HENNING, TN (WSMV) - Curtis Ray Watson, who escaped from West Tennessee State Penitentiary and is accused of killing Debra Johnson at her home on prison grounds on Wednesday, Aug. 7, has been captured, according to law enforcement officials.

Watson served as a trusty at the Henning, TN, prison while serving a 15-year sentence for an aggravated kidnapping conviction in Henry County in 2013. His sentence was due to expire in 2025.

Arrest warrants obtained after the escape charge him with first-degree murder, especially aggravated burglary, aggravated sexual assault and felony escape on Thursday after TBI agents found evidence that showed he was in Johnson’s house.

Watson was released to a work detail for daily mowing duties at 7 a.m. on Wednesday. Correctional officers later saw Watson on a golf cart at Johnson’s home at 8:30 a.m. He had access to prison equipment, including a golf cart and tractor, because he was a trusty.

Johnson’s home, located at 10876 Highway 87 West, was one of several owned by the prison near the main grounds.

Johnson was on a phone call on Wednesday at 8:10 a.m., the last time she was known to be alive.

Watson took a tractor from the prison and took a reflective vest from another inmate between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. Prison officials realized Watson was missing around 11 a.m.

Johnson’s co-workers found her dead inside the home after she missed a meeting with the prison warden.

Authorities found the tractor Watson took, vest and his prison identification card about 2 miles from the prison about 1:30 p.m.

At the home, TBI agents discovered a cord wrapped around Johnson’s neck. There were also ligature marks around her neck, leading agents to believe that she had been strangled.

The medical examiner’s office concluded she had died from strangulation. Information also indicated she had been sexually assaulted.

Debra Johnson

Debra Johnson, Correctional Administrator, was killed near the West Tennessee State Penitentiary. Curtis Ray Watson is a person of interest in the death. (Photo: Tennessee Department of Correction)

Johnson, 64, was a 38-year veteran of the Department of Correction. She was the Correctional Administrator for West Tennessee, overseeing the Mark Luttrell Transition Center in Memphis, the Northwest Correctional Complex in Tiptonville, and the West Tennessee State Penitentiary and Women’s Therapeutic Residential Center, both located in Henning.

She began her career as a correctional officer in January 1981. During her career she also served as correctional sergeant, deputy warden, warden and her current position as Correctional Administrator.

The TBI, Tennessee Department of Correction, Tennessee Highway Patrol and local agencies conducted the search for Watson.

The TBI said more than 350 tips had been received by Saturday afternoon, but none had proved to be credible. 

Early Sunday morning the Department of Corrections tweeted a confirmed sighting of Watson, caught on home security camera by a resident in Henning. Later that morning the TBI tweeted the video captured by that camera. 

By 11 a.m. Sunday, they had him in custody. Details of his capture at the time of this writing are not available.

Watson previously had been convicted of aggravated child abuse in Carroll County and served time at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary. He was released from custody after the sentence expired in 2011.

Department of Correction Commissioner Tony Parker said in a press conference in Nashville on Wednesday that Watson had no disciplinary action against him since 2007. Prior to 2007, he was disciplined for not reporting to his assigned duties and classes.

Sunday morning Commissioner Parker tweeted a brief but moving message just for Debra Johnson.

"Rest in Peace C.A. Debra Johnson! Mission Complete!"

This was the third time the TBI issued a Blue Alert in the history of the program, which dates back to 2011. The last time an alert was issued was during the search for Steven Wiggins, who is accused of killing Dickson County Sheriff Sgt. Daniel Baker in Dickson County.

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WSMV Digital Content Producer

A New York City native and a graduate of the Mizzou School of Journalism, Ethan joined the WSMV Digital Team in June 2019. Send him story ideas, food recommendations and sports topics to Ethan.Illers@wsmv.com and follow him on Twiiter @EthanIllers_TV!

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