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Tennessee prison escapee captured after 5-day manhunt

Curtis Ray Watson after he was taken into custody.
Curtis Ray Watson after he was taken into custody.(Tennessee Bureau of Investigation/New York Times)

A Tennessee prison inmate was captured by an off-duty prison worker Sunday, five days after officials said he had sexually assaulted and killed a veteran prison executive and then fled on a tractor.

The inmate, Curtis Ray Watson, was captured roughly 10 miles from the prison, the West Tennessee State Penitentiary, in Henning, about 50 miles northeast of Memphis.

Alexia Lebel, 38, an employee at the Dollar General Store in Henning, said she witnessed Watson’s capture through the store window.

She said she had seen Watson step in front of a car attempting to turn right. The driver of the car appeared to recognize him, stepped out of her car, and made him get on the ground, Lebel said. The driver was armed and kept Watson detained, with a foot on his back, until police officers arrived, she said.

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Officers set up a detour around the area, forcing cars to turn right in front of the store, Lebel said. She saw a different driver get out of a van and start yelling. She said it felt like the entire community of Henning, with a population of less than 1,000 people, came out.

“Over a hundred people came to see,” Lebel said. “Everybody started going on foot, across the street and over the hill. All the cars started lining up.”

Dorinda Carter, a spokeswoman for the prison, said the woman who had captured Watson was an off-duty prison employee. The woman’s name was not immediately available.

Watson, 44, was serving a 15-year prison sentence for felony charges of aggravated kidnapping and aggravated child abuse.

On Sunday morning, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation released home security footage of Watson on Graves Avenue. Moments after the capture, the bureau posted a video of Watson being taken into a police vehicle, handcuffed and surrounded by onlookers.

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“The people here are really, really happy,” Lebel said after Watson was taken away.

On the day of his escape, Watson had been released from the prison for his work assignment mowing lawns, according to officials and court records. As a trustee, he had access to prison equipment, including a golf cart and a tractor.

Officers said they had seen Watson at the home of Debra Kaye Johnson, an administrator at the prison who had been with the department for 38 years, and who lived in a state-owned house on the prison grounds.

Between 9 and 10 a.m., Watson drove away on a tractor, according to court records.

Johnson’s body was found at 11:30 a.m. at her home with ligature marks and a cord wrapped around her neck. The medical examiner’s office determined that she had been strangled and sexually assaulted.

New York Times