Tennessee jogger died after police mishandled a previous case against accused killer, lawsuit claims

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A Tennessee jogger was kidnapped and killed after police failed to adequately investigate the accused killer in an earlier sexual assault case, a lawsuit claims.

Cleotha Henderson has now been charged in both cases. He was charged with murder in the death of Eliza Fletcher and with aggravated rape, especially aggravated kidnapping and unlawful carrying of a weapon in the earlier case from 2021.

The charges in the sexual assault case came too late to help Fletcher, the lawsuit alleges. The DNA evidence that led to charges in the earlier sexual assault case didn't point to Henderson until after Fletcher's death.

Fletcher, a 34-year-old mother of two and teacher, disappeared while on an early morning jog on Sept. 2 on the University of Memphis campus. Her remains were found three days later behind an abandoned house. Henderson, who is also known by the last name Abston, was booked Sept. 4 and charged with first-degree murder and kidnapping on Sept. 5.

Henderson was rebooked on Sept. 9 on charges related to the 2021 case.

The woman who police say was sexually assaulted by Henderson filed suit Tuesday. The lawsuit claims investigators did not take physical evidence from the crime scene when they arrived, failed to expedite processing on the rape kit, did not fix an issue with a line-up that could have identified Henderson and missed a chance to attempt to arrest Henderson, despite having evidence against him.

The lawsuit says the woman suffered "physical and emotional injuries," which require ongoing medical and mental health treatment. She is seeking unspecified damages.

Henderson could have been arrested "many months earlier, most likely in the year 2021, based on all of the information set forth in the preceding paragraphs of this Complaint, and the abduction and murder of Eliza Fletcher would not have occurred," the lawsuit says.

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The latest indictment came after the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, during routine DNA testing in late June, analyzed the rape kit that was taken September 21, 2021. The kit came back on August 30, 2022 and returned a hit for Henderson September 5, one day after he had been booked in connection with Fletcher's abduction.

Cleotha Henderson, 38, appears in court Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022, in Memphis, for charges in connection to a 2021 rape and kidnapping.
Cleotha Henderson, 38, appears in court Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022, in Memphis, for charges in connection to a 2021 rape and kidnapping.

The lawsuit says the woman met Henderson over a dating app and knew him as "Cleo."

The two met for a date at the same apartment complex Henderson was arrested at in early September. When they met outside of an apartment, Henderson pulled a gun and forced the woman into the apartment, before blindfolding her and threatening to kill her and then raping her in a car behind the apartment, the lawsuit says.

The woman — who The Commercial Appeal, part of the USA TODAY Network, has not named as it typically does not name victims of sexual assaults — also provided investigators with the name "Cleo" along with his phone number, a description of the vehicle he drove, and social media information.

The lawsuit alleges police missed multiple chances to advance the case against Henderson, including missing the chance to provide the woman with a line-up that contained a new picture of Henderson, after first showing her a lineup with an old photograph.

Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis speaks on Eliza Fletcher's abduction during a press conference Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022, outside the Donnelley J. Hill Public Safety Building in Memphis. Fletcher, a 34-year-old Memphis teacher, was reportedly abducted Friday on the University of Memphis campus. Her body was found by law enforcement Monday afternoon in the 1600 block of Victor Street. Cleotha Abston, 38, was arrested Sunday on suspicion of first-degree murder and first-degree murder in perpetration of a kidnapping. He made his first court appearance Tuesday morning.
Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis speaks on Eliza Fletcher's abduction during a press conference Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022, outside the Donnelley J. Hill Public Safety Building in Memphis. Fletcher, a 34-year-old Memphis teacher, was reportedly abducted Friday on the University of Memphis campus. Her body was found by law enforcement Monday afternoon in the 1600 block of Victor Street. Cleotha Abston, 38, was arrested Sunday on suspicion of first-degree murder and first-degree murder in perpetration of a kidnapping. He made his first court appearance Tuesday morning.

The lawsuit also states that there was existing probable cause to arrest Henderson with a national DNA database hit.

The lawsuit was filed against the City of Memphis, citing that "through the conduct of the MPD officers who worked on the investigation of (the woman's) case, the City of Memphis was negligent ... (and) reckless."

A Memphis Police Department spokesperson said the department does not comment on pending litigation.

Lucas Finton is a news reporter with The Commercial Appeal. He can be reached at Lucas.Finton@commercialappeal.com and followed on Twitter @LucasFinton.

Contributing: Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Eliza Fletcher died after cops mishandled earlier case: Lawsuit