Tennessee authorities are on high alert after a convicted felon escaped from prison and allegedly killed a top corrections official to make it happen, police say.
Now they’ve launched a massive statewide search to find the escapee.
Curtis Ray Watson is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence at West Tennessee State Penitentiary for aggravated kidnapping. Police said at the time that Watson knocked a woman over the head with an object and raped her multiple times.
Corrections officials say that they discovered that Watson was missing on Wednesday morning after officials discovered the dead body of Debra Johnson, a top official in the Tennessee Department of Corrections.
Upon finding Johnson deceased inside her residence on the prison campus with clues that indicated she was the victim of foul play, the staff immediately put the facility on lockdown and conducted a check of inmates, eventually noticing that Watson was gone.
A tractor that was supposedly used in the escape was found approximately a mile away from the facility. Officials said that Watson worked on farm detail, and likely used that as a means for his escape.
The Tennessee Department of Corrections confirmed that Johnson was the correctional administrator for TDOC facilities in West Tennessee.
“Today we lost a very beloved and respected member of our TDOC family,” the Tennessee Department of Corrections wrote in a statement. “We are extremely saddened by this tragic loss and committed to working with our law enforcement in bringing the person responsible to justice.”
Johnson reportedly oversaw the wardens of regional prisons and reported to the assistant commissioner of the agency.
“She led a distinguished career over 38 years of service to the people of this great state,” TDOC commissioner Tony Parker said Wednesday.
Officials say they will work tirelessly to bring Watson to justice.
“Rest assured that we will find this offender and bring justice to the family of Debra Johnson,” Commissioner Parker 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.”
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A blue alert has been issued by state officials, which is signaled when a member of law enforcement is killed or has sustained life-threatening injuries. This is only the third time the state has used the alert since its inception in 2011.
Reports described Watson, 44, as 5-feet-11 and 140 pounds. A photo on a wanted poster shows him with a bald head and mostly white beard that extends down his chin.
UPDATE: In addition to the search for Watson, TBI Agents are also investigating the homicide of the TDOC employee, at the request of 25th District Attorney General Mark Davidson. We have a team of Forensic Scientists responding to the scene and will provide updates when we can. pic.twitter.com/KDLw3CZdKH
— TBI (@TBInvestigation) August 7, 2019
Anyone with information that can help lead to the capture and arrest of Watson is being urged to contact 911 or 1-800-TBI-FIND. Watson is considered extremely dangerous.
“This is a serious situation and we ask the public to stay vigilant, to stay aware,” TBI Director David Rausch said. “We need to get this dangerous individual into custody.”
Watson was previously was incarcerated for aggravated child abuse and was released in 2011, but returned to prison in 2013. Officials say that in his recent stint, he had very few disciplinary issues while inside.