The children of a murdered TDOC employee are speaking about who their mother was and the impact she left on the community.

They shared some memories with News4 on Thursday.

Debra Johnson called two of her children graduating at the same time from Trevecca University in Nashville the best day of her life.

"Everything that she meant to us is still here. Everything that she valued is still here," Dr. Shernaye Johnson, her daughter said.

Johnson had a passion for inmates bettering themselves. That's why she spent 38 years at the Tennessee Department of Correction.

She made her way up the ranks from correctional officer to correctional administrator for West Tennessee.

"It was always a story. It was literally always a story. She loved the TDOC. She loved the inmates. She loved her coworkers. It was always a story," Johnson said.

Now her smile and warm hugs are memories to her family.

The TBI said Curtis Watson killed Johnson and escaped from the West Tennessee State Penitentiary.

After not showing up for a meeting with the warden, Johnson was found dead at her home on prison grounds.

"We're still processing. It won't happen overnight. It may not happen in a couple of months, but we're still processing day by day," Johnson said.

Johnson's daughter and son told News4 she never brought up Watson. They're now urging the inmate to turn himself in.

"You're not going to get away with this. You will be found," Mychal Austin, her son said.

As the family waits for Watson to be caught, they're willing to forgive him. They said that's what Johnson would have wanted.

"At the end of the day, my momma was a person who forgave and believed in second chances," Austin said.

It's a lesson Johnson's children plan to carry on as they honor her life and legacy.

"Although she's gone, she's touched thousands of lives and because of that, that'll be the most comforting thing we do have," Austin said.

Family members told News4 the support from the community has been incredible. They said Governor Bill Lee and TDOC Commissioner Tony Parker reached out directly to them.

Johnson leaves behind three children and seven grandchildren. 

The family is still in the process of finalizing funeral arrangements. is now with you on the go! Get the latest news updates and video, 4WARN weather forecast, weather radar, special investigative reports, sports headlines and much more from News4 Nashville.

>> Click/tap here to download our free mobile app. <<

Copyright 2019 WSMV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.


A graduate of the University of Florida, Cameron joined News4 in December 2018.

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.