HENNING, Tenn. — An escaped convict captured Sunday in west Tennessee was incarcerated because of crimes allegedly committed near Murray.
Curtis Ray Watson, 44, was serving a 15-year sentence on a conviction of aggravated kidnapping in neighboring Henry County and was named by law enforcement as the suspect in the sexual assault and subsequent death of a female corrections administrator that occurred Wednesday morning, when he reportedly made his escape while on a work detail with the West Tennessee State Penitentiary in Henning, which is about half an hour south of Dyersburg.
That is why Henry County Sheriff Monte Belew said Sunday that he had been on edge ever since hearing about the escape.
“We’ve been tied up with road blocks the past several days because of his family ties (in Henry County). We were set up on U.S. 641 and TN 140 (north of Paris). As dangerous as he is, we wanted to be ready for him in case he did come back our way,” said Belew, whose agency’s game plan changed dramatically late Saturday night when word came that Watson had been spotted in Henning, the town where the prison is located.
“At that point, we decided that we needed to get down there to assist everyone else, so (Sunday morning), we took six officers and two of our bloodhound dogs.”
The Tennessee Department of Corrections reports that Watson was captured a little after 11 a.m. Sunday. Belew said he and another Henry deputy were about 500 yards away from where a TDOC officer spotted Watson and placed him in custody.
“He had been hiding in a bean field and just kind of popped up in front of us,” said Belew, who had been down the road of searching for a dangerous wanted criminal before. It was less than a year ago, in fact, that he and Henry Cpl. Stacey Cpl. Stacey Bostwick were able to end nearly two weeks of fear for residents and Montgomery and Stewart counties when they spotted, then captured, Kirby Gene Wallace in eastern Stewart County. Wallace is believed to have killed two people and assaulted another during his spree.
“We’re just thankful someone got him, and I think that goes for everyone in Henning, as well as Henry County,” Belew said. “You had a lot of different uniforms down there on this, but at the end of the day, we’re all on the same team.”
Other media in Tennessee report that Watson was at the prison because of a violent crime he allegedly committed in 2012. WMC-TV in Memphis reported that aggravated kidnapping charge reportedly stemmed from an attack on his wife in which he allegedly kept her confined against her will, while repeatedly raping her, beating her with a baseball bat and making threats to kill her.
Belew said Watson and his family reside in the Puryear area of northern Henry County. That is less than five miles from the Kentucky state line and Calloway County, where Sheriff Sam Steger said his personnel were on high alert after learning about the escape. For a few tense minutes one day last week, Steger said it looked as if a Calloway connection had been made in the search for Watson in reference to a report from the Puryear area.
“What interested us is that the person was reported as driving a vehicle with Calloway County tags, but it turned out not to be him, and the vehicle did belong to that person.
“With all of his ties to the area, you have to (respond to any reports of a possible sighting), and we will investigate every sighting. I mean, he made the national news with this.”
Steger said the fact that Watson allegedly killed someone while on the run emphasizes why this was such a high-priority case, even across the state line in Kentucky.
“We’re close to where he’s from,” he said. “People from Murray interact with people from Paris all of the time. You never know who could be coming up here,” Steger said. “And any time you have an escapee, there’s one thing to know; that person is going to be desperate.
“A person like that is liable to do anything, and it sounds like he did by killing that lady.”
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee even addressed Watson’s escape and authorized a $25,000 reward for information leading to Watson’s arrest. However, by the time other interests had offered monetary incentives for Watson’s capture, that total had reached more than $57,000 by Saturday night.
Murray Police Department Public Information Officer Sgt. Brant Shutt said Watson is also the subject of numerous conversations within that agency.
“During our roll calls and shift changes, yeah, his name (was circulated),” Shutt said, noting that this is a lesson for any future such situations and how residents should not hesitate in making a call should they see anything unusual. “We don’t want people getting concerned about sending us out on a call that turns out to not be anything. Let us make that determination because you never know with something like this.”
Watson was reportedly seven years into his sentence when he escaped Wednesday. Reports say he was engaged in a mowing job on the prison grounds when he allegedly sexually assaulted, then killed prison administrator Debra Johnson inside her home that is located on the prison grounds. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation had warrants for Watson on charges of murder in the first degree, especially aggravated burglary and aggravated sexual battery.
With the capture Sunday, though, Belew and his team were in a joyful mood.
“We’re going to have some celebratory steaks up in Dyersburg on the way back to Henry County,” he said.