A sexual assault victim is speaking out after her rape kit stayed on investigators’ shelves for several months until after the man now accused of raping her was identified as the suspect in the killing of a wealthy, white woman.
Alicia Franklin, a Black woman, left Memphis last year after she was blindfolded and raped by a man she met on a dating app. The 22-year-old takes online college classes hoping to propel herself out of poverty.
The same man was charged with Eliza Fletcher’s abduction and murder nearly a year later. Fletcher’s grandfather founded a billionaire dollar hardware company. DNA from her crime scene was tested in a matter of hours, reports show.
“I was just an average Black girl in the city of Memphis, you know,” Franklin told reporters. “I just think it wasn’t a priority.”
It took 18 hours for Memphis police to solve Fletcher’s murder. It took over 11 months for police to identify Franklin’s rapist and only after Fletcher’s death. The man identified for both crimes was no stranger to law enforcement.
Fletcher’s husband reported her missing on Sept. 2 after she hadn’t returned from her daily run near the University of Memphis. Reports show investigators removed video surveillance of Fletcher’s kidnapping within hours. Cleotha Abston-Henderson was arrested the next day.
Abston-Henderson’s DNA was found on sandals near the crime scene, and he was seen wearing them on surveillance footage. Cellphone data also placed him in the vicinity of the crime.
Fletcher’s body was discovered behind Abston-Henderson’s brother’s apartment complex, where the suspect had been spotted cleaning the victim’s SUV. Her story flooded national headlines. Thousands signed up to “Finish Eliza’s Run,” a tribute to the slain woman and a rallying cry for woman’s rights.
When Franklin reported her rape to police on September 21, 2021, she endured an examination at the Rape Crisis Center. She tried to pull up the man’s profile for investigators on the PlentyofFish dating site, but it was gone. The rape victim gave detectives the man’s phone number. They took Franklin back to the crime scene but left without collecting fingerprints from there or her cellphone, which she said he had touched.
Franklin believes the missing steps could have solved her case and put her Abston-Henderson behind bars months earlier. Some in the law enforcement community also agree.
According to reports, Franklin was shown a photo lineup that included the man she only knew as Cleo, but she was confused because he was pictured with locs and she only knew the suspect with short hair. The detective put a note in the file to find a recent photo, but Franklin said no one followed up. She called several times for updates on the search, but there were never any new leads.
“They didn’t care,” Franklin said. “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 started talking to Abston-Henderson late summer last year, and she agreed to meet him at an Olive Garden last September. However, when Franklin told her date that she would be traveling on a temporary “doughnut” tire, so he invited her to his apartment.
Abston-Henderson’s arrest affidavit shows the address is just doors away from where the suspect was arrested for Fletcher’s murder.
When Franklin walked in, she said it was pitch black.
“He put a gun to my neck and was like, ‘B—-, don’t move,'” Franklin said.
The man put a black T-shirt over the woman’s head and took her through a back sliding door where he led her into a car and attacked her. The assailant led Franklin back into the apartment where he dug through her purse, moved around her phone and keys and took some cash before he left.
“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,” she said.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation reports that the average turnaround time for testing on a rape kit through its crime lab “ranged from approximately 33 weeks to 49 weeks” between last September and this August. The Memphis Police Department made the rare move to expedite DNA testing in Fletcher’s case reportedly in an attempt to find her alive.
Abston-Henderson’s DNA was already in the FBI database because he pleaded guilty in 2001, at 16, to kidnapping Memphis attorney Kemper Durand during an attempted robbery and served 20 years in prison. He was released for the crime in 2020.
The 38-year-old man’s criminal record stems back to when he was 11 years old. He was reportedly charged with a crime every year from 1995 to 2000. At 14 years old, he was charged with rape.
Abston-Henderson was rebooked on Sept. 9 for Franklin’s sexual assault. Officials have confirmed that his indictment on Franklin’s allegations came after the Fletcher murder because of the timing in testing his DNA in the rape case.
“An official CODIS hit was not received until after the unfortunate event that occurred on September 2, 2022. Probable cause to make a physical arrest of any suspect did not exist until after the CODIS hit had been received,” Memphis Police Maj. Karen Rudolph said.
Two former led Memphis detectives told reporters that investigators could have nabbed Abston-Henderson months earlier if they had canvassed the neighborhood where Franklin was raped for leads.
One person familiar with the case said police had strong evidence of Abston-Henderson’s involvement. Another told The Memphian: “They have a good case.”
Franklin said she mourns for Fletcher and other victims. She posted a picture of the billionaire heiress 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,” she wrote.
Franklin now hopes her story will help others. She also offered them some advice.
“The only thing I can really say is just fight for yourself because the justice system is not going to really help you,” she said. “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.”