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Who is Cleotha Henderson: Ex-convict accused of abducting and killing Memphis heiress Eliza Fletcher

Former convict, who was released from prison in 2020 for kidnapping, is now facing trial for the kidnap and murder of Eliza Fletcher

Harriet Sinclair
Thursday 30 March 2023 15:06 BST
Man appears in court charged with murder of heiress Eliza Fletcher

The family of murdered Memphis heiress Eliza Fletcher is facing a “long journey” as the state pursues a case against the man accused of kidnapping and killing her while she was out on a morning jog.

The 34-year-old junior kindergarten teacher, who chose a career in education despite her family’s substantial wealth, was described as “a bright light in her community” by staff at St Mary’s Episcopal School where she taught.

Fletcher was reported missing on 2 September 2022, just hours after she left her husband and two children at home to go for an early morning run.

When she failed to return home from her usual route close to Memphis University by 7.45am, her husband raised the alarm.

Three days later, her body was found. She died from a gunshot wound to the head.

Now, a man who has notched up numerous previous convictions, including for kidnap and rape, is set to be tried for her murder.

According to authorities, Fletcher was “abducted and forced into” an SUV before she was murdered.

Police believe the car she was forced into was the GMC Terrain that suspect Cleotha Henderson was driving at the time.

Henderson, who was previously known as Cleotha Abston, was arrested one after Fletcher’s abduction. He has since been charged with first-degree murder, aggravated kidnapping and tampering with evidence.

The ex-convict has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges, and is expected to appear in court once again on 30 March.

However, a judge presiding over the case warned Eliza’s grieving family that they are facing a long journey ahead of them in the case.

Cleotha Henderson appears in court in Memphis for his arraignment in September 2022 (AP)

“This is going to be a long journey; these cases do not resolve themselves in a brief period of time,” Judge Lee Coffee told the family at Shelby County Criminal Court in February.

“If this case goes to trial, it will probably be two to three years before it’s actually tried. I hope we can compress it to less than that.”

Here’s what we know so far about Henderson:

Kidnapping conviction

Henderson was released from Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility in 2020, after serving 20 years of a 24-year sentence for kidnapping attorney Kemper Durand at gunpoint in May 2000.

Despite being just 16 at the time of the offense, Henderson was tried as an adult.

He was released from prison four years early thanks to a combination of joining work programs during his sentence (including working in the kitchen and as a cleaner) and the time he spent behind bars prior to being sentenced.

However, prison records show that Henderson indecently exposed himself on 19 different occasions while behind bars – with one prison guard commenting in records obtained by Action 5 News that he “couldn’t help” it.

Tennessee State Representative Antonio Parkinson has suggested reviewing the state’s corrections rehabilitation strategy in the wake of Henderson’s release and subsequent arrest on new charges.

“They’re coming into state custody and we’re warehousing them and we’re punishing them, I guess, but they’re going to come out at some point,” he said.

“What’s happening in between that time when they’re behind that wall?”

Eliza Fletcher was snatched while jogging in the early hours of 2 September (Family handout)

Henderson had requested an even earlier release in 2016, but his victim Durand told authorities he believed his attacker showed “absolutely no remorse for the crime”, and Henderson’s request was denied at the time.

Even before he was found guilty of Durand’s 2000 kidnapping, Henderson had accrued a lengthy rap sheet.

Long rap sheet

He was just 11 when he first came to the attention of Shelby County Juvenile Court, according to court reports seen by Action News 5.

Between the ages of 11 and his 2000 conviction, Henderson was known by authorities to be part of the Lemoyne Gardens Ganstas (LMG) gang and was arrested on 16 different occasions in suspicion of crimes including raping a man when he was aged 14, theft, aggravated assault and unlawful posession of a weapon.

He spent some of his youth in the custody of child protective services, and his father was reportedly serving time when Henderson was arrested for the Durand kidnapping.

Henderson’s mother, Virgie Abston, 65, told the Daily Mail shortly after his arrest in connection with Fletcher’s murder she believed her son had been “railroaded” into accepting responsibility for the 2000 kidnapping and believed he was not involved in Eliza’s disappearance.

“I talked to him and he said he didn’t do it,” she told the paper.

“He said ‘They’re trying to put me in some stuff, mom’.”

Ms Abston said that Henderson’s brother Mario was also serving time in prison, on unrelated drugs and weapons charges.

Rape charges

After being arrested for Fletcher’s murder, Henderson was also accused of the rape of Alicia Franklin one year earlier.

Booking photo provided by the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office (AP)

Ms Franklin claims that she met Henderson on a dating app in 2021 and they made plans to go for dinner together.

The suspect then held her at gunpoint, blindfolded her and threatened to kill her before walking her to his car, she claims.

He then allegedly forced her into the backseat of the car and raped her.

Ms Franklin has since announced a lawsuit against the Memphis Police Department, who she claims could have prevented Fletcher’s murder if they had substantially investigated her alleged rape.

Henderson’s DNA was in the system from his prior convictions but her alleged rapist’s DNA was not entered into the national law enforcement database until 5 September 2021 – three days after Fletcher’s abduction.

A judge dismissed Ms Franklin’s lawsuit just weeks before Henderson was due back in court for murder. He has continued to deny all charges in the two cases.

“I never in a million years thought something like that would happen to me,” Ms Franklin told ABC News in September.

“They had more than enough evidence that night when they interviewed me to get him off the streets, but they didn’t.”

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