The woman in the doorway dropped her head as she struggled to answer a haunting question.
Did her live-in boyfriend kill Eliza Fletcher?
“I don’t know. I don’t see him as the monster that they painted him,’’ said Gwendolyn Brown, a petite woman with a quick, a disarming smile, and a long and intimate connection to accused murderer Cleotha Henderson.
“I just hate this happened,” Brown said. “And I’m smack in the middle of it.”
Brown spoke softly and cautiously through her partially opened front door on a brisk afternoon in December, breaking a long silence following the September abduction and slaying of preschool teacher Eliza Fletcher – crimes Henderson, now 39, is charged with committing.
Just next door to Brown, in a vacant two-story apartment, Henderson allegedly committed another crime in September 2021, nearly a year before Fletcher’s death. Authorities say he attacked another woman there after meeting her on a dating app, forcing her at gunpoint through a back patio door, then raping her inside a white Dodge Charger – a car registered to Brown.
Henderson was charged with the September 2021 rape of Alicia Franklin nearly a year later – on Sept. 8, 2022 – after DNA test results finally came back from a state crime lab, matching him to the assault. That was six days after Fletcher was abducted while jogging down Central Avenue near the University of Memphis. Her body was later found behind an abandoned home in South Memphis.
A lawsuit filed against the city of Memphis contends that Eliza Fletcher would still be alive if police had acted sooner on information that rape victim Alicia Franklin gave following her 2021 attack.
Attorneys for the city say the two cases can’t be linked. The rape investigation grew cold after Franklin failed to identify Henderson in a photo lineup, the attorneys say, and they point to earlier court decisions granting police broad discretion when deciding when and how to investigate crime.
But experts who’ve studied the case see a stunning police failure riddled with troubling questions.
Why didn’t police question Henderson about the 2021 rape after Franklin gave them the address where the assault happened, the phone number of her assailant, and a description of the car he drove?
Why didn’t they expedite DNA testing of Franklin’s rape kit or send the state crime lab information they had on Henderson, the suspect, whose history of violence includes a 2000 kidnapping that landed him in prison for 20 years?
Why, when the investigation seemed to have started so well, did it all seem to suddenly halt?
“This is not a whodunit,’’ said Joanne Archambault, a retired San Diego sex crimes detective who now serves as executive director of End Violence Against Women International, a nonprofit agency that provides sexual assault investigation training and consultation. “There’s just so much evidence here.”
Gwen Brown, who has known Henderson since they were students at Vance Middle School, has her own questions.
Why didn’t police dust for fingerprints back in 2021 at the scene of the alleged rape, including the Dodge Charger, or impound the car?
“They looked at the car,” Brown said, explaining that two detectives eyeballed it from the outside without asking to unlock it to inspect the interior.
“Don’t you think – common sense – if you’re sure (he’s guilty of rape), why didn’t y’all then get a warrant (in 2021) and have that car pulled? They did not,” Brown said.
And why, Brown asks, didn’t police interview Henderson about the 2021 rape allegation, even though they showed her his photo days after the incident and characterized him as the key suspect.
“That was Cleo’s face that was on the picture,” Brown said. “And (the detective) was telling me that he supposedly had attacked someone. And I told her that couldn’t be possible.”
A complicated relationship
Henderson was arrested not far from Brown’s front door last Sept. 3, the day after Fletcher disappeared. Police found sandals that had slipped from her abductor’s feet during a desperate struggle and rushed them to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation for expedited DNA testing.
Within 18 hours, authorities say, results came back matching Henderson.
Brown recalls the day with a shudder: The sea of blue lights. The commotion at her door. The teams of officers who stormed into her apartment at the Lakes at Ridgeway, a sprawling complex in the Hickory Hill area.
“They pulled guns in front of my kids’ faces. That’s very terrifying,’’ said Brown, 39, a working mother of three.
Following an initial meeting in early December, Brown spoke on several occasions with the Institute for Public Service Reporting, discussing her life with Henderson and the rape investigation that turned her world upside down.
Her association with Henderson is complicated.
“I’ve never seen that part of him,’’ she said of Henderson’s long and violent criminal history. “I know he’s not an angel, either. But I’ve never seen that part.’’
The two first met as students at now-razed Vance Middle School.
“I’ve been knowing him since we were 16,’’ she said.
That’s how old Henderson was when he was arrested for another crime that drew wide attention: The May 2000 kidnapping and robbery of Memphis attorney Kemper Durand, whom Henderson had stuffed in a car trunk at gunpoint.
By then, Henderson had been arrested more than a dozen times, floating in and out of juvenile facilities for crimes ranging from burglary to aggravated assault and rape. This time, he was convicted as an adult and sentenced to 24 years in prison.
Brown reconnected with him toward the end of his sentence.
“I always wondered where Cleo was,’’ she said, recalling Henderson as an outgoing, affable young man and a good student. “I always wondered.’’
She rediscovered him on Facebook. At first, Brown said, she didn’t know Henderson was in prison. Even when she found out she wasn’t deterred. Brown had her own troubles years earlier. She knows how things can go sideways in life. When she sent Henderson a friend request it led to a deepening relationship marked by long conversations by cell phone.
“We talked every other night for hours,’’ she said. What did they talk about? “Just life. My life. His life,’’ she said. “What he’d been up to? What I’d been up to.’’
It’s unclear how Henderson managed to communicate from prison in the manner Brown described. Tennessee Department of Correction rules don’t allow prisoners like Henderson to have cell phones or access to social media.
“Any inmate found in possession of a cell phone can face felony charges as well as disciplinary action,’’ TDOC spokesman Bradley Canada said in an email. Canada said he couldn’t confirm if Henderson actually posted to a Facebook page or “if someone on the outside was posting for him.’’
That wasn’t Brown’s concern. She only knew she and Henderson were forming a strong bond.
“He was being a good support system for me during that time,’’ she said.
Released from prison
Henderson served 20 years and five months of his 24-year sentence under the name Cleotha Abston (the name he went by in his younger years) before he was released early from the Hardeman County Correctional Facility in Whiteville, Tenn.
TDOC released him in accordance with state sentencing laws that allow a 15% sentence reduction for good behavior. Yet Henderson’s behavior seemed anything but good.
TDOC records list 53 separate disciplinary actions against him for offenses ranging from theft to drug usage, threatening an employee, sexual misconduct, possession of a deadly weapon, and strong- arm robbery. In the final 10 months of his time in prison, he was charged with one count of tampering with a security device and two counts of indecent exposure for masturbating in front of prison personnel.
Criminal justice reform advocate Josh Spickler said the lack of consequences for Henderson despite his disciplinary record isn’t surprising given how dysfunctional prisons have become.
“None of it works. Prison is a place where you eat or be eaten,’’ said Spickler, executive director of Just City, a Memphis nonprofit organization dedicated to criminal justice reform. “Yeah, you pick up infractions. But you stay alive. And you become a bigger … menace to society once you’re out. He had no chance.”
Henderson was released from prison on Nov. 7, 2020.
“I just got out,’’ he posted that day on Facebook.
Roughly six weeks later, records show, Brown opened an account with Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division for utility service in the Lakes at Ridgeway, where neighbors began spotting Henderson.
Asked if Henderson indeed lived with her, Brown smiled and shrugged.
“When I’m not mad at him,’’ she said.
Brown moved from the complex at year’s end. The Institute had shielded her identity in a previous article last fall out of concerns for her safety. But Brown said she no longer feels in danger. Her name has appeared repeatedly in court and police records, media reports, and on social media. She said the public clearly knows who she is.
She had a couple of conditions: No pictures that identify her face. No unnecessary details about her children. She wants to protect them, she said.
“My life has been upside down,’’ Brown said.” That’s why I’m watching what I do, and what I say.’’
The rape accusation
More than a year after the alleged 2021 rape, the unsecured front door of the vacant apartment next door to Brown’s apartment still swung open.
It was here that Alicia Franklin says she was lured on Sept. 21, 2021, after meeting Henderson on a dating app.
“He put a gun to my neck,’’ Franklin, now 22, told The Institute in an interview in September, describing how Henderson forced her through a back patio door and into a white Dodge Charger where he raped her.
“I really thought he was going to shoot me in the back of my head.’’
The Institute typically doesn’t name victims of sexual assault, but Franklin said she wanted her name and face before the public to help other victims.
Franklin immediately reported the assault and told police her story: She had met Henderson on the Plenty of Fish dating app, and after a week of texting had agreed to go out on a date. She claims in her suit that MPD failed “to investigate the rape adequately and with due diligence,” allowing Henderson to remain on the street for another year.
Answering Franklin’s suit in December, attorneys for the city admitted police didn’t dust for fingerprints in the vacant apartment. The city also said in its court filing that “MPD did not interrogate Cleotha Abston from September 21, 2021, until September 3, 2022,” when Henderson was arrested for Fletcher’s Sept. 2 death. Police did unsuccessfully “seek to interrogate” Henderson in October 2021, the city said in the 25-page document, but offered no explanation.
The failure to interrogate Henderson troubles experts in police investigative techniques.
Particularly troubling to Michael L. Milnor is that police didn’t pick up Henderson for questioning on an outstanding warrant for allegedly orchestrating burglaries at a FedEx Freight shipping facility while working there as a security guard in the summer of 2021, weeks before Franklin’s rape. Police failed to question Henderson again in June 2022 – three months before Fletcher’s murder – when he finally was arrested on the FedEx Freight warrant and spent three days in the Shelby County Jail. Those charges were later dismissed and the court records expunged.
“Most suspects want to talk,’’ said Milnor, a former Virginia police chief and detective who runs Justice 3D, a police consulting services firm. “It may be one of those situations where you’ve got to go find him and you just got to sit down in the car and talk to him wherever you find him … but somebody in that (police department) should have been able to get their hands on him,” Milnor said.
It’s not even essential to get a confession, Milnor said. “Most of the time there’s going to be something in there that we can trip them up on. So, lock them into that lie,” he said.
The rape investigation
The city has offered no explanation for the unsuccessful effort to question Henderson. Brown has one.
She said officers interviewed her within weeks of the alleged rape in September 2021 – a contention confirmed by the city’s attorneys. According to Brown, a detective then attempted to contact Henderson on his phone.
It happened like this, she said:
A female police detective – someone Brown calls “Detective Lovely” – came to her apartment with a piece of paper bearing the photo image of a criminal suspect.
“That was Cleo’s face that was on the picture. And she was telling me that he supposedly had attacked someone,’’ Brown said. “And I told her that couldn’t be possible.’’
Brown said the detective then showed her a piece of evidence – Henderson’s phone number.
That phone number, which includes a 901 Area Code and a 390 exchange, is listed in the city’s December court filing. Police got it from Alicia Franklin, the city’s attorneys said. The rape victim had told officers that the man she knew simply as “CJ’’ had texted her from that number.
A background report run by the Institute listed the number to “Cleotha Abston.’’ Brown said the number was assigned to Henderson as part of a family plan she financed through monthly payments.
The details about the phone number upset her. So much so, Brown said, that following the police interview she telephoned the detective.
“I had just paid (to get) him a new number. And why would anybody have that number?’’ Brown said. “That was the only thing bothering me. So, I ended up calling her back to ask how did she get that number? … She said from the victim.’’
It’s unknown if police served a warrant on Brown’s cell phone service provider to search data on Henderson’s phone. Brown said police never took physical possession of Henderson’s phone.
But as the investigation unfolded, Brown said she had at least two confrontational conversations with Henderson. The first came early in the investigation.
“I was like, ‘Babe, did you meet up with some woman in my car? Just be honest. I’m not going to get mad. If you did just be honest.’ ” Brown said. “And he was like, ‘Babe,’ — looked me right in my eyes — ‘Why would I do that to you?’ ”
Brown said the second happened after detectives interviewed her in her apartment.
This time Henderson confronted her.
“He just said he heard everything that I told her,’’ she said. Brown said Henderson wasn’t angry. But he led her to believe police had texted the video of her interview to him. She never saw the video. She didn’t inspect Henderson’s phone.
But she was scared.
She said she’d given police no incriminating information about Henderson.
But now it looked like maybe she had.
“She put my life in danger,’’ Brown said of the detective. “I didn’t appreciate Miss Lovely.’’
Persons familiar with the investigation identified the detective working the case as Shemeka Love, who was promoted to lieutenant weeks after the rape investigation.
Reached by phone last fall, Love declined comment.
“Please do not call me or come to my house again. You are harassing me,’’ she said.
In interviews last fall, Franklin could not recall the name of the detective who worked her case. However, she recently identified the detective as Love after a reporter showed her a picture. Brown, too, identified Love through a photo.
It was Detective Love, Franklin said, who had shown her a picture – a photograph of Henderson – during a photo lineup two weeks after the rape.
In her suit, Franklin claims detectives showed her an old photograph of Henderson that she couldn’t identify with 100% certainty. According to the suit, officers promised to obtain and show her a newer photo but never did.
The city contests that claim.
“MPD conducted a photo lineup on Oct. 5, 2021 … and the City admits that the Photo Lineup included a photo of Cleotha Abston,’’ says a legal brief by Tannera G. Gibson and Jonathan P. Lakey, attorneys with the Burch, Porter & Johnson law firm who are representing the city in defending against Franklin’s suit.
The attorneys said the photo was provided by the Tennessee Driver Services Division, but that “MPD did not know the date of the photograph.’’
Later in the filing, the attorneys said: “Plaintiff (Franklin) stated in writing that she was unable to make a positive identification…. The City denies that MPD officers said they would get a more recent photo of Cleotha Abston in the Photo Lineup.”
After Franklin failed to make a positive identification, “MPD did not conduct a second (lineup) with a different or ‘more recent’ photo for the lineup,’’ the city’s attorneys conceded.
But in a pleading filed March 6 seeking dismissal, the city said the court “would open the City to tort liability whenever a victim is unsatisfied with a police investigation’’ should it endorse Franklin’s demands for a more thorough investigation. “The doctrine of sovereign immunity protects the city’s limited resources from such onerous obligations,” the city’s attorneys wrote.
Reinforcing that position in oral arguments earlier this week, attorney Gibson said it’s impossible to link the police investigation of the rape case to Fletcher’s death.
“We don’t know what would have happened had the sexual assault kit come back earlier, had there been sufficient proof, had Miss Franklin been able to positively identify Abston from the photo lineup and he’d been arrested earlier,’’ attorney Gibson told Circuit Court Judge Mary L. Wagner in a hearing Wednesday.
“No one knows what would have happened.’’
Critically, the city argues that while Tennessee law explicitly mandates that sheriff’s deputies investigate crimes, MPD “does not have a statutory duty to investigate crime.’’
Nonetheless, Franklin said she called MPD several times after the photo lineup and was told Love no longer was working the case because she’d been promoted.
“I called back again like maybe four months later, and … they was like, ‘Well, just keep in mind that it can take anywhere from a year or two to process a rape kit.’ So, at that point, I gave up,” Franklin said.
Lack of Urgency
The dispute over the photo remains unresolved, but available evidence indicates the investigation became dormant after the photo lineup failed to produce a positive identification.
Nov. 7, 2020: Cleotha Henderson is released from prison after serving 20 years for robbery and kidnapping.
Aug. 11, 2021: A Memphis Police Department detective swears out an affidavit of complaint charging Henderson with felony theft for the July 5 and July 17, 2021, burglaries at a FedEx Freight shipping facility where the convicted kidnapper worked as a security guard.
Sept. 21, 2021: Alicia Franklin is raped at the Lakes of Ridgeway apartment complex. Police investigate Henderson as the chief suspect. Police fail to arrest Henderson on the burglary warrant, which could have allowed officers to take him into custody and then question him about the rape.
April 26, 2022: Henderson is issued a misdemeanor citation for allegedly stealing merchandise from a DHL facility on Lamar.
June 27, 2022: Henderson is arrested for the FedEx burglaries and spends three days in jail. He is never questioned about the alleged rape.
July 25, 2022: The FedEx Freight and DHL charges are dismissed and expunged.
Sept. 2, 2022: Eliza Fletcher is abducted while running on Central Avenue and subsequently killed. Henderson is charged first with Fletcher’s death and later with Franklin’s 2021 rape after DNA results finally return from the state crime lab.
“They stopped basically,’’ said Archambault, the former San Diego sex crimes detective who runs End Violence Against Women International. She has studied the case’s developments from her office in Colville, Wash.
“From what we can tell, once they did the photo lineup and she couldn’t identify the guy … it doesn’t sound like they kept moving forward with the investigation. I think they just submitted it to the lab’’ and decided to wait on DNA results, she said.
Archambault bases her view, in part, on information TBI released last fall. The state agency said MPD didn’t obtain a DNA sample from Henderson or provide additional information about him for the state’s crime lab scientists to work with – even though as a convicted violent offender Henderson’s DNA is on file in state and federal databanks.
Franklin’s rape kit “was put into the queue of unknown assailant kits, as no request was made for TBI analysis to be expedited, and no suspect information or DNA (sample) was included in the submission,’’ TBI said in a September statement issued through spokesperson Keli McAlister.
The kit sat untested on a shelf for months.
The failure to expedite was a massive mistake, said police consultant Milnor.
“I (would) try to get this expedited from the very beginning,’’ he said. Stranger rapes “are serial in nature’’ and (the) perpetrator likely will strike again, he said.
Archambault said MPD should have kept pursuing the case’s many leads, “which would have developed the probable cause’’ to arrest Henderson without waiting on DNA.
“When I read this, I was very frustrated because I thought, do we really have investigators and prosecutors out there now that can’t put a case together without DNA?’’ Archambault said. “Or are they just (sitting back and) waiting for the DNA?’’
According to retired MPD Sex Crimes Bureau supervisor Wilton Cleveland, that’s in fact what often happens – detectives wait on DNA results to make an arrest. Historically, the decision to delay came from the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office, not MPD, said Cleveland, who retired in 2016.
“That’s kind of how it’s always been done. Which is a little frustrating because you want to get a bad guy off the street. Right? And then you can’t because the District Attorney’s office is telling you no,’’ Cleveland said.
The problem, he said, is that prosecutors have a checklist for cases they’ll take to trial and DNA is at the top of the list. They want the DNA results before they move to indict, he said.
A question of priorities
A spokesperson for District Attorney Steve Mulroy, who was elected in last August, challenged Cleveland’s assertion.
“That is not correct. While we cannot speak to what has happened in the previous administration—that is not our current process,’’ Erica Williams said in an email to The Institute.
The District Attorney waits on DNA “when DNA is our only way of identifying a suspect,’’ Williams said. In her emailed statement she said prosecutors can move quickly and take a case to a grand jury “in a few days.’’ Additionally, police are free to make an arrest without prosecutor involvement.
“MPD will typically call the DA’s Office to discuss whether or not there is sufficient proof for an arrest. We offer suggestions that might strengthen the case. However, MPD can and sometimes will move forward with an arrest without the DA Office’s input,’’ Williams said.
Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis told the City Council in September that limited resources at the state crime lab require that MPD receive consent of the District Attorney’s Office to request expedited DNA testing.
“It has to be in collaboration with our DA’s office. That request has a signature also for the DA’s office that this meets a criteria that we put a rush on it,’’ Davis said.
Still, it’s unclear exactly what happened in the Henderson case.
Citing Franklin’s suit and another accusing the city of systemic deficiencies and decades of negligence in investigating sexual assault, MPD and Mayor Jim Strickland have repeatedly declined to discuss the Henderson case.
“The public will get answers (eventually). And because it’s in litigation, I can’t comment any more,’’ Strickland said following an October speech at City Hall.
Reform advocate Spickler finds the city’s secrecy troubling.
“The mayor is not silent when we have young people accused of crime. He speaks to that frequently. He speaks to the need for more harsh sentences. He speaks to the need for accountability. The Memphis Police Department has been above accountability for decades. When the shoe is on the other foot and the police department needs to be held accountable, it’s silence,’’ said Spickler.
Spickler urged City Hall to provide more clarity on MPD’s handling of the Henderson investigation.
“This is a window into the soul of this department,’’ he said.
Meaghan Ybos said MPD’s priorities are misplaced, a vulnerability she says was exposed in the recent police beating death of Tyre Nichols.
“MPD’s performance reflects its priorities. MPD’s priorities are driven by what the city’s most powerful constituents want,’’ said Ybos, executive director of People for the Enforcement of Rape Laws, a reform organization that contends MPD misapplies resources, choosing not to pursue rapists while waging a fruitless war on drugs that racks up thousands of low-level arrests that victimize minority neighborhoods and contribute to mass incarceration.
“For years, law enforcement leaders have claimed that guns, drugs, and gangs drove ‘crime.’ As a result, extraordinary public resources flowed to law enforcement to supposedly combat guns, drugs, and gangs. Special units and taskforces flourished, enjoying their own rules and generating their own revenue. Yet at the same time these elite taskforces were supposedly stopping crimes before they happened, investigative units like sex crimes were and are struggling even to keep qualified staff. It’s not a coincidence that MPD solves under 20% of reported rapes. The only thing that’s changed recently is that law enforcement leaders have substituted the guns, drugs, and gangs refrain with “auto theft.”
As for Brown, she’s now living with relatives and trying to find some peace.
“I just wish I could have helped him,’’ she said of Henderson. “But he don’t let nobody in. He’s the type of person, you see one side of him. But he’ll never let you know who the other person bottled up is…. I just know he’s hurting. I can just tell. If you are around a person a lot you get to picking up on their energy.’’
In the aftermath of Henderson’s Sept. 3 arrest, Brown said she’s still trying to get MPD to release her cars – vehicles she needs for work and to run her family – as she tries to get the rest of her life in order.
“I need some help right now,’’ she said. “I’ve been put in a situation. I didn’t choose this. It chose me.”