Prison official found dead at her home hours after escaped inmate was there

HENNING, Tenn. — An inmate who escaped from a Tennessee prison while on mowing work detail was at the home of a corrections official three hours before her body was discovered, investigators said.

A manhunt is underway for Curtis Ray Watson, who escaped Wednesday from West Tennessee State Penitentiary in Henning, and is considered extremely dangerous.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has said he’s a suspect in the death of Debra Johnson, a longtime corrections official who was found dead in her home on the prison grounds.

Johnson’s co-workers discovered her body about 11:30 a.m. Wednesday after she didn’t report to work. Hours earlier, at 8:30 a.m., corrections officers saw Watson on a facility golf cart at her home, the TBI said Friday.

Authorities believe Johnson, 64, was killed and Watson is a suspect in her death.

250 tips and zero credible sightings

Watson was serving a 15-year sentence for aggravated kidnapping. He was discovered missing about 11 a.m. Wednesday, when officials conducted a check of inmates.

He fled the area in a tractor, which was found just over a mile from the crime scene, along with his prison identification.

The TBI said it has received 250 tips and zero credible sightings of him, and is offering a reward of $52,500. It’s warned people in the immediate prison area to be on the lookout and double-check their property, crawl spaces and dog houses — anywhere someone could hide. Those with trail or property surveillance cameras should check those too, officials said.

“He could be anywhere,” TBI Director David Rausch said.

The TBI added Watson to its Most Wanted list. It tweeted pictures of his tattoos and his face, and additional mug shots in case he changed the appearance of his facial hair after his escape.

“Rest assured that we will find this offender and bring justice to the family of Debra Johnson,” Commissioner Tony Parker of the Tennessee Department of Correction 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.”

Investigators issue a blue alert

Tennessee officials have issued a blue alert — only the third since the designation’s inception in 2011. It’s done when a law enforcement officer is killed, sustains life-threatening injuries or is missing.

The West Tennessee State Penitentiary is in Henning, about 45 miles northeast of Memphis.

This is Watson’s second prison stint. He previously was in prison for aggravated child abuse and was released in 2011. He returned to prison in 2013.

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