Henning, TN – Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) Correctional Administrator Debra Johnson was murdered in line of duty by an inmate on Aug. 7.
The 64-year-old administrator’s accused killer, convicted felon Curtis Ray Watson, was a prison trustee, which allowed him to have special privileges due to his “good behavior,” The Washington Post reported.
Watson turned 44 years old on Aug. 7, and was released from his cell at 7 a.m. to go mow lawns around the prison facility as part of his work detail.
At approximately 11 a.m., prison officials noticed that a tractor and Watson were both nowhere to be found, according to The Washington Post.
Watson had last been seen driving a golf cart outside Administrator Johnson’s home, which was located on the prison grounds.
The 38-year TDOC veteran never showed up for work that morning.
When prison officials went to check on the administrator, they discovered that she had been strangled to death with a cord, and that her attacker had sexually assaulted her, The Washington Post reported.
Hours later, investigators found the abandoned tractor approximately two miles from the prison facility.
Watson’s prison identification card was also recovered in the same area, prompting a massive five-day search for the escaped inmate.
On Sunday, Watson was apprehended in a soybean field in Henning, approximately 11 miles away from the state prison, The Washington Post reported.
He has been charged with aggravated sexual battery, first-degree murder, escape, and especially aggravated burglary.
Prosecutors are also considering pursuing the death penalty, according to The Washington Post.
Watson was convicted of especially aggravated kidnapping in 2013, and was serving a 15-year sentence at the time of his escape, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) said in a press release.
He also has a prior conviction for aggravated child abuse. That sentence expired in 2011.
Administrator Johnson joined TDOC as a correctional officer in January of 1981, the TBI said.
She led a “distinguished career” during the nearly four decades that followed, TDOC Commissioner Tony Parker said in the press release.
According to Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, Administrator Johnson went on to serve as a sergeant, deputy warden, and warden before she took on the position overseeing the West Region of Tennessee’s Correctional administration.
She leaves behind her mother, daughter, sons, and many other friends and family members, the governor said.
Administrator Johnson’s son, Mychal Austin, said that his mother was a firm believer in second chances, and that she was also deeply religious, The Washington Post reported.
“The inmates would call her ‘first lady’ on the compound,” Austin said. “People would start to straighten up because she was so fair and delivered every promise she made to them. She did turn the prison around.”
During her 38 years with the TDOC, Administrator Johnson also received numerous letters of commendation from commissioners, colleagues, supervisors, and elected officials, according to a fundraising campaign established in her honor.
“Ms. Johnson was an experienced and knowledgeable corrections professional who was positive and supportive of everyone she encountered,” the page read. “Her fellow employees looked to her as a mentor and role model and nominated her numerous times for recognition of her outstanding contributions to the department.”
Administrator Johnson’s daughter, Dr. Shernaye Johnson, said that her mother “embodied the spirit of excellence,” WTVF reported.
"She was a public servant, she was loving, she was an awesome mom and not just to us, but everyone that she contacted,” Shernaye said. “She was that mother spirit.”
The family said they are devastated over the loss of their matriarch.
"He tore our family apart, it hurts and it's traumatic, it's gut-wrenching and it's the saddest day of our lives,” her son, Stanley Johnson, told WTVF. “He tore our family apart with this one.”
Despite their grief, the family said they know Administrator Johnson wouldn’t want them to live with anger and bitterness.
"We as a family, and my mother, we are a family of forgiveness,” Austin explained. “Our mother would want to forgive him, so we've really just been concentrated on each other."
Administrator Johnson was be laid to rest on Friday, according to WTVF.
Our thoughts and prayers are with the family of Tennessee Department of Correction Correctional Administrator Debra Johnson, both blood and blue. Thank you for your service.
Rest easy, hero. We’ll hold the line from here.