curtis ray watson
Curtis Ray Watson appeared in court Thursday, Nov. 20 for a preliminary hearing. He is pictured seated between public defenders Frank Delauriers, in the background, and David Stockton. Photo by Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

RIPLEY – The man accused of raping and murdering a Tennessee Department of Corrections administrator and leading police on a five-day manhunt was in court again Wednesday, the judge binding his case over to circuit court.

Nine witnesses took the stand to corroborate the timeline of events, place him at her house on the West Tennessee State Prison compound and provide a motive for the attack.

It all seemed to start the day, a week or two prior to her death, Watson was chosen to help when Johnson needed air in her tires.


“He came back in and said she wanted to have sex with him and he could have sex with her,” inmate Zachary West, who worked at the lawnmower shop with Watson, said. “He was serious about it. I asked, ‘When did she have time to tell you that? You weren’t out there very long.’”

Aug. 7 – which was Watson’s 44th birthday – started out as any other, the prison’s personnel said.

Correctional officers met inmates at the Minimum Security Complex at 7 a.m. and by 7:15 they were at their assigned jobs.

Watson worked as a mechanic and repaired small engines.

At 8:30 a.m. correctional officers noticed Watson was missing. He was quickly found when the golf cart he drives around the facility was located behind Johnson’s house.

That he was there wasn’t concerning, they said, it was that he didn’t tell anyone he was leaving. He was usually good about doing so.

West and another inmate, Robert “Cotton” Walton, testfied to seeing him over the course of the morning.

Walton saw Watson banging on Johnson’s door. When asked by assistant district attorney general Julie Pillow if they’d acknowledged each other, Walton said they’d “flipped each other off.”

By 9:30, Watson had returned to the lawnmower shop and told West he needed the tractor.

West stopped cleaning the tractor – he’d been preparing for an upcoming inspection – to give it to him. Watson also took West’s vest, which is an item the prison requires the inmates to wear when they’re mowing.

“I could tell he was in a rush, but as far as his physical appearance I didn’t notice anything different,” West said, before talking about the vest. “Didn’t think nothing of it. It’s odd now thinking about it, we all wear vests all the time, pretty much.”

A vest was one of the items later found in Johnson’s bedroom.

Watson was last seen by correctional officers at approximately 10 a.m., just as crews were returning for count and lunch at 10:30. He was driving the tractor and said he had to run to maintenance.

He never returned.

Officers counted inmates everywhere to make sure Watson wasn’t in another area. The prison soon went on lockdown for the next five days.

Johnson is found

Aug. 7 was warden Trinity Minter’s son’s first day of school.

She let Johnson know she’d be in to work a little bit later and sent her photos of him dressed up.

The last text she received from Johnson was at 8:03 a.m.

At approximately 11 a.m. another warden asked Minter if she’d heard from Johnson, who hadn’t participated in a daily conference call.

“It just didn’t seem right,” Minter said, testifying she and two others went to Johnson’s house to check on her.

“I knew when he opened that door that something was wrong,” she said, choking up. “So (another warden) opened the door and he dropped his head. I walked in the house where he was and I could see Debra laying on the bed with her right leg up and her left leg down and I knew at that point that something was really wrong with her.”

Nurses were called over from the prison. Johnson’s clothing had been ripped and cut and a cell phone charging cord had been wrapped around her neck three times.

Her house was in disarray – her clothing was strewn about, her favorite Louis Vuitton purse had been thrown around, her wig was on the floor.

The medical examiner pronounced her dead a short time later.

The manhunt

The Lauderdale County Sheriff’s Office had called the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations who oversaw the homicide investigation and the escaped inmate.

Over the course of the next several days more than two dozen TBI agents as well as personnel from TDOC, TBI, the Tennessee Highway Patrol, US Marshals, ATF, FBI, SWAT teams, National Guard, Lauderdale County deputies, Tipton County deputies, Dyer County deputies, the Memphis Police and Collierville Police helped search for him. He was found on Aug. 11, thanks to a homeowner’s Ring camera.

He has been housed at Riverbend Maximum Security Prison since being captured.

Preliminary testing shows DNA links him to the rape and boot imprints put him in the house. More forensic testing is in progress.

The state, said district attorney general Mark Davidson, said the case is death penalty eligible.

Judge Janice Craig bound the case over the grand jury and denied bond, though public defenders David Stockton and Frank Deslauriers thought it should be set. They argued, despite not being able to be released as he’s still in custody for other offenses, he had a constitutional right to it.

The Lauderdale County grand jury meets on Feb. 3 and Watson is expected to be indicted.

Davidson said Johnson’s family was pleased with the outcome of the hearing.

Echo Day
Author: Echo Day

Echo Day is an award-winning journalist, photographer and designer. She is currently The Leader's managing editor.