Manhunt underway for escaped Tennessee inmate suspected in death of corrections worker

Curtis Ray Watson, 44, who is serving a 15-year sentence, was discovered missing from the penitentiary after a corrections administrator was found dead.

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By Phil Helsel

Authorities in Tennessee are searching for an inmate who escaped from prison and is a person of interest in the death of a corrections employee who was found dead at her residence on the penitentiary grounds.

Curtis Ray Watson, 44, who is serving a 15-year prison sentence for aggravated kidnapping, was found missing from a work detail Wednesday after administrator Debra Johnson, 64, was discovered dead around 11:30 a.m., officials said.

Watson is thought to have escaped the grounds of the West Tennessee State Penitentiary in Henning, which is in the western part of the state around 40 miles north of Memphis.

He is believed to have left the area on a tractor, which was found about a mile or a mile and a half away, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director David Rausch said at a news conference Wednesday.

The bureau, known as the TBI, issued a "blue alert," which signifies that authorities are seeking a violent criminal or criminals suspected of killing or injuring law enforcement officers.

"There were indications in her residence that foul play was involved," Tennessee Department of Correction Commissioner Tony Parker said about Johnson's death.

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After Johnson was discovered dead, the prison was immediately locked down and an inmate count was completed and Watson was discovered missing, Parker said, noting the disappearance immediately set off a manhunt.

"Rest assured that we will find this offender and bring justice to the family of Debra Johnson," Parker said.

The TBI tweeted late Wednesday that efforts to find Watson were ongoing with agents on the ground and in the air.

Authorities were searching farm fields and woods surrounding the penitentiary and were stopping and checking cars, as well as knocking on the doors of nearby properties, NBC affiliate WMC of Memphis reported.

Johnson started her career with the department in 1981 as a corrections officer and led a distinguished career that spanned 38 years, Parker said.

There are about a dozen properties on the site of the penitentiary for staff to live in, and Johnson lived in one.

The circumstances of the escape and the homicide are under investigation, officials said. They did not release how Johnson was killed.

Parker said the department is not aware of any specific contact between Watson and Johnson, but he acknowledged that with as many years as she's had in the department, she might have known him. Her main role was supervising the facilities and wardens in the west region, he said.

"Debra is known as a very dedicated professional correctional employee — respected both by the offender population and the people who work for our department," Parker said.

Watson was sentenced in 2013 in a case in which police said he knocked a woman over the head with an object and raped her multiple times, The Associated Press reported.

"If you spot Curtis Watson, do not approach him. Call 911. He is to be considered dangerous," Rausch said.

"Let me reiterate: this is a serious situation and we ask the public to stay vigilant, to stay aware," he said. "We need to get this dangerous individual into custody."