Henning, TN – A manhunt is underway for an escaped inmate accused of murdering a correctional administrator at the Tennessee State Penitentiary.
A statewide Blue Alert has been issued for 44-year-old Curtis Ray Watson, who escaped from the facility using a tractor that was later found abandoned approximately a mile away from the prison, WVLT reported.
Watson is 5 feet, 11 inches tall, weighs 140 pounds, and has brown eyes and a long, gray beard, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) said in a press release.
He has a variety of tattoos across his body.
Watson is considered to be “extremely dangerous,” and the TBI urged anyone with any information to contact 911 immediately.
During a press conference on Thursday afternoon, TBI Director David Rausch announced that his agency is working with the district attorney to obtain warrants for Watson for the offense of homicide.
“He now moves from being a person of interest to a suspect in this case,” Director Rausch confirmed.
The director said there have been no “credible sightings” of Watson thus far.
The search for Watson began after the body of West Tennessee Correctional Administrator Debra Johnson was found inside her home at approximately 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, according to the TBI.
The home where Administrator Johnson was residing is on the prison grounds.
“There was indication inside her residence that foul play was involved,” the TBI confirmed.
The prison facility immediately went into lockdown and an inmate count ensued, at which point corrections personnel realized that Watson was missing from his assigned work detail, Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC) Commissioner Tony Parker said in the release.
Watson was a minimum-custody offender, and was assigned as a prison farm laborer at the time of his escape, KUTV reported.
Administrator Johnson, 64, joined the TDOC as a correctional officer in January of 1981, according to the TBI.
She led a “distinguished career” during the nearly four decades that followed, Commissioner 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.
“Rest assured, we will find this offender and bring just to the family of Debra Johnson,” Commissioner Parker vowed in the press release.
Watson was convicted of especially aggravated kidnapping in 2013, and was serving a 15-year sentence at the time of his escape.
He also has a prior conviction for aggravated child abuse, and his sentence expired in 2011.
On Thursday, Lee announced that he has authorized a $25,000 reward for any information that leads to Watson’s arrest, WVLT reported.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has posted an additional $5,000 reward, and the TBI has posted a $2,500 reward, KUTV reported.
In the meantime, Director Rausch urged the public to exercise caution and look out for one another until the wanted felon is captured.
“He could be anywhere. In Tennessee or a surrounding state,” Director Rausch said during the press conference. “Check on your neighbors.”