Eliza Fletcher murder: Memphis police sued for handling of suspect in prior rape charge

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After Memphis murder suspect Cleotha Henderson was taken into custody earlier this month in the kidnapping death of jogger Eliza Fletcher, city police revealed they had evidence to charge him in an unrelated abduction and rape case from 2021.

Now the victim in the 2021 case is suing Memphis police for allegedly failing to properly investigate the incident and make an arrest – and allowing Henderson to go on living free next door to the crime scene for a year.

“Cleotha Abston [Henderson] should and could have been arrested and indicted for the aggravated rape… many months earlier, most likely in the year 2021,” a civil complaint filed Tuesday reads. “And the abduction and murder of Eliza Fletcher would not have occurred.”

The victim met a man named “Cleo” on a dating app in August 2021, according to the civil complaint, obtained by Fox News Digital. On Sept. 21 of that year, they met in person for what was supposed to be a first date.

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Murder suspect Cleotha Henderson appears in court at Shelby County Criminal Justice Center in Memphis, Tennessee, Sept. 7, 2022.

Murder suspect Cleotha Henderson appears in court at Shelby County Criminal Justice Center in Memphis, Tennessee, Sept. 7, 2022. (Matt Symons for Fox News Digital)

“’Cleo’ was and is ‘Cleotha Abston,’ also known as ‘Cleotha Henderson,’ and he is a suspect in the Sept. 2, 2022 abduction and murder of a woman named Eliza Fletcher in Memphis, Tennessee,” the lawsuit reads.

Henderson told the victim to meet her at the Lakes at Ridgeway apartments, where he said he worked as a maintenance man.

They met outside an apartment at 5783 Waterstone Oak Way, and Henderson, a convicted felon who had already served 20 years in prison for kidnapping and robbery, allegedly confronted the victim with a gun and forced her into a vacant unit.

“He also blindfolded her with a T-shirt and threatened to kill her,” the lawsuit reads.

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Shelby County Emergency Management and Homeland Security Mobile Command Unit outside the command center during the search for Eliza Fletcher.

Shelby County Emergency Management and Homeland Security Mobile Command Unit outside the command center during the search for Eliza Fletcher. (Fox News Digital)

He allegedly walked her out the back door and to his car, where “he forced her into the backseat and raped her,” according to the lawsuit.

The victim begged him to let her go, telling him she was pregnant to avoid the attack, to which he allegedly replied, “all you b—— say that.”

The statement, according to the lawsuit, indicates “he had likely raped other women.” And Henderson’s juvenile record does include a conviction of rape from when he was just 14 years old.

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After the sexual assault, Henderson allegedly stole money from her purse, led her back into the apartment and told her not to move until she heard his car leaving, according to the lawsuit.

The 2021 attack happened at the same apartment complex as Henderson’s last known address, 5781 Waterstone Oak Way, and where officers arrested him on Sept. 3, 2022, after the attack on Fletcher.

The 2021 victim sought medical attention after her alleged attack and investigators collected DNA samples for a “rape kit,” according to the lawsuit, which Tennessee state authorities have said sat in storage for nine months before lab technicians examined it because Memphis police did not ask for expedited testing. The results came back a match for Henderson on Sept. 5, 2022, three days after Fletcher’s murder.

Eliza Fletcher, a Memphis mother of two and pre-K teacher, was kidnapped during her morning run on Sept. 2.

Eliza Fletcher, a Memphis mother of two and pre-K teacher, was kidnapped during her morning run on Sept. 2. (Memphis Police Department/  TBI)

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Memphis police, according to the lawsuit, allegedly “took no physical evidence directly from the crime scene itself” at the time. But the victim provided them with the name “Cleo,” a phone number, a description of his white Dodge Charger and social media information, including the dating app she’d met him on.

However, when police asked the victim to pick the suspect out of a lineup, she couldn’t.

The victim, according to the lawsuit, overheard investigators stating, “Maybe we need to show her a newer picture – this photo is 10 to 12 years old.” They told the victim that they would get a more recent photo – but allegedly never did.

Still, the lawsuit alleges that police had enough evidence to arrest Henderson anyway.

A Memphis police spokesperson told Fox News Digital the department does not comment on pending litigation.

Booking photo shows Cleotha Henderson, who has been in prison for more than half his life.

Booking photo shows Cleotha Henderson, who has been in prison for more than half his life. (Tennessee Department of Corrections)

Henderson’s DNA has been on file for decades after his 2001 conviction for the kidnapping and robbery of attorney Kemper Durand, who died in 2013.

Memphis police submitted the collected DNA evidence to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation for analysis on Sept. 23, 2021, two days after the attack – but they did not ask for expedited testing. Results did not come back until this month, nearly a year later. For comparison, according to the lawsuit, the DNA collected from Henderson’s shoes after Fletcher’s murder was rush tested in just 18 hours.

Even without DNA evidence, the lawsuit alleges police had enough probable cause to arrest Henderson.

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“Based upon available police records, Cleotha Abston [Henderson] was living at 5781 Waterstone Oak Way, near where the rape occurred at 5783 Waterstone Oak Way,” the lawsuit reads. “If there was any question about the [identity] of [the] attacker, MPD could have sought data and metadata from the parent company who owned the dating app that ‘Cleo’ was using.”

Cleotha Henderson in court at Shelby County Criminal Justice Center in Memphis, Tennessee, Sept. 7, 2022.

Cleotha Henderson in court at Shelby County Criminal Justice Center in Memphis, Tennessee, Sept. 7, 2022. (Matt Symons for Fox News Digital)

Match Group even has a “special portal” for police to request information and data in emergency situations, according to the complaint.

According to the lawsuit, police likely had reason to suspect Henderson in the attack because they had included his photo in the initial lineup and “indicated a need to get a different photo of him.”

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“MPD was or should have been already familiar with him due to his criminal history and the known risk that he could commit other violent crimes,” the complaint continues.

As Fox News Digital has reported, Henderson has spent more than half of his life behind bars and has a history of kidnapping, rape, robbery and aggravated assaults stretching back to his early teenage years.

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