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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis

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Rape Survivor Tries Again to Sue City of Memphis

Victim Alicia Franklin seeks help from unlikely source – her accused rapist’s girlfriend – in the case that led to the murder of Eliza Fletcher

Cleotha Henderson, aka, Cleotha Abston appears in court on suspicion of murdering Eliza Fletcher.
Cleotha Henderson, aka Cleotha Abston, appears in court last year on suspicion of murdering Eliza Fletcher.

Rape Survivor Tries Again to Sue City of Memphis

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This story is part of a partnership with WKNO.

A woman raped in 2021 by the suspected killer of Eliza Fletcher is back in court today, trying to reinstate a lawsuit against the City of Memphis for not properly investigating her case.

Alicia Franklin returns with new evidence from an unlikely source: the suspected rapist’s former girlfriend.

Gwen Brown says she knows the public sees Cleotha Henderson as a monster, accused of abducting Memphis school teacher Eliza Fletcher from a morning jog and murdering her. But Brown knew a different, sensitive side to him.

“He has always been a respectful, decent guy,” says Brown. “He never been any abusive towards me or my kids. Never put his hands on my kids.”

They met when she was 16 at Vance Middle School and reconnected a few years ago as he was finishing a 20-year prison stint for kidnapping a Memphis attorney. Though inmates aren’t supposed to have cell phones, she says he did.

“We stayed up for hours, hours on end to the next morning. Talking. Just catching up,” she says.

Brown and Henderson lived together for several months after he was released from prison in November 2020. He was arrested at her home Sept. 3 for Eliza Fletcher’s killing.

Brown’s relationship with Henderson is now the focus of a motion by lawyers for rape victim Alicia Franklin as they try to reinstate her negligence lawsuit against the city of Memphis, previously dismissed on technical grounds.

Franklin’s attorneys are citing an affidavit signed by Brown they say shows that MPD may have been protecting Henderson from arrest and prosecution.

Key to that claim is an arrest warrant issued weeks before Franklin’s rape. Henderson was accused of thefts from a FedEx Freight facility. Brown told the Institute for Public Service Reporting in January that a female detective interviewed her days after Franklin’s rape yet seemed to have no interest in arresting Henderson even though police described him as the “key suspect”.

Before we set up that meeting, she told me, now, if he’s over there, I’m going have to arrest him because he does have a warrant,” Brown says. “And she says she doesn’t feel comfortable being around him. So she asked me again, is he going to be there? And I said, No. He’s not going to be here. You’re more than welcome to come.”

In a pleading filed Tuesday, attorneys for the city say police “adamantly deny’’ they were protecting Henderson. They say Franklin’s motion to reinstate lacks merit and should be dismissed.

Brown says she’s uncertain if Henderson is guilty or not, but believes he never had much of a chance in life.

I know people feel like I’m just making excuses for him. But if we, if we’re growing up in that type of poverty where we come from, where it’s the ghetto and it’s hard, it affects us in a lot of ways,” she says. “Some, it turns us to criminals. Some, it just turns us for the bad, for the worse. Some of us make it out. And some of us don’t. Cleo on the other hand, I guess, you know, just didn’t make it out.”

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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