Day 3 of search for inmate yields new details on escape as victim’s family questions why she was killed


HENNING, Tenn. ( – Authorities are working around the clock, but so far, coming up empty in day three of the search for an accused murderer and prison escapee in West Tennessee.

Wednesday, 44-year-old Curtis Ray Watson escaped the West Tennessee State Penitentiary, about 60 miles north of Memphis.

Investigators said Watson strangled prison administrator Debra Johnson and took off. The reward for Watson’s capture and conviction is more than $52,000.

Friday, Local 24 News learned new details about Watson’s search and Johnson’s murder, and more about Johnson’s life as a mother and coworker.

New help also came in Friday from Memphis and Collierville Police, as the regional manhunt intensified for the wanted fugitive and killer.

“At this time there have been no credible sightings,” Keli McAlister with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said.

Friday, an affidavit provided new clues of how Watson escaped Wednesday from the West Tennessee State Penitentiary. Authorities said he took a tractor and reflective, drove it to the home of administrator Debra Johnson, sexually assaulted and strangled her and took off.

“The Department of Correction, TBI, Department of Safety, and our local law enforcement partners will not quit until we find this individual. We are working around the clock to bring justice to Ms. Johnson’s family,” Tylee Tracer with the Tennessee Department of Correction said.

Late Friday afternoon, authorities offered a warning to those living near the prison, should Watson’s search carry on through the weekend.

“A lot of people are going to be spending more time outside. We want you to keep your eyes open, know what’s going on in your neighborhood,” McAlister said.

Debra Johnson (Courtesy WKRN)

While law enforcement relentlessly looks for Watson in West Tennessee, in Middle Tennessee, where Debra Johnson grew up and once worked, her children remain shocked and devastated.

“We know how she was, so we don’t understand, or I don’t understand at least, you know, why, because she would have given him anything,” Johnson’s daughter Dr. Shernaye Johnson said.

The 64-year-old spent 38 years in corrections work, garnering respect from coworkers and inmates alike and leaving a lasting impression for those who worked with her at the Tennessee Prison for Women.

“She inspired many people around here, she was uplifting, she gave us that encouragement,” Sybil Pruitt said.

If you spot Watson, do not approach, and call 911 or 1-800-TBI-FIND immediately.

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