Woman who police say was sexually assaulted by Cleotha Henderson sues city of Memphis

The woman who police say was abducted and sexually assaulted by Cleotha Henderson in 2021 is suing the City of Memphis, accusing the Memphis Police Department of not investigating the sexual assault adequately and with due diligence.

The woman filed suit Tuesday in Circuit Court in Memphis, saying she suffered "physical and emotional injuries," which require ongoing medical and mental health treatment. She's seeking unspecified damages.

Henderson, also known by the last name Abston, who investigators say is responsible for the abduction and killing of Eliza Fletcher, was indicted September 8 for a 2021 sexual assault and kidnapping.

The 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 and returned a CODIS hit for Henderson September 5, two days after he had been arrested in connection with Fletcher's abduction.

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

The two met for a date at The Lakes at Ridgeway, the same apartment complex he 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, before raping her in a car behind the apartment.

The lawsuit also claims investigators did not take physical evidence from the crime scene when they arrived.

"After [the woman] had completed the forensic medical examination, officers of the Memphis Police Department who were assigned to work on the case accompanied [her] to the scene of the crime," the lawsuit reads. "The MPD officers who processed the crime scene took no physical evidence directly from the crime scene itself."

The woman, who The Commercial Appeal has not named as it 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.

MPD provided the woman with "visual information and/or photographs of multiple potential suspects to [the woman] in a 'lineup' format." The court filing says one of the men shown was Henderson, and that police had enough evidence to suspect Henderson, but they did not try to arrest him.

"[The woman] was not able to identify her attacker based upon the photographs she was shown at the time," the lawsuit reads. "[She] overheard the police say something to effect of 'maybe we need to show her a newer picture — this photo (presumably of Cleo Abston) is 10 to 12 years old.'"

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.

Officers told the woman they would find a newer picture, but either never did or did not tell the woman they had a new photo to show her.

The lawsuit also says the rape kit should have been rushed with TBI, but it was not.

"...the Memphis Police Department submitted the sexual assault kit taken from [the woman] to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (or "TBI"), but did not request that the sexual assault kit be processed on a 'rush' or expedited basis, as it could have been, particularly given the risk of harm Cleotha Abston likely presented to [the woman] and the community at large," the lawsuit said.

It further states that there was existing probable cause to arrest Henderson with a national DNA database hit, and said, "Cleotha Abston should and could have been arrested and indicted for the aggravated rape of [the woman] 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 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 declined and said the department does not comment on pending litigation.

The woman, who now lives in Mississippi, also filed suit Tuesday against The Lakes at Ridgeway. The woman said the complex lacked security, allowing Henderson to take her into a vacant apartment and sexually assault her and is asking for $2 million in damages.

In that lawsuit, she insinuated her rape was not the first crime to have occurred in that vacant apartment.

"...the apartment that Henderson used to lure Plaintiff away from her car was vacant and was accessible for Henderson to use for criminal activity," the lawsuit read. "Upon further information and belief, this was not the first time Henderson had used this vacant apartment for criminal activity."

The woman also asserted in the court filing that Henderson had approached other women at the complex and made "lewd and inappropriate comments" to them, but the property managers did nothing to ask Henderson to leave.

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 was booked Sept. 4 and charged with first-degree murder and kidnapping on Sept. 5.

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

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Woman police say sexually assaulted by Cleotha Henderson is suing City of Memphis