NASHVILLE, Tenn (WTVF) — The children of Debra Johnson say their mother's killer tore their family apart when he took her away from them, but they say they won't let him win.
The top Department of Correction employee was killed Wednesday at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary, the news came as a shock to her children.
Police believe escaped inmate, Curtis Ray Watson, sexually assaulted and strangled Johnson. Her death prompted a Blue Alert and massive manhunt throughout the state.
"She really embodied the spirit of excellence," said Dr. Shernaye Johnson.
When you ask Johnson's three children about their mother, they can't help but to smile.
"She was a public servant, she was loving, she was an awesome mom and not just to us but everyone that she contacted. She was that mother spirit," said victim's daughter, Dr. Shernaye Johnson.
Johnson worked nearly 40 years with the Tennessee Department of Correction. She moved up the ranks from a correctional officer, to warden and to her current role as correctional administrator.
"She was public advocate for inmates and she was also an advocate for the people who worked in the Department of Correction. She felt that everyone should be treated fairly, and she just wanted everyone to be positive and have that second chance," said Mychal Austin, victim's son.
It was at her job when the 64-year-old mother and grandmother lost her life Wednesday morning.
"It was the worst news that you could possibly receive. To have that call you don't want to believe that it's her, you want to believe they mistaken identity; you don't want to believe it." said Dr. Shernaye Johnson.
Debra Johnson was killed at her home located on prison property. The accused killer is inmate Curtis Watson who escaped prison just moments after investigators say he took Johnson's life.
"He tore our family apart, it hurts and it's traumatic, it's gut wrenching and it's the saddest day of our lives; he tore our family apart with this one," said Stanley Johnson, victim's oldest son.
The family mourns and they grieve, but together they say they'll remain strong.
"Even though he took our mother what she left behind will continue, so did you really succeed at your mission because we're still here," Dr. Shernaye Johnson.
And despite the horrific way Johnson was killed her children say they forgive her killer.
"we as a family, and my mother, we are a family of forgiveness. Although he's still out there we know the departments investigating, they will get the job done; but we also want to know our mother would want to forgive him, so we've really just been concentrated on each other." said Austin.
Johnson's funeral is scheduled for next Friday.
Police escorted her body from Memphis to Nashville Friday evening. Several other law enforcement agencies and community members stopped along the road to honor her.