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Henderson Avoided Rape Charge Despite Second Witness, Amended Lawsuit Says

MPD failed to arrest Cleotha Henderson despite receiving incriminating details from girlfriend, suit says

Alicia Franklin, seen here on Sept. 18, says the Memphis Police Department neglected her rape case and that the inaction played a role in the later murder of jogger Eliza Fletcher. (Ben Wheeler/The Daily Memphian file)

A new legal filing contends Memphis police failed to arrest Cleotha Henderson for a 2021 rape despite receiving details from a second witness — Henderson’s girlfriend — implicating him in the crime.

The allegation in an amended lawsuit filed Monday, Oct. 3, could shed more light on Alicia Franklin’s claims that the Memphis Police Department neglected her case and that the inaction played a role in the later murder of jogger Eliza Fletcher.

Henderson, 38, is charged with Fletcher’s abduction and murder last month, as well as with Franklin’s Sept. 21, 2021, rape. Henderson was not charged with the 2021 rape until last month, days after Fletcher’s body was found. That’s because her rape kit sat untested at the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s lab for nearly a year.

New detail in Franklin’s amended suit claims MPD detectives questioned an unnamed woman described as Henderson’s girlfriend shortly after Franklin reported her rape to police. Henderson, who also uses the last name Abston, is alleged to have raped Franklin inside a white Dodge Charger in the Lakes at Ridgeway apartment complex in Hickory Hill.

“She (Henderson’s girlfriend) told police that she had two vehicles, a 2015 Black GMC Terrain and a white Dodge Charger, and that Abston had permission to drive both vehicles,’’ says the amended lawsuit, which was filed in Shelby County Circuit Court.

According to police, when Henderson allegedly abducted Fletcher on Sept. 2, he was driving a black GMC Terrain sports utility vehicle. Fletcher was abducted as she was out on an early morning run down Central Avenue near the University of Memphis.

Cleotha Henderson (middle) appears in Judge Louis Montesi’s courtroom for his arraignment last month. (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian file)

Though the lawsuit does not name the girlfriend, the Institute for Public Service Reporting has independently established her identity as a 38-year-old woman who lives next door to the vacant apartment in the Lakes at Ridgeway where Franklin contends she met Henderson the day she was raped.

Records reviewed by The Institute show both the Charger and the GMC Terrain are registered to her.

The Institute is not naming her out of concerns for her safety.

The girlfriend told reporters from The Institute and the Daily Memphian last week in a brief discussion that she was romantically involved with Henderson. She had agreed to talk in more detail later, but did not make herself available when the reporters returned the next day.

Franklin, 22, told The Institute and the Daily Memphian in a Sept. 18 interview that she met Henderson on a dating app and agreed to meet him face-to-face at the apartment complex where he then put a gun to her neck and assaulted her.

“I really thought he was going to shoot me in the back of my head,’’ she said. The news organizations typically don’t name victims of sexual assault, but Franklin said she wants to go public to help others avoid victimization.

In addition to the allegation in the amended suit, a person familiar with the investigation told The Institute that Henderson’s girlfriend had been questioned by police days after the rape and told detectives then about the Charger and Henderson’s connection to it.

MPD spokesperson Mercedes Rodriguez said in an email late Monday, “As is standard practice, we do not talk about pending litigation.”

The statement reflects an earlier one from Mayor Jim Strickland’s spokesman Dan Springer, who declined comment following the initial filing of Franklin’s suit on Sept. 20.

Balloons, stuffed animals and other memorials line the porch of an abandoned house at 1666 Victor Street, where the body of Eliza Fletcher was found on Labor Day. (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian file)

Franklin’s attorney, Gary K. Smith, contends that the new details illustrate how badly police mishandled Franklin’s case.

“They were handed this case on a silver platter,’’ Smith said.

Franklin’s lawsuit argues that police could have prevented Fletcher’s abduction and killing last month if they’d taken Franklin’s September 2021 assault more seriously and pursued evidence then that pointed to Henderson’s guilt.

“Cleotha Abston should and could have been arrested and indicted for the aggravated rape of Alicia Franklin many months earlier, most likely in the year 2021,” the lawsuit said.

If police had acted then, “the abduction and murder of Eliza Fletcher would not have occurred,’’ the suit contends.

It alleges that Franklin gave police Henderson’s first name – “Cleo” — his phone number, social media information and a description of the car he had driven.

According to the amended suit, police received a thorough description of Henderson, aka Abston, from his girlfriend.

“Abston’s girlfriend gave MPD officers Abston’s full name. Even with this information, Memphis police did not pursue Cleotha Abston as a suspect,’’ the amended suit says.

“Some time later, Cleotha Abston’ s girlfriend contacted police again to advise that Cleotha Abston had moved to his brother’s place at 1765 South Orleans Street. She told police they had broken up, but Abston still had use of the vehicles.’’

According to arrest affidavits, Henderson was seen hours after Fletcher’s Sept. 2 abduction at the home of that brother — Mario Abston — cleaning the interior of the GMC Terrain.

Mario Abston, 36, was arrested and charged on Sept. 4 with possession of heroin and fentanyl with intent to manufacture, deliver or sell.

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute.

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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