“She said, ‘That’s him, that’s him,’” Harvey Taylor said at a Sunday news conference.
The man raiding their refrigerator for cold drinks was Curtis Ray Watson, 44, a wanted fugitive who had been on the lam since Wednesday, when he fled from the West Tennessee State Penitentiary on a tractor after allegedly sexually assaulting a prison administrator and killing her. When the Taylors picked up the phone to call police early Sunday morning, the manhunt for the escaped convict was entering its fifth day. Authorities had received 430 tips about Watson’s whereabouts, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, but none had checked out until that point.
Watson, who was previously incarcerated after being convicted of aggravated child abuse, was serving a 15-year sentence for an especially aggravated kidnapping charge when he disappeared. In 2012, he pleaded guilty to holding his wife against her will while using an aluminum baseball bat as a weapon, WKRN reported.
In prison, Watson was considered a “trusty,” meaning that he received special privileges in exchange for good behavior, according to an affidavit obtained by the Memphis Commercial Appeal. On Wednesday, his 44th birthday, he was released from his cell at 7 a.m. for his regular work detail, which consisted of mowing the lawns that surround the sprawling prison campus.
Later that morning, at around 11 a.m., prison officials realized that a tractor was gone. So was Watson, who had last been seen on a golf cart outside the home of Debra Johnson, a corrections administrator who lived on prison grounds. Johnson hadn’t reported for work that morning, and when officials went to check on her, they found that the 64-year-old had been strangled with a cord and sexually assaulted.
Within hours of Watson’s disappearance, authorities recovered the missing tractor, which he had abandoned about two miles from the prison, according to the affidavit. They also found the 44-year-old’s discarded prison identification card. But the man himself was nowhere to be found. For four sleepless days and nights, authorities searched the surrounding area, a rural patchwork of forest and farms northeast of Memphis, offering a $57,000 reward for Watson’s capture and warning that he should be considered extremely dangerous.
Speaking to the media on Sunday, Harvey Taylor said that he and his wife had been frightened to see a stranger rifling through the refrigerator, and realizing that the man was a suspected killer on the run only intensified their fear. They watched his every move through the doorbell camera, relaxing somewhat once they saw that he wasn’t coming inside their house.
Meanwhile, hundreds of law enforcement officers rushed to Henning, a town of less than 1,000 people that is home to a museum honoring the boyhood home of “Roots” author Alex Haley, a lumberyard, a Dollar General store and numerous churches. They surrounded the couple’s house, which is located only about 11 miles from the state penitentiary, sealing off a perimeter and searching by air and by foot.
At 10:55 a.m., Watson walked out of a soybean field about 750 feet from the Taylors’ home, put his hands up, and surrendered, David Rausch, the director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, said at Sunday’s news conference. The fugitive was covered in tick and mosquito bites, and “weathered from his time outside,” Rausch said.
“He was relieved to be over with his run,” said Rausch, adding that Watson “knew he wasn’t getting away” with such a large law enforcement presence, and made small talk with the officers who took him into custody.
Investigators haven’t found any evidence that anyone helped Watson to escape from prison, Rausch said, and it appeared that he had stolen the camouflage clothing he was wearing while on the run.
Johnson had worked for the Tennessee Department of Corrections for 38 years, rising through the ranks from a correctional officer to a prison administrator. Her son, Mychal Austin, told the Tennessean that she was deeply religious and believed everyone deserved a second chance, including the inmates, whom she strove to treat humanely.
“The inmates would call her ‘first lady’ on the compound,” he said. “People would start to straighten up because she was so fair and delivered every promise she made to them. She did turn the prison around.”
At Sunday’s news conference, officials announced that Watson had been charged with first-degree murder, aggravated sexual battery and especially aggravated burglary in connection with her death, in addition to the charge that he faces for escaping. Prosecutors are considering seeking the death penalty, Mark Davidson, the district attorney general for Tennessee’s 25th judicial district, told reporters.
Visibly exhausted, Harvey Taylor expressed relief that the fugitive was back in custody, and acknowledged that the late-night encounter could have ended much differently.
“I’m just relieved that it went the way it did,” he said.