Convicted kidnapper Cleotha Henderson attracted police attention often in the 22 months between his November 2020 prison release and last September, when he allegedly killed Eliza Fletcher.
Repeatedly, he came under investigation.
Each time, he evaded charges.
One of those cases is the focus of a lawsuit filed last fall that contends Fletcher would still be alive if Memphis police had properly investigated a 2021 rape allegation against Henderson and arrested him then.
An investigation by the Institute for Public Service Reporting and The Daily
Memphian found authorities may have had at least two other chances to contain
Henderson prior to Fletcher’s death, most significantly a weeks-long probe into burglaries he was suspected of orchestrating while working as a security guard at a Memphis shipping facility.
Charges in that case and another theft investigation were dismissed last summer — the court records expunged — but the news organizations pieced together the apparent missed opportunities through sources and a trail of still-existing records.
According to a spokesperson for FedEx Freight, Henderson was arrested last June — three months before Fletcher’s death — after the company provided details implicating him in two burglaries that had occurred nearly a year earlier, in July 2021, at its massive shipping facility on Winchester Road in Whitehaven.
Police reports show television sets and Nike apparel worth thousands of dollars were stolen during the opens in a new windowJuly 5 and opens in a new windowJuly 17, 2021, burglaries — offenses that could have sent him back to prison for two to four years.
At the time, Henderson “was employed by a third-party security company and briefly assigned to a FedEx operations facility,’’ said Miranda Yarbro, managing director of communications for FedEx Freight.
“We acted swiftly and in full cooperation with the authorities in an investigation that resulted in his arrest in June 2022,’’ Yarbro said in an email to the Institute for Public Service Reporting. “Any further questions should be directed to the Memphis Police Department.’’
MPD did not respond to three requests for comment.
But the Institute for Public Service Reporting located documents — including state licensing records showing Henderson had applied to be a security guard about a month before the burglaries — that reconstruct the now-purged case against Henderson.
Those records include an affidavit of complaint and an arrest warrant issued in August 2021 — roughly five weeks before Henderson allegedly raped Alicia Franklin behind a vacant apartment in Hickory Hill. Also included is jail booking information that shows Henderson was arrested for the FedEx heists in June 2022 — a little more than two months before Fletcher’s murder — and spent three days in the county jail.
The records were expunged, or stricken from the record, after charges against Henderson were dismissed. Under Tennessee law, any dismissed charge can be expunged, even for a defendant with a long and violent criminal history.
Though Henderson’s records were expunged, The Institute obtained copies held by two persons outside the court system who are familiar with the case.
The charges reportedly were dismissed for lack of evidence. Nonetheless, the affidavit, which is a sworn statement by an MPD detective, details suspicious behavior, describing how video footage captured security guard Henderson as he failed to respond to motion detector lights and watched as a truck loaded with stolen goods rolled past his guard post.
“The security guard never report(ed) the incident to the police neither to his company,’’ the affidavit says. It describes similar behavior on a second night, noting the guard “again failed to notify the proper authorities.’’ When supervisors attempted to question him, he quit, the affidavit says.
A spokesperson for District Attorney Steve Mulroy said his office could not comment on the case.
“The matter you’re referring to has been expunged, which means legally we can’t discuss it at all,” communications specialist Mary Pritchard said.
She noted, however, that theft cases typically don’t involve pre-trial detention, seeming to imply that authorities could not have held Henderson for any extended period.
‘A sad case’
However, experts in police investigative techniques said the expunged records also pose questions about MPD’s handling of the investigation into Franklin’s rape. For starters, police may have missed a rare opportunity to question Henderson — who also uses the surname Abston — about the alleged 2021 rape while he was in custody.
Attorneys for the city said in a court filing last month that “MPD did not interrogate Cleotha Abston from September 21, 2021,’’ when he allegedly raped Franklin, “until September 3, 2022,” when Henderson was arrested for Fletcher’s Sept. 2 murder.
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.
“This is such a sad case,’’ said policing consultant Michael L. Milnor, a retired police chief and detective in Virginia. He is co-founder of Justice 3D, a police consulting services firm. Milnor questioned why MPD’s property crimes detectives wouldn’t have alerted the Sex Crimes Bureau that it had Henderson in custody last June:
“One of the first things we would do when we had someone, we would run them through our system to see if anybody else was looking at them for anything.’’
Equally troubling, said Milnor, is the failure to arrest Henderson when the warrant was issued in August 2021 — before the alleged rape of Franklin.
He said detectives also could have used the warrant to pick up Henderson in the days after the rape to question him about the allegation. Detectives knew then that Henderson had spent time in a juvenile facility for rape and had served 20 years in prison as an adult for the 2000 kidnapping and robbery of Memphis attorney Kemper Durand.
“Also a good question: why the warrant was not served in September 2021? Tough questions for MPD’s leadership to answer,’’ Milnor wrote in an email following a phone interview. “One would have to wonder how much importance was placed on SVU (Special Victims Unit) crimes and the culture of the agency.’’
Attorney Gary K. Smith said he plans to push for an official explanation in court.
Smith is the Memphis lawyer representing Franklin, 22, who told police in September 2021 that Henderson lured her to a vacant apartment at the Lakes at Ridgeway and then raped her in a white Dodge Charger.
Her lawsuit against the City of Memphis accuses MPD of negligence for not arresting Henderson then after she’d given officers a number of incriminating details, including Henderson’s phone number, a crime scene address and a description of the car he drove.
Prosecutors indicted Henderson for Franklin’s rape on Sept. 8, 2022, after DNA tests results came back from a state crime lab matching him to the crime. By then, pre-kindergarten teacher Fletcher had been abducted while running down Central Avenue; her body was later found behind an abandoned home in South Memphis.
Henderson, 39, is also charged with Fletcher’s Sept. 2 abduction and murder and is being held in the Shelby County Jail, awaiting trial.
“The public deserves some straight-up answers about all these chances MPD had to stop Henderson before Eliza Fletcher’s murder but didn’t,” said Smith, who plans to issue subpoenas in the Franklin suit to learn more about MPD’s investigation of the FedEx Freight heists.
FedEx Freight thefts
It was past 2:30 that morning on July 5, 2021, when a vehicle rolled onto the grounds of FedEx Freight’s operations facility at 461 Winchester Road.
As security cameras flickered, the car pulled up to the loading dock.
“The suspect then stole seven televisions and fled the property in a GMC or Chevrolet pickup,’’ stated a police report, referring to someone other than Henderson. “The complainant advised the business closed for the (Fourth of July) holiday and only the security guard was on the property.’’
The report describes the incident as a “theft from building” but doesn’t name the security guard.
But files maintained by the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance show Henderson had applied for a license as an unarmed security guard just weeks earlier, on June 4, 2021.
Submitting a $70 application fee along with a string of photographs that showed him sporting long dreadlocks and a dark pullover shirt with a white collar, Henderson attested under penalty of perjury that he’d completed four hours of qualifying training and that he’d never been arrested in Tennessee or any other state.
His application was rejected days later, on June 10, following a fingerprint check that revealed a “material misstatement’’ about his arrest record.
It’s unclear how Henderson managed to find and keep a job as a security guard given his criminal record.
Tennessee law allows individuals to work as unarmed guards while an application is pending, said Kevin Walters, communications director for the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance.
“If an application is denied, individuals must cease all services as security guards. Security companies and the individuals they employ are responsible for ensuring they are in compliance with all Department requirements,’’ Walters said in an email. “Failure to do so may result in disciplinary action.”
Walters said enforcement of licensing rules operates on a complaint basis:
“Unless the Department receives a complaint against a guard working for a company without proper registration, we are not notified of whether a guard is working without proper registration for a specific company.”
The news organizations could not pinpoint the name of the security company that employed Henderson.
A second burglary
Twelve days after the first theft, FedEx Freight reported a second break-in, this one listed in a police report as a “burglary/business.”
On July 17, 2021, two unknown men entered the property through a dock door, stealing several boxes of Nike apparel worth $2,500, according to the report.
Both reports list Henderson as the suspect, naming him by his alias, Cleotha Abston. Neither report provides details explaining why police or FedEx Freight suspected him.
An affidavit of complaint sworn out by an MPD detective on Aug. 11, 2021, charges Henderson with felony theft over $10,000. In it, a detective describes how security camera footage captured one of the incidents:
“The video showed the security guard left his post and went to the bathroom. Immediately after a truck pull(ed) on to the lot and two suspects get out … The suspects are seen grabbing several large boxes and placing them in the bed of the truck,’’ the affidavit says.
“The security guard leaves out of the restroom and notices the motion detector lights are on. The security guard goes back inside of the restroom instead of investigating why the motion lights are on. The security guard returns to his post. The pickup truck passes the guard post where the security guard (is) on post. The security guard never reports the incident to police neither to his company.’’
Booking records show Henderson was arrested for the heists in June, reportedly when he showed up in court for a different case. This one involved an opens in a new windowApril 26, 2022, theft from a DHL shipping facility on Lamar Avenue. According to a police incident report, Henderson was working there under an alias, Vincent Rigney, when he was accused of stealing $370 of merchandise.
The incident report said police also suspected him of criminal impersonation for using a false identity and Social Security number. Henderson wasn’t taken into custody. Instead, police issued him a misdemeanor citation to appear later in court.
That evidently led to the June 27 arrest. Records obtained from two persons familiar with the case show Henderson was held on a $10,000 bond until June 29, when he was released on his own recognizance, without paying any bail bond.
The Institute could find no official record of that arrest.
Suspects arrested by MPD typically are booked into the Shelby County Jail, which is operated by the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. Yet in response to a public records request filed by the Institute seeking records of any such arrest, Sheriff’s attorney Debra Fessenden said in an email, “There are no records that satisfy your request.’’
But a person familiar with the investigation said the arrest led to charges filed in Shelby County General Sessions Criminal Court.
Screenshots supplied by that source list a case number, 22109097, that no longer exists in General Sessions Criminal Court. The source did not provide a copy of an expungement order in that case but did for the related theft case.
The order says the charges were dismissed and stricken from the record on July 25.
The order bears the signature of then-General Sessions Criminal Court Judge Gerald Skahan, now a member of District Attorney Mulroy’s conviction review team. Asked to review his signature, he confirmed its authenticity.
Skahan said he has no memory of the expungement. At the time, he was signing 50-60 expungements about three times a week, he said. It was still two months before the name Cleotha Henderson would leap into the news with Fletcher’s murder.
“That name wouldn’t have rung a bell with me,’’ Skahan said.
Police consultant Milnor said it’s hard to believe detectives wouldn’t have checked Henderson’s background when he was in custody in June. If nothing else, police might have connected him to other property crimes that could have landed the suspect in jail.
“If I were a property crimes detective and I’ve got this on the FedEx burglary, I would run his name through the system to see if he was good for any other burglaries,’’ Milnor said. “It wasn’t unusual where you’d get a guy on one burglary and you end up finding out that he’s committed 40 others. … Very seldom do they ever just do just one burglary.”
By the time of Henderson’s arrest in June, more than eight months had passed since MPD had launched a separate investigation of Henderson.
Two months after the FedEx Freight burglaries — on Sept. 21, 2021 — Franklin told police Henderson had raped her at the Lakes at Ridgeway apartment complex in Hickory Hill, where he lived part-time.
Franklin contends police stopped working her investigation following a photo lineup that included an old photo of Henderson. Her lawsuit says police vowed to produce a more recent photo, but didn’t, even though recent photos were available from the Tennessee Department of Correction.
More recent photos also were available in Henderson’s security guard licensing file.
Asked if MPD reached out to state licensing officials, Commerce and Insurance’s Walters said by email, “Not that we are aware of.’’
The city’s attorneys contest Franklin’s allegation about police pledging to find a more recent photo and have asked Circuit Court Judge Mary L. Wagner to dismiss her suit.
Criminal justice reform advocate Josh Spickler said, if nothing else, MPD’s handlingof the Henderson investigations demonstrates a need for greater transparency.
“It just speaks to the absolute dysfunction of this system. This system does not work tobring justice,’’ said Spickler, executive director of the nonprofit Just City.
“I’m not sure what this case is all about, whether it’s malice or whether it’s just incompetence or an overwhelmed police department. But it’s causing harm. It’s caused harm. And this happens day in, day out, because we don’t have accountability or transparency in these systems.’’