VICKSBURG, Miss. — She met him through a dating app on a late summer’s day last year and found him intriguing.
But when Alicia Franklin agreed to meet face-to-face in a sprawling rental complex in southeast Memphis with the man she knew only as “Cleo,” she found she’d made a horrible mistake.
“He put a gun to my neck,’’ Franklin recalls as her eyes glisten.
Even after he blindfolded and raped her, she feared the worst was yet to come.
“I really thought he was going to shoot me in the back of my head,’’ she said.
Franklin kept those traumatic memories bottled up for nearly a year as she fled Memphis for the sanctity of a quieter life here in Mississippi.
She spoke publicly about them for the first time Sunday as word spread across the Internet about the attack she suffered and its connection to the murder earlier this month of Eliza Fletcher.
According to police, Franklin and Fletcher were attacked by the same man: Cleotha Henderson, 38, who is now charged with Fletcher’s abduction and murder and Franklin’s earlier rape a year ago this month.
“I feel that my story could help other women,’’ 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 her name and face before the public to make a point.
Fletcher’s disappearance in the early morning of Sept. 2 as she jogged near the University of Memphis has come to mean many things to many people. The murder of the schoolteacher and mother of two small children has come to represent the worst fears many people have in an age of increasing violence.
To others, including many who banded together by the hundreds to jog down darkened streets to “finish Eliza’s run,’’ it’s a catalyst to stand up for women’s rights.
In more recent days, as news broke about the length of time it took for the Tennessee crime lab to test Franklin’s rape kit — 11 months — the attacks raised questions about a public safety system that appears to many as overtaxed, even dysfunctional.
Ultimately, as Franklin notes, the comparisons are unavoidable:
Eliza Fletcher was white and from a wealthy family. DNA from her abduction was tested in a matter of hours.
Alicia Franklin is Black and taking online college courses as she attempts to escape a legacy of poverty. Her rape kit sat on a shelf for months.
DNA testing was finally completed only after Fletcher was murdered — a tragedy Franklin says she “mourns.” In a social media post, she wrote, “My heart pours out for her and her family.”
Still, Franklin wonders if her case might have been handled differently if she had been more connected in Memphis or had been a different race.
“I was just an average Black girl in the city of Memphis, you know,” she said.
“I just think it wasn’t a priority.”
She reserves her harshest criticisms for the Memphis Police Department.
By her account, MPD failed to pursue obvious leads — neglecting to take fingerprints from her phone or provide an updated photo that could have helped her identify her attacker. Franklin believes these steps could have solved her case and put her perpetrator behind bars months earlier.
An MPD spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and it is unclear exactly what actions MPD may have taken to solve the crime.
Records indicate that Henderson, who also goes by the last name Abston, lived in the same row of Hickory Hill apartments where Franklin was raped. That led two retired police detectives on Sunday to question whether MPD could have arrested Abston earlier through more aggressive police work such as canvassing the neighborhood by knocking on doors to help identify a suspect.
“They didn’t care,’’ Franklin said, contending that after her attack she called police back several times seeking updates on her case. There weren’t any.
“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.
It was raining that day — Sept. 21, 2021 — when Franklin agreed to meet up with the man police now say has been identified through DNA evidence as Cleotha Henderson.
They’d been chatting for a while through a dating site called POF or PlentyofFish.
“He was like, ‘Well, you don’t ever respond to me. Can I please take you out?’” Franklin recalled.
“I think that particular day I was actually in a good mood. So, I was like, you know what? Since he’s so persistent, you know, I ended up texting back. I said, ‘Sure.’ ’’
They first agreed to meet at a local Olive Garden restaurant. But when Franklin told Henderson her car had a temporary “doughnut” tire and that she didn’t want to drive that far, he offered to meet her at his apartment. She agreed.
The address he gave was inside the sprawling Lakes at Ridgeway apartment complex near Knight Arnold and Ridgeway roads in southeast Memphis’ Hickory Hill section. At first she got lost in the complex, but after calling again she found him waiting on the steps outside an apartment.
According to a police incident report, the apartment is located at 5783 Waterstone Oak Way. That address is within doors of where Henderson was arrested earlier this month in connection with Fletcher’s murder. An affidavit in support of the arrest says Henderson lives “in the 5700 block of Waterstone Oak Way.’’
Franklin hurried toward her date hoping to get out of the rain.
“So, I’m walking with my head down because I had makeup on, I don’t want my makeup or anything to get messed up,’’ she said. “So, he was trying to hug me, and I was like we can hug in the house. You know, it’s raining.’’
But once inside the apartment, Franklin found it “pitch black’’ — and empty. Franklin said she believed it was under renovation — no sheetrock on the wall and the floors bare to the concrete.
“When I walked in the apartment, he put a gun to my neck and was like, ‘B—-, don’t move.’”
The man threw a black T-shirt over her head, she said, and directed her through a back sliding door and into a white Dodge Charger where he attacked her.
He later led her by gunpoint back into the apartment, Franklin said.
“I said, ‘Can you please let me go? Please let me go.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to, you know, die this way.’ I said, ‘If you’re going to kill me, just kill me.’ Because at that point I didn’t feel like I’d get away,’’ she said.
“I wasn’t going to run from him. He had a gun. With all this stuff that’s going on in Memphis, I wasn’t going to try it.’’
But after rummaging through her purse — handling her phone and her car keys — the man took some cash and then left, she said.
“So, when I did hear the slide door open and him get in the car and then I heard the car drive off I just ran out.’’
Franklin called police and later underwent an examination at the Rape Crisis Center. Then she spoke with MPD sex crimes detectives.
They asked if she had any photos of the suspect. But she only knew the man as Cleo and had access to his profile from the PlentyofFish dating site.
“I tried to pull up the profile, but it was completely gone,’’ she said — deleted.
A opens in a new windowrecent series of investigations by ProPublica illustrated just how dicey dating apps can be.
The news organization found that moderators of popular apps were expected to resolve claims of sexual assault by users within minutes, but some barely received training. There have been several reports of serial rapists using popular dating apps to assault victims, including in cities such as Boston, Houston and others.
Franklin said she also gave police the man’s phone number, too.
According to Franklin, a group of police officers and detectives took her back out to the crime scene.
The front door was still wide open. After looking around, officers left without taking any fingerprints. Though Henderson had handled her phone, they didn’t take prints off that, either.
The following day she met a detective who showed her a photo lineup.
“They said, ‘Can you identify the person that raped you?’ And I said, ‘I really can’t because I had a shirt over my head.’ It was dark, you know what I’m saying? And I said, ‘I can try.’ So I ended up picking out somebody in the picture, and (the detective) was like, ‘Are you sure?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’”
A person familiar with the investigation who asked not to be named has said that Franklin became confused because the man in the photo lineup whom she suspected had dreadlocks; but the man who attacked her did not. According to this person, the detective put a note in the file to get a more recent photo, but that wasn’t done.
Franklin verified a portion of that account. She said she doesn’t recall exactly what confused her in the suspect’s photo, but reasserted her attacker had short hair. She agreed police told her they would get a more recent photo, but never did.
“They never showed me an updated picture. I called like two or three months later, and was like, ‘Hey, you know, (the detective) said that she was going to, you know, try to do another photo lineup with updated pictures and … I haven’t heard from her. And then they were like, ‘Oh, well, she’s actually been promoted since then, so she’s no longer the detective on your case.’”
A dizzying series of events have unfolded in the days since Fletcher’s Sept. 2 disappearance.
Police quickly identified Henderson through video surveillance and his own DNA found on a slider sandal left behind at the crime scene immediately east of the University of Memphis campus.
Police sent the sandal to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which operates the state crime lab. There, forensic scientists uploaded DNA from the sandals into an FBI database and got a match.
Within 18 hours, authorities had linked Henderson to Fletcher’s murder.
They were able to do this, in part, because Henderson’s DNA was already in the FBI database in connection with an earlier crime: He pleaded guilty in 2001 to kidnapping Memphis attorney Kemper Durand during an attempted robbery and served 20 years in prison.
The DNA match also was secured so quickly because MPD asked for expedited testing as they desperately attempted to locate Fletcher, not knowing then if she was alive or dead.
Though the TBI keeps no statistics on expedited DNA testing, authorities agree it’s rare.
Without it, investigations can remain open for months. The TBI says that a shortage of forensic scientists has created a long backlog in DNA testing.
The TBI reports that the average turnaround time for testing on a rape kit through its West Tennessee crime lab in Jackson “ranged from approximately 33 weeks to 49 weeks’’ between last September and this August.
TBI is in the process of hiring three additional scientists and a technician for the Jackson lab. opens in a new windowIn the meantime, state and local officials are calling for even greater expansion.
Franklin said she has little faith in all of this.
She has empathy for victims, she said. Like Fletcher, Franklin is the mother of a small child.
A few days ago, she posted a picture of Fletcher on her Facebook page along with this message:
“I’ve been up all night thinking about this beautiful soul I can’t sleep I can’t eat! my heart pours out for her and her family especially those babies because I know what she experienced firsthand! may your soul rest in everlasting peace Eliza.’’
At the end of her interview Sunday, she offered some advice to other victims.
“The only thing I can really say is just fight for yourself because the justice system is not going to really help you. You know, that’s just my personal experience. You have to stand up for yourself. You have to fight for yourself, because nobody else will who will fight for you.’’