Reward $52,500 as search continues for escaped West Tennessee convict wanted for killing prison administrator


LAUDERDALE CO., Tenn. ( – A massive manhunt continued Thursday for an escaped inmate in West Tennessee, accused of killing a correctional administrator.

Hundreds of boots were on the ground, helicopters in the sky, and dozens of law enforcement agencies used every resource they had to try to find Curtis Watson. Authorities say Watson escaped Wednesday from the West Tennessee State Penitentiary and killed 64-year-old Debra Johnson. 

“I was scared. We got the guns out and everybody is getting the guns out because that’s all we can do, we have to protect ourselves,” said Convenient store employee, Teresa Lyles. 

People who live near the prison in Henning, Tennessee, and surrounding counties are still on high alert. Everywhere you turn, you see images of Curtis Watson.

“It’s on the doors, it’s on every store, every store in Lauderdale county, Tipton County, and Haywood County,” Lyles stressed.

During a TBI news conference Thursday, investigators say they’ve received dozens of tips about possible sightings of Watson across the state, but none have led to his capture. 

“If you sight this individual, do not approach him. He is extremely dangerous,” said TBI Director, David Rausch. 

TBI released photos of Watson and what he was last seen wearing. Investigators say he sexually assaulted and then killed corrections administrator Debra Johnson in her home on prison grounds. Authorities say he then used a prison work detail tractor to escape. 

“We have lost a dedicated worker, but they have lost a family member and it’s tragic,” said Tennessee Governor Bill Lee.

Watson was serving a 15-year sentence for especially aggravated kidnapping. Thursday, TBI released additional warrants of first degree murder and aggravated sexual battery. 

“Everybody needs to be cautious, because this guy doesn’t have a value of life anymore. Keep your doors locked and if you have a pistol you might want to keep it by your side,” said Ripley, Tennessee, resident William Hardee.

A $52,500 reward remains in place for any information that leads to the arrest of Curtis Watson.  If you spot Watson, call 911 immediately.

HENNING, Tenn. ( – On the ground and in the air, the manhunt for a dangerous escaped convict is intensifying and those in west Tennessee are on high alert.

Curtis Ray Watson escaped Wednesday from the West Tennessee State Penitentiary. That’s about 60 miles north of Memphis.

The reward in the case is now at $52,500 dollars.

Authorities believe Watson killed longtime corrections worker, 64-year-old Debra Johnson during the escape. The TBI said it has secured warrants for Watson on charges of first degree murder, especially aggravated burglary, and aggravated sexual battery.

Watson is described as extremely dangerous and there are several checkpoints set up in a miles-long radius around that prison. Authorities are urging those in Henning and across west Tennessee to check their properties for anything out of place.

“We will not rest until this offender is brought to justice,” TDOC Commissioner Tony Parker said.

The search continues with all hands-on deck.

“We will remain there until he is apprehended, or we have assurance he is not in that area,” TN Department of Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Jeff Long.

Debra Johnson (Courtesy WKRN)

Wednesday, Watson took off from the prison, after investigators said he killed administrator and longtime corrections worker Debra Johnson.

“Debra was just an outstanding professional, she was a true corrections professional in every way,” Parker said.

Thursday afternoon, authorities said they’ve received more than 75 tips about Watson’s potential whereabouts, but so far, no credible sightings.

“The ones that we feel are the most credible, we are checking those first, and then we are working from that,” TBI Director David Rausch said.

As investigators search for Watson from the air and on the ground, they offered advice for those who live near the prison.

“We are asking you to check your property, for things which may be out of place,” Rausch said.

Those who work just off the prison property are optimistic about Watson’s arrest, while they grieve the loss of a regular customer.

“He will be caught,” Dawn Blackwelder said. “He will be found. Hopefully sooner than later, but the most important thing is somebody tragically died yesterday and that is truly, truly sad.”

Corrections leaders said Thursday that Watson, with a lengthy rap sheet including aggravated kidnapping and aggravated assault, did qualify to be at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary, a minimum-security prison.

If you spot Watson, do not approach him. Call 911 or 1-800-TBI-FIND.

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