North Carolina

Inmate escapes on tractor after killing official at Tennessee prison, authorities say

Tennessee Department of Corrections

A manhunt is underway in Tennessee, where officials say a prison inmate escaped on a tractor after killing a corrections official in her home.

Curtis Ray Watson, who is serving a 15-year-sentence for aggravated kidnapping, was discovered missing Wednesday morning from the West Tennessee State Penitentiary, officials said.

Debra Johnson, 64, an administrator with the Tennessee Department of Corrections, was found dead in her home on prison grounds, according to state officials.

“Rest assured, we will find this offender and bring just to the family of Debra Johnson,” TDOC Commissioner Tony Parker said in a statement online.

Watson has been added to the Tennessee State Bureau of Investigation’s most wanted list and is considered “extremely dangerous,” according to officials.

TBI has also issued a Blue Alert for Watson — only the third one in the history of the program, which started in 2011, it said. Blue alerts are used on searches for potentially “violent criminals who kill or seriously injure law enforcement officers in the line of duty.”

Officials found Johnson dead around 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, and officials suspect foul play, Parker said. Johnson was a 38-year veteran employee of the state of Tennessee, TBI said.

Following a lockdown, Watson was reportedly discovered missing from his work detail and a manhunt ensued.

CNN reports Watson worked on a farm detail and may have escaped on a tractor that was recovered near the prison facility.

The prison is located roughly 60 miles northeast of Memphis, Tennessee. Authorities have scoured the “acres and acres of farm fields and woods surrounding the prison” looking for the inmate, WMC reports, but torrential rain made it difficult.

The Department of Corrections has tweeted images of Watson and his tattoos, including varying mugshots “in case he altered the appearance of his facial hair” since the escape.

Watson is 5-foot-11 and 140 pounds with brown eyes and potentially a long gray beard, officials said.

He started his sentence in 2013 and was expected to be released in 2025, according to TBI. Watson also has a previous conviction for aggravated child abuse that expired in 2011.

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Hayley is a Real Time reporter at The Charlotte Observer covering breaking news and trending stories in the Carolinas. She also created the Observer’s unofficial bird beat (est. 2015) with a summer full of ornithological-related content, including a story about Barred Owls in love.