Case of inmate accused of killing prison administrator before 5-day manhunt is headed for a grand jury

Updated: Nov. 20, 2019 at 1:31 PM CST
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LAUDERDALE COUNTY, Tenn. (WMC) - After a long day of testimony in the preliminary hearing of a man who investigators say escaped from a Tennessee prison and killed the administrator, a judge in Lauderdale County has found probable cause to bind the case over to a grand jury.

Curtis Watson is accused of stealing a tractor from the West Tennessee State Penitentiary in August, raping and murdering prison administrator Debra Johnson at her home on prison grounds and leading local and state authorities on a five-day manhunt.

Watson, who was serving a 15-year sentence at the time of his escape, is now charged with first-degree murder, especially aggravated burglary and aggravated sexual battery.

During Wednesday’s hearing, the courtroom was full of representatives from the Tennessee Department of Corrections and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Family members of Debra Johnson were also present.

There were emotional moments in the hearing as witnesses detailed what they found when they arrived at Johnson’s house Aug. 7.

Warden Trinity Minter, a friend of Johnson’s, was one of the first to go to her home when nobody could reach her.

“I could see Debra laying in the bed,” said Minter. “I remember the nurse saying to me she has a cord around her neck, can I take the cord off? From the time I went in that house, I felt like I couldn’t leave, so I stayed in the doorway."

Prosecutors say Watson strangled Johnson with a cellphone cord and sexually assaulted her. They presented graphic crime scene photos that caused one witness, a nurse who responded to the home that day, to become visibly upset.

Debra Johnson (Source: Tennessee DOC)
Debra Johnson (Source: Tennessee DOC)

Testimony revealed Watson worked as a mechanic at the prison’s lawn mower shop in Henning.

Prison staff testified they saw a golf cart at Johnson’s house around 8:30 and later saw Watson on the same golf cart. They say he said he was checking on a mower he was working on at the house.

Watson wasn’t formally declared missing until after a 10:30 a.m. count. Investigators say he fled on a tractor that was later found two miles away off prison grounds.

Inmate Zachary West said he was at the shop a week before Watson’s escape when Debra Johnson stopped in to get air put in her tires. He said Watson told him Johnson wanted to have sex with him.

A different inmate testified he saw Watson beating on the door to Johnson’s house between 7:30 and 8 the morning of her killing.

“There are a lot of witnesses in this case,” said District Attorney Mark Davidson. “It’s a very large case as far as evidence and the total amount of witnesses there would be at a jury trial, so I think what they tried to do was pare that down for this particular hearing as best they could.”

Prosecutors have not decided on whether they will seek the death penalty in this case.

The next grand jury meets in Lauderdale County in February.

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