State troopers search a semi trailer Thursday afternoon at a vehicle checkpoint at Hwy. 51 and Hwy. 87.

NASHVILLE – Thursday the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation announced a total $52,500 reward for information leading to the arrest, apprehension and conviction of fugitive Curtis Ray Watson.

“He could be anywhere,” TBI Director David Rausch said during a news conference Thursday.

Watson, 44, who was a minimum security inmate, escaped from the West Tennessee State Penitentiary Wednesday morning. He is suspected of killing correctional administrator Debra Johnson, a 38-year veteran of the Tennessee Department of Corrections, before leaving the area on a tractor.


Authorities said Johnson was found murdered just before noon in her house on the prison campus. She missed a meeting with the warden that morning.

“We lost a dedicated public servant,” said Governor Bill Lee, as he offered condolences and a promise for justice to her family. “It’s tragic. He is extremely dangerous and we need to find him.”

Correctional administrator Debrah Johnson, 64, was killed Aug. 7 at West Tennessee State Penitentiary during the escape of Curtis Ray Watson.

Johnson, 64, began her career with TDOC in January 1981. She rose through the ranks from being a correctional officer to overseeing four different correctional facilities in West Tennessee. She leaves behind a host of family members, including her mother, daughter and sons.

Thursday evening the TBI announced warrants had been filed for first degree murder, aggravated burglary and aggravated sexual battery.

The TBI has yet to confirm the manner in which she died or the details surrounding her death. Their Violent Crimes Response Team cleared the scene at 4:50 a.m. Thursday.

“That doesn’t mean our agents are done,” said spokesman Josh DeVine.

The tractor was recovered two miles from the prison, which is located in farmland in rural western Lauderdale County.

It isn’t known if Watson had a car waiting or if he is on foot.

“We’re searching all types of buildings,” said Rausch. He encouraged residents to check their vacant buildings, crawlspaces, out buildings and anywhere else to make sure they’re secured. He also asked those with trail and security cameras to check for possible sightings.

TDOC and TBI are searching for 44-year-old Curtis Ray Watson who escaped from the West Tennessee State Penitentiary Wednesday afternoon.

At press time, more than 75 sightings had been reported, however none has been confirmed to be Watson.

Through social media, there was talk Watson had been seen at Covington’s Walmart and Applebee’s, but these reports are unsubstantiated as well.

Jeff Long, the commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, told local residents law enforcement would continue to be present.

“I assure you, we’re not going to leave you until we know your community is safe.”

In Tipton County, director of schools Dr. John Combs said the system would operate “business as usual” with outside time limited until Watson is arrested.

On Hwy. 87 in Henning, the road which leads to the prison, state troopers are checking every vehicle passing through.

Watson is a white male, 5’11”, 180-200 pounds with brown eyes. He was last seen wearing a blue TDOC shirt and jeans. He was currently serving a sentence for aggravating kidnapping, related to a 2012 rape, and was due to be released in May 2025. Watson has has served time for aggravated child abuse among many other offenses.

He is from Henry County and has family ties to Carroll County as well.

“We will not rest until this offender has been brought to justice,” Rausch said.

The search for Watson has reorganized the state’s law enforcement efforts to West Tennessee.

Lee said “as many agencies as possible” will be used to help locate Watson.

“We need you to be vigilant and provide us with information.”

DeVine continued, “You can feel extremely powerless, but search your property, check your crawlspace, your barn, even your doghouse … it may be that one thing.”

The state’s $25,000 reward is being combined with $2,500 from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and $5,000 from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Late Thursday, the FBI and the US Marshals added $10,000 more each.

If you believe you’ve seen Watson, or have anything suspicious to report, call 911 or 1-800-TBI-FIND. He should not be approached.

Echo Day
Author: Echo Day

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