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Tennessee Prisoner Captured After Killing Prison Employee, Escaping

by David M. Reutter

After five days of searching, authorities apprehended escaped Tennessee prisoner Curtis Ray Watson. He was then sent to the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville.

Watson was serving a 15-year sentence for especially aggravated kidnapping, and had a 2025 release date. He was considered a low-level security risk and was given gate privileges, which allowed him to cut grass on grounds surrounding the West Tennessee State Penitentiary (WTSP) in Henning. He had access to a golf cart and tractor, and worked at a lawnmower maintenance shop.

On the morning of August 7, 2019, Watson set out to perform his job of cutting grass, and at about 8:30 a.m. he was seen with a golf cart at the home of Tennessee Department of Correction administrator Debra Johnson, located on the prison grounds. Sometime between 9 and 10 a.m., Watson left on a tractor. Prison officials realized he was missing at 11 a.m.

Half an hour later, after she failed to report for work, co-workers discovered Johnson’s body in her home with ligature marks and a cord wrapped around her neck. An autopsy revealed that she had been sexually assaulted and strangled to death. Johnson, 64, had worked for the state prison system for 38 years.

Around 1:30 p.m., the tractor and Watson’s prison identification were located about two miles from WTSP. A manhunt ensued and a $52,500 reward was offered for information leading to his capture. The trail went cold and he remained on the lam for five days, until the early hours of August 11, 2019.

That was when Watson, wearing camouflage pants and carrying a backpack, set off an alarm at a home while raiding an outside refrigerator. The homeowners, Harvey and Ann Taylor, reviewed video from the alarm and recognized Watson; they called the police, and hundreds of law enforcement officers descended on the area for land and air searches.

Just before 11 a.m. that same day, the mosquito- and tick-bitten Watson exited a soybean field about 10 miles from WTSP and surrendered. He looked “relieved to be over with his run,” said David Raush, director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Watson was charged with first-degree murder, especially aggravated burglary, aggravated sexual assault and escape. He has not entered a plea, and prosecutors say they will seek the death penalty. Another WTSP prisoner who worked with Watson said he seemed convinced that Johnson wanted to have sex with him.

According to a September 25, 2019 news report, Watson’s defense attorneys were awaiting the results of a mental evaluation to determine his competency to stand trial. He was later bound over to the Lauderdale County Grand Jury.

“If for some reason, they found an issue with competency or sanity, then we would discuss internally whether or not we wanted to do another evaluation,” stated district attorney Mark Davidson. 


Sources:, The Tennessean, The New York Times,,,, 

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