Officers, inmates testify in Tennessee prison escape hearing

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RIPLEY, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee inmate charged with killing a corrections administrator and escaping prison was seen riding a tractor by guards and a fellow prisoner before a search for him began, according to testimony presented Wednesday during a court hearing.

Curtis Ray Watson appeared before a judge during a preliminary hearing in a Lauderdale County court. Judge Janice Craig ruled at the end of the daylong hearing that there was enough evidence to present the case to a grand jury, which will consider whether to formally indict Watson on murder and escape charges.

Watson was on regular lawn care duties at West Tennessee State Penitentiary near Henning on Aug. 7, authorities said. Investigators say Watson, 44, sexually assaulted and killed corrections administrator Debra Johnson, 64, at her home on the prison grounds that morning.

Watson escaped on the tractor, which was left in a cotton field about 2 miles (3 kilometers) from the prison, authorities said. Watson was found four days later after an intense manhunt.

Watson, a two-time felon, has not entered a plea in the case. Prosecutors are considering seeking the death penalty, Lauderdale County district attorney Mark Davidson has said.

Watson has been serving a 15-year sentence for especially aggravated kidnapping. He also had been previously convicted of aggravated child abuse. Watson had access to a tractor and a golf cart as a “trusty” — an inmate granted special privileges as a trustworthy person, authorities said.

Prison officers testified that they briefly could not locate Watson during the morning of his escape. They found Watson’s golf cart at Johnson’s house at about 8:30 a.m., but Watson was not found until about a half-hour later as he was riding the cart, prison officer David Shelton said.

Phone records show Johnson was talking on the phone at 8:10 a.m., about 20 minutes before prison officers saw the golf cart at her house, according to an affidavit. When Johnson didn’t show up for work, co-workers discovered her body at her home at 11:30 a.m., according to the affidavit.

A prison nurse testified she found a cellphone cord wrapped around Johnson’s neck. A medical examiner ruled Johnson was strangled.

Fellow jail inmate Robert Walden, who also was on lawn duties, testified that he saw Watson outside Johnson’s house early that morning.

“I flipped him off,” Walden said, adding that Watson returned the gesture, which was their usual greeting.

Watson was later seen on a blue tractor outside the lawn mowing shop, prison officers said. At that point, Watson told officers he was going to a maintenance shop, according to testimony.

Walden later saw Watson riding away from the prison on the tractor before 10 a.m., he testified.

Officers said Watson did not show up for a head count at 10:30 a.m., and a search for him began.

Shelton, the prison guard, testified that he notified his supervisor that Watson had escaped at about 20 minutes later. A box cutter was found to be missing from Watson’s collection of tools at the lawn mowing shop.

Prison nurse Shannon Murphy and a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent testified they saw Johnson’s partially clothed body on her bed. Johnson’s clothes had been torn or ripped, and there appeared to have been a struggle in the home, TBI agent Chuck Baker said.

Tests on partial shoeprints taken from the house matched boots Watson was wearing when he was captured, Baker testified.

Defense attorney David Stockton questioned officers about their supervision of inmates at the prison. Officers said they keep watch over about 80 inmates on work duty. Shelton testified that Watson displayed good behavior as an inmate and that it did not strike him as unusual that Watson would be at Johnson’s house.

Johnson had been a state employee for 38 years and oversaw wardens at several area prisons.

A grand jury is scheduled to convene in February to consider an indictment.

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