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Tenn. Gov: Protocol followed before inmate escaped on tractor

Gov. Bill Lee told reporters Monday his administration wants to examine protocols after the death of Debra Johnson

By Jonathan Mattise
Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee prison officials followed protocol prior to the escape of a convict suspected of killing a Department of Correction employee, but hard questions remain, Gov. Bill Lee said Monday.

Lee said his administration wants to examine department protocols after the slaying of 64-year-old administrator Debra Johnson and the escape of 44-year-old inmate Curtis Ray Watson.

Watson was on mowing duties Aug. 7 when, authorities say, he sexually assaulted and strangled Johnson at her home at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary. Authorities say Watson escaped on a tractor, triggering a dayslong manhunt that ended with the inmate’s weekend surrender.

An affidavit says Watson had access to a tractor and a golf cart as a “trusty” — an inmate granted special privileges as a trustworthy person.

Phone records show Johnson was talking on the phone at 8:10 a.m., just 20 minutes before corrections workers saw Watson in a golf cart at her house, according to the affidavit. He drove away from the prison sometime between 9 and 10 a.m. on a tractor, the affidavit says. He was discovered missing at 11 a.m.

“We understand that protocol was followed and that the rules were followed, but we want to look at the rules,” Lee told reporters. “We want to ask really hard questions.”

Watson is scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday on charges of first-degree murder, aggravated sexual battery, especially aggravated burglary and escape. Lauderdale County District Attorney Mark Davidson said the death penalty will be under consideration.

Johnson, the slain administrator, had been a state employee for 38 years. She oversaw wardens at several area prisons, corrections officials said.

Watson was arrested as he came out of a soybean field in the west Tennessee community of Henning, just 10 miles from the prison, authorities said. He was captured seven hours after homeowners recognized him on their outdoor surveillance camera.

Harvey Taylor said during a news conference Sunday that he and his wife watched as a man looked through their outdoor refrigerator. The video shows a man dressed in camouflage bib overalls and a hat, and carrying a camp backpack.

Taylor and his wife recognized Watson’s long beard. Taylor then retrieved a weapon and “prepared for if he tried to come inside,” he said.

The Taylors then called 911, and officers mobilized.

Taylor said Watson was a few feet from an entrance to his house.

“I was frightened at first,” Taylor said. “When we recognized who it was, it heightened that fright, that fear.”

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said Monday that it is trying to determine how to distribute a $57,000 reward by reviewing details of the arrest and identifying people who immediately contributed to it.

After saying earlier in the search that Watson could have left the state, officials said he was in West Tennessee the entire time. Watson was treated for ticks, mosquito bites and issues with his feet, which were wet for a long time, officials said.

Watson had been serving a 15-year sentence after pleading guilty to especially aggravated kidnapping in Henry County. Watson illegally confined his wife and hit her with an aluminum baseball bat in July 2012, court documents showed. His sentence began in 2013 and was set to expire in 2025, officials said.

Watson had previously been convicted of aggravated child abuse in Carroll County. His sentence in that case expired in 2011, officials said.

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