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Rape Victim’s Lawsuit Accuses MPD of Negligence

If police had acted last year to arrest suspect, Eliza Fletcher would still be alive, suit contends

“I feel that my story could help other women,’’ Alicia Franklin, 22, told the Institute for Public Service Reporting and The Daily Memphian during an interview on Sunday, Sept. 18. (Ben Wheeler/The Daily Memphian)

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com on Sept. 20, 2022, under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute.

A woman who authorities now think was raped last year by Eliza Fletcher’s alleged killer has filed a lawsuit accusing the Memphis Police Department of negligence for failing to adequately investigate her case.

The suit filed by Alicia Franklin contends police could have prevented Fletcher’s abduction and killing earlier this month if they’d taken Franklin’s September 2021 assault more seriously and pursued evidence that pointed to Cleotha Henderson, aka Abston.

“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,” says the suit filed Tuesday, Sept. 20, in Shelby County Circuit Court.

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

It names the City of Memphis as the sole defendant and seeks an unspecified amount of compensation for pain and suffering and other damages.

A spokesman for Mayor Jim Strickland declined comment Tuesday afternoon.

“As is standard practice, we do not talk about pending litigation,’’ spokesman Dan Springer wrote in an email.

Franklin told the Institute for Public Service Reporting and The Daily Memphian on Sunday, Sept. 18, that detectives in MPD’s sex crimes unit failed to pursue leads in her case.

“I was just an average Black girl in the city of Memphis, you know,” said Franklin, 22.

“I just think it wasn’t a priority.”

The news organizations typically don’t name victims of sexual assault, but Franklin said she wanted her name and face before the public to help other women avoid similar victimization.

According to the suit filed by Memphis attorneys Gary K. Smith and Jeffrey S. Rosenblum, police failed to collect physical evidence from the crime scene or properly pursue Henderson, who was charged this month with Fletcher’s Sept. 2 murder.

Cleotha Henderson, aka Abston, in court following his arrest for Eliza Fletcher’s murder. (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)

He was then charged days later with Franklin’s 2021 rape after DNA test results finally came back from the state crime lab implicating Henderson as her attacker.

“MPD already had enough information to suspect Cleotha Abston was the man who had raped Alicia Franklin, but MPD officers did not seek to apprehend him,’’ the suit says.

According to police reports, the rape occurred on Sept. 21, 2021, at 5783 Waterstone Oak Way in the Lakes at Ridgeway apartment complex in Hickory Hill. That address is within doors of where Henderson was arrested earlier this month in connection with the abduction of Fletcher. An affidavit in support of that arrest says Henderson lives “in the 5700 block of Waterstone Oak Way.’’

Henderson may have lived directly next door to the rape scene. A police report filed the day before Fletcher’s disappearance accusing him of theft lists his address as 5781 Waterstone Oak Way.

Franklin’s attorneys filed a second lawsuit Tuesday against the owners of the apartment complex accusing them of negligence for allegedly not maintaining proper security there. The owners were not immediately available for comment.

A manager for the apartment complex who would not give her name declined comment, telling a reporter over the phone, “Please have a good day,’’ before hanging up.

Franklin said in the Sunday interview that she met a man she knew only as “Cleo’’ through a dating app and agreed to meet him face-to-face at 5783 Waterstone Oak Way, which turned out to be a vacant apartment. She said the man put a gun to her neck and forced her into a car behind the apartment where he attacked her.

“I really thought he was going to shoot me in the back of my head,’’ she said.

Franklin said police later took her back to the crime scene but left without taking fingerprints or gathering evidence — assertions repeated in her lawsuit.

Another contention repeated in the suit is that police showed Franklin a photo lineup but failed to provide a more recent photograph when she couldn’t identify the prime suspect.

The lawsuit contends that suspect was Henderson, who has also been identified by the name Abston.

“Memphis Police Department officers then indicated to Alicia Franklin that they would obtain another (and more recent) photo of a suspect for her to review; that photo would have been of Cleotha Abston, but no officers obtained another photo of Cleotha Abston at that time, or if any officers did obtain such a photo they did not make Ms. Franklin aware of it or show the photo to her,’’ the suit alleges.

“MPD had access to more up-to-date photographs of Cleotha Abston through the Tennessee Department of Correction for an up-to-date photograph of this dangerous suspect …

“At that time, MPD knew or should have known based upon information provided by Alicia Franklin that the suspect was a dangerous felon who presented a further threat to Alicia Franklin because he knew who she was and where she lived and was a threat to the broader community at large.”

The suit references Henderson’s criminal history, which includes an arrest for rape as a juvenile and a 2001 conviction for kidnapping Memphis attorney Kemper Durand in a robbery attempt. Henderson served 20 years in prison on that offense and was released in November 2020.

The suit also faults MPD for not requesting a “rush’’ or expedited testing of Franklin’s rape kit. The suit notes that police did ask the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation for expedited testing of DNA in connection with Fletcher’s disappearance and, because of that, were able to identify Henderson as the prime suspect within hours.

DNA testing of Alicia Franklin’s September 2021 rape kit, like the one pictured, was completed on Sept. 5, 2022, three days after Eliza Fletcher’s murder. (Karen Pulfer Focht) 

Franklin’s rape kit was placed in an “unknown suspect queue’’ and sat on a shelf for months before it was pulled for testing in June. Testing was finally completed on Aug. 29, 2022 — four days before Fletcher’s disappearance — and results were uploaded to an FBI database on Sept. 5, 2022, when a DNA match came back for Henderson.

Nonetheless, the suit contends MPD did not need to wait on DNA results to arrest Henderson.

“MPD already knew that Alicia Franklin had provided MPD the first name of ‘Cleo’ for the suspect who had raped her, a phone number for him, social media information on him and a description of the car he had driven, and MPD already knew enough to include him as a potential suspect in her rape by including him in a photo lineup,’’ the suit says.

The suit says police also could have pursued metadata from the dating site Henderson used to connect with Franklin.

“The information referred to in the preceding paragraph was likely enough to establish probable cause to arrest Cleotha Abston for Alicia Franklin’s rape. In the alternative, obtaining a more recent photo of Cleotha Abston would likely have provided enough information to establish probable cause to arrest Cleotha Abston for Alicia Franklin’s rape,’’ the suit says.

MPD has not responded to multiple requests for comment about how it proceeded with the investigation into Franklin’s rape. 

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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