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Affidavit: Inmate assaulted, strangled prison worker

August 9, 2019
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This undated photo provided by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation shows Curtis Ray Watson. Authorities in Tennessee are searching for Watson, an escaped inmate who is a person of interest in the recent homicide of a Department of Correction employee, after he escaped Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2019, from the West Tennessee State Penitentiary, about 60 miles (97 kilometers) outside of Memphis. (Tennessee Bureau of Investigation via AP)
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This undated photo provided by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation shows Curtis Ray Watson. Authorities in Tennessee are searching for Watson, an escaped inmate who is a person of interest in the recent homicide of a Department of Correction employee, after he escaped Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2019, from the West Tennessee State Penitentiary, about 60 miles (97 kilometers) outside of Memphis. (Tennessee Bureau of Investigation via AP)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee convict on lawn mowing duty sexually assaulted and strangled a female corrections administrator before escaping prison grounds on a tractor, authorities said.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said Friday it has received 250 tips but there have been no credible sightings of Curtis Ray Watson since he escaped the West Tennessee State Penitentiary two days ago.

Watson was discovered missing about 11 a.m. Wednesday, several hours after he was seen near the house where 64-year-old employee Debra Johnson lived on prison grounds, according to an affidavit from the TBI filed Thursday.

Watson, 44, had been released temporarily for mowing duties at 7 a.m. earlier that day, and had access to a golf cart and a tractor. As a “trusty” at the prison, he was allowed to use the equipment and had to wear a reflective vest while working on prison grounds, the affidavit says.

Phone records show Johnson was talking on the phone at 8:10 a.m., just 20 minutes before corrections workers saw Watson in a golf cart at her house, according to the affidavit. He drove away from the prison sometime between 9 and 10 a.m. on a tractor, the affidavit says.

When Johnson didn’t show up for work, co-workers discovered her body at her home at 11:30 a.m., according to the affidavit, which notes that agents found a cord wrapped around Johnson’s neck. The medical examiner declared her death a homicide by strangulation, the affidavit says.

On Thursday, authorities secured arrest warrants for Watson on charges of first-degree murder, especially aggravated burglary and aggravated sexual battery.

According to the affidavit, the tractor was found about a mile (1.6 kilometers) from the prison in Henning, located about 50 miles (80 kilometers) northeast of Memphis.

Authorities continued an intense manhunt for Watson on Friday, setting up roadblocks and searching the farms, fields and woods of West Tennessee. Officials have asked residents who live in the search area to check for missing food, vehicles or weapons.

Authorities are offering a $52,500 reward for information leading to Watson’s capture. TBI Director David Rausch said Thursday that it’s possible Watson left the state, and “he could be anywhere.”

Watson is serving a 15-year sentence after pleading guilty to especially aggravated kidnapping in Henry County. Watson illegally confined his wife while using an aluminum baseball bat in July 2012, court documents showed. His sentence began in 2013 and was set to expire in 2025, officials said.

Watson had previously been convicted of aggravated child abuse in Carroll County. His sentence in that case expired in 2011, officials said.

Johnson, the slain administrator, had been a state employee for 38 years. She oversaw wardens at several area prisons, corrections officials said.

Her son, Mychal Austin, told The Commercial Appeal that Johnson would drive to the Nashville area every Friday to visit her family. He described his mother as “funny, upbeat and positive.”

“The inmates would call her ‘first lady’ on the compound,” he said. “People would start to straighten up because she was so fair and delivered every promise she made to them.”

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Sainz reported from Memphis, Tennessee.

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This story has been edited to clarify that the inmate was on lawn mowing duty at the prison, not out on work release.

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