Authorities in Tennessee offer $52K reward for information on 'extremely dangerous' escaped inmate

Curtis Ray Watson is considered armed and extremely dangerous.

August 9, 2019, 4:32 PM

Authorities have upped the reward for information that leads to the capture of an escaped Tennessee inmate who is considered "extremely dangerous" and a suspect in a homicide case, officials said at a press conference Friday.

The reward for Curtis Watson went from $32,500 to $52,000, Keli McAlister, spokeswoman for Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI), said.

Watson escaped from work detail on Wednesday from the West Tennessee State Penitentiary in Henning, Tennessee, about 50 miles northeast of Memphis, according to the TBI. Watson, 44, fled the area on a tractor, which was later found about a mile from the facility, officials said.

He was originally considered a person of interest in the homicide of Debra Johnson, 64, but is now a suspect after the state's Violent Crime Response team concluded their investigation at the crime scene, David Rausch, director of the TBI, said at a press conference Thursday.

PHOTO: Debra Johnson, 64, was found dead inside her home on Wednesday morning, officials said.
Debra Johnson, 64, was found dead inside her home on Wednesday morning, officials said.
Tennessee Department of Corrections

The TBI has secured warrants for Watson on charges of first-degree murder, especially aggravated burglary and aggravated sexual battery.

Johnson, who was the West Tennessee administrator for the Department of Corrections, was killed early Wednesday inside her home, which is located on the prison grounds. She was found with a cord wrapped around her neck, according to an affidavit. The Medical Examiner's Office later concluded that Johnson died from strangulation and that she been sexually assaulted during the attack, according to the affidavit.

Johnson was employed with the state for the last 38 years.

The facility was placed on lock down after Johnson's body was found, and authorities soon realized Watson had escaped, police said.

"He could be anywhere," Rausch said. "We need Tennesseans, as well as our partners throughout bordering states to be vigilant about this."

PHOTO: West Tennessee State Penitentiary
West Tennessee State Penitentiary
Tennessee Department of Corrections

It was not immediately clear what contact Watson and Johnson had, but one official said it was "not uncommon for her to know the inmates who work on the property."

"She was very well regarded with staff and inmate population," Tony Parker, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Corrections, said at the press conference Thursday.

Officials warned residents not to approach Watson. Instead, they should call local authorities.

"We need Tennesseans to be vigilant," Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said at the press conference. "We need folks in this state and, in particular the region where the crime occurred, to report any and all information to local law enforcement."

PHOTO: Curtis Ray Watson is seen in this undated booking photo.
Curtis Ray Watson is seen in this undated booking photo.
Tennessee Bureau of Investigation via AP

Lee authorized $25,000 for the reward, while the TBI issued $2,500 and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives added $5,000 to the fund. It was not immediately clear where the extra $20,000 came from.

"Rest assured that we will find this offender and bring justice to the family of Debra Johnson," Parker had previously said.

Over the course of her "distinguished" career, Johnson served in numerous positions including correctional sergeant, deputy warden, warden and correctional administrator, overseeing all prisons in the western region of the state, officials said.

ABC News' Matt Foster contributed to this report.