Curtis Ray Watson, who’s charged in the murder of TDOC prison administrator Debra Johnson. Earlier this week, a Lauderdale County judge found probable cause to send the case to a grand jury after hours of testimony during a preliminary hearing.
That testimony in court revealed that Watson exhibited unusual behavior the morning of August 7, the day he escaped, disappearing for a short amount of time. A correctional officer knocked on Debra Johnson’s door and got no response, but her body wouldn’t be found until hours later.
Staffers at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary say Watson, a trusty and mechanic at the lawnmower shop, had freedom to move around on the property unsupervised. But on August 7th, his behavior was strange to them, as he disappeared without telling anyone where he was going.
“It was out of the ordinary to me,” said Kenneth Edwards, a correctional officer.
Edwards testified he saw a cart parked at the back of Debra Johnson’s home on the grounds around 8:45 that morning. His supervisor, Corporal David Shelton, had already called asking if he had seen Watson.
Edwards went to Johnson’s home and even knocked on the door. Phone records show Debra Johnson was alive and talking on the phone at 8:10 a.m.
“I went up the steps. I checked the back screen door. It was locked. I went around front. The front door was locked. I knocked on the door, didn’t hear nothing. Nobody came to the door,” he said.
Shelton testified he called a lieutenant to tell him about Watson’s disappearance. But Shelton said he then ran into Watson on the cart on an access road, offering an explanation for why he was at Johnson’s house. Watson was holding a paper bag and said he’d been picking up parts.
“I asked why the cart was back there. He said he’d been checking on a mower he was doing some work on,” said Shelton.
Shelton followed Watson back to the lawnmower shop, where investigators said he later got on a tractor and drove off. The prison went on lockdown when Watson didn’t show up for a 10:30 count.
Debra Johnson’s body was discovered around 11:30 that morning. Prosecutors said she’d been sexually assaulted and strangled with a cell phone cord. TBI agents later discovered a pair of boxer underwear in the trashcan in Watson’s work area in the lawnmower shop, according to testimony in court.
Wednesday’s hearing also included emotional testimony from the first prison staffers to find Debra Johnson dead inside her home.
WMC Action News 5 has continued to ask the Tennessee Department of Correction if an internal investigation is underway and if proper policies and procedure were followed. A spokesperson provided a response to our inquiry Thursday.
We are unable to speak about specifics of the case while the legal proceedings are pending. After any major incident, we conduct a review of our policies and procedures to ensure we are being accountable to the public and to the General Assembly. The Tennessee Department of Correction is committed to the safety and security of our staff and inmates. We also understand that there is an element of risk associated with corrections and the face of evil is sometimes hard to recognize. While people can give you indications that all is good, it is difficult to predict human behavior.
We remain devastated by the loss of our beloved colleague, Correctional Administrator Debra Johnson. We ask everyone to join us in keeping Ms. Johnson’s family and all families who have lost loved ones to homicide in your prayers, especially during this holiday season.
Testimony in court also revealed there were no security cameras pointed toward Debra Johnson’s house. She was a 38-year state employee.
It’s expected Watson’s case will be presented to a Lauderdale County grand jury in February, and prosecutors could seek the death penalty.