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Did MPD Botch Rape Investigation?

Report poses fresh questions about a 2021 rape investigation of Cleotha Henderson and why he was free the day Eliza Fletcher died

Retired MPD sex crimes detective Cody Wilkerson questions whether more could have been done to quickly solve a 2021 rape linked to Eliza Fletcher’s alleged killer. (Karen Pulfer Focht)

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com on Sept. 19, 2022, under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute.

A newly released police report lists the scene of a 2021 rape in the same row of Hickory Hill apartments where Eliza Fletcher’s alleged killer was arrested earlier this month for her Sept. 2 murder.

Cleotha Henderson was charged with that September 2021 rape less than two weeks ago, days after he was accused of Fletcher’s abduction and murder — a nearly year-long delay caused in part by a lengthy DNA testing backlog in the state crime lab.

But details in the just-released rape report, which comes  opens in a new windowas the victim of that incident publicly criticized the Memphis Police Department, led two former police detectives on Sunday, Sept. 18, to question whether police also played a role in the delay by not connecting Henderson to the assault earlier, before DNA results came in.

The report shows that the address listed for the 2021 rape scene is within doors of where police said Henderson was living earlier this month when he was arrested for Fletcher’s murder.

“It sounds like an unfortunate situation here where the ball kind of gets dropped,’’ said Joseph Giacalone, a former New York Police Department detective who now serves as an adjunct professor teaching criminal justice at John Jay College.

The alleged victim of the 2021 incident has a harsher critique.

“They didn’t care,’’ Alicia Franklin, 22, told the Institute for Public Service Reporting and The Daily Memphian. The news organizations typically don’t name victims of sexual assault, but Franklin said she wanted to go public to help other women avoid similar attacks.

In a 45-minute interview, Franklin contended that MPD detectives failed to follow-up on leads after she reported that she’d been raped in the Lakes at Ridgeway apartment complex by a man she met on a dating app.

Franklin said police failed to take fingerprints off her cellphone or provide an updated picture of the prime suspect during a photo lineup, among other shortcomings. Franklin was unable to identify her assailant during that photo array.

Alicia Franklin talks to reporters from the Institute for Public Service Reporting and The Daily Memphian Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022. (Ben Wheeler/The Daily Memphian)

Though many details remain unavailable, police might have been able to connect Henderson to the 2021 rape by canvassing the neighborhood — either electronically or by knocking on doors — to find the perpetrator, said Giacalone and a second retired police detective who was formerly with MPD.

“Canvassing is a part of solving any crime — knocking on people’s doors and the like,’’ Giacalone said. “But also (it helps build) pattern cases. One of the things you do with sexual assaults or even shootings is you try to see if your case is connected to another.’’

It is unclear how much canvassing MPD might have done after the 2021 rape. An MPD spokesperson did not immediately respond Sunday to a request for comment.

A two-page incident report obtained by the Institute for Public Service Reporting lists the scene of the Sept. 21, 2021 rape as 5783 Waterstone Oak Way, an apartment in the sprawling Lakes at Ridgeway rental complex near Knight Arnold and Ridgeway roads in southeast Memphis’s Hickory Hill section.

The apartment complex saw a flurry of police activity shortly after schoolteacher Fletcher, 34, was abducted while jogging near the University of Memphis.

A team of U.S. Marshals arrested Henderson, 38, who also uses the name Cleotha Abston, in the apartment complex on Sept. 3, the day after Fletcher’s disappearance. This is also the apartment complex where authorities recovered the black GMC Terrain SUV that police believe Henderson allegedly used to kidnap Fletcher.

A police affidavit supporting Henderson’s Sept. 3 arrest says in part, “Cleotha Abston (Henderson) was found to reside in the 5700 block of Waterstone Oak Way.’’

A specific address is not listed in the affidavit.

However, it places Henderson’s address within doors of the scene of the alleged 2021 rape, which is listed as 5783 Waterstone Oak Way. Franklin described that apartment as a vacant unit stripped of any drywall. A third-party background report reviewed by reporters Sunday indicates Henderson may have lived next door though definitive records were unavailable.

According to the arrest affidavit, the apartment in which Henderson was living “has active utilities in the name of Gwendolyn Brown,’’ who was also listed as the owner of the 2013 GMC Terrain suspected in Fletcher’s abduction. Brown could not be reached Sunday and the nature of her relationship to Henderson could not be determined.

The two-page report chronicling the 2021 incident includes no narrative and lists the crime simply as a “forcible rape.” The suspect is listed as unknown.

The report names Franklin as the victim.

Though they are unfamiliar with specifics of the investigation, Giacalone and a second former police detective questioned whether police could have done more to solve the case while waiting on DNA results, including canvassing the neighborhood.

“It’s something that they should do,’’ said Cody Wilkerson, the retired Memphis Police Department sex crimes detective. “But once again, unless it’s a heinous, high-profile case, you just don’t have the time to do that on every case.’’

A major problem, Wilkerson said, is that MPD hasn’t committed enough resources to properly handle the large volume of sex crimes cases that detectives must handle.

“You’re constantly getting cases. You don’t get them every day. But you know, you either get them three days a week or you get them four days a week,’’ said Wilkerson, who retired in 2016. Those cases range from misdemeanors like sexual battery, or an improper touching of a victim, on up to felony sexual assaults.

“And you’re usually getting a rape case, if not every day you’re getting a rape case every other day,’’ he said. “So, you know, you’re getting two or three rape cases every week. And it takes a week to thoroughly investigate just one case.’’

The criticism from Franklin and the two detectives follows the disclosure that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which runs the state’s crime lab, did not process Franklin’s rape kit until 11 months after the alleged incident in 2021. TBI blamed a lack of staffing for the delay. TBI also said that MPD did not ask that testing of Franklin’s rape kit be expedited, while noting that MPD did ask that DNA evidence in Fletcher’s abduction case be expedited.

Since taking office for his first term, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland has said he wants to increase the number of police officers in the department. MPD had 2,450 officers in 2011 but has approximately 1,950 now. The high point for police staffing during Strickland’s seven years in office was in 2020, when MPD had approximately 2,100 officers.

Strickland has repeatedly pointed to numerous efforts his administration has made to increase staffing, including signing bonuses and changes to residency requirements meant to increase the pool of eligible officers. Approximately 100 people are in the police academy currently, according Strickland’s most recent weekly email to constituents.

Ben Wheeler
Contributing Author

Ben Wheeler is an investigative reporter for the Daily Memphian. He previously served as an intern for the Institute for Public Service Reporting and has worked at the Yankton Daily Press and Dakotan in South Dakota and the Herald-Citizen in Cookeville, Tennessee.

Written By

Marc Perrusquia is the director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, where graduate students learn investigative and explanatory journalism skills working alongside professionals. He has won numerous state and national awards for government watchdog, social justice and political reporting.

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