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Tennessee inmate indicted in death of prisons administrator

Adrian Sainz
Associated Press

Memphis, Tenn. – A Tennessee inmate accused of killing a corrections administrator and escaping prison on a tractor has been indicted on charges including premeditated murder and rape.

The indictment obtained by The Associated Press on Tuesday charges Curtis Ray Watson on 15 counts in the Aug. 7 killing of Tennessee Department of Corrections Administrator Debra Johnson.

Watson, 44, was on regular lawn care duties at West Tennessee State Penitentiary near Henning when he sexually assaulted and killed corrections administrator Debra Johnson, 64, at her home on the prison grounds that morning, authorities said.

Curtis Watson is escorted into a preliminary hearing Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, in Ripley, Tenn. Watson is charged with murdering Tennessee Department of Correction department administrator Debra Johnson after he escaped from the West Tennessee State Penitentiary in August.

Watson escaped on a tractor, which was left in a cotton field about 2 miles (3 kilometers) from the prison, authorities said. Watson was found four days later after an intense manhunt.

Watson, a two-time felon, has not entered a plea in the case. Prosecutors are considering seeking the death penalty, Lauderdale County district attorney Mark Davidson has said.

Watson’s attorney, David Stockton, said an arraignment will be set in the case.

Johnson had been a state employee for 38 years and oversaw wardens at several area prisons

This photo provided by The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation shows Curtis Ray Watson.

Watson has been serving a 15-year sentence for especially aggravated kidnapping. He also had been previously convicted of aggravated child abuse.

Watson had access to a tractor and a golf cart as a “trusty” – an inmate granted special privileges as a trustworthy person, authorities said.

Watson also is charged with felony murder, aggravated burglary, escape, theft and kidnapping. During his four days on the run in rural West Tennessee, Watson stole items from two homes, including camouflage clothing, binoculars, a compass, two knives, a saw and food, the indictment said.

Prison officers testified in previous court hearings that they briefly could not locate Watson during the morning of his escape. They found Watson’s golf cart at Johnson’s house at about 8:30 a.m., but Watson was not found until about a half-hour later as he was riding the cart, prison officers said.

Phone records show Johnson was talking on the phone at 8:10 a.m., about 20 minutes before prison officers saw the golf cart at her house, according to an affidavit. When Johnson didn’t show up for work, co-workers discovered her body at her home at 11:30 a.m., according to an affidavit.