Cops Botched Rape Case That Could’ve Saved Eliza Fletcher, Suit Claims

On the day schoolteacher and heiress Eliza Fletcher was abducted, DNA evidence from another case that could have put her suspect behind bars was sitting in a Tennessee testing facility, unentered into the national law enforcement system. Now, the woman in the first case has filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming the police department could and should have arrested the suspect sooner.

“They knew who it was, they did nothing, and as a result, Eliza Fletcher winds up murdered when [the suspect] should have been in jail,” the woman’s lawyer, Gary Smith, told The Daily Beast. “If they had done their job, she’d be alive.”

Alicia Franklin, 22, says she met Cleotha “Cleo” Abston on Sept. 21, 2021—almost a year before Fletcher’s abduction and murder. In her complaint, she says the two met on a dating app and made a plan to meet at the apartment complex where he worked before going to dinner.

Instead, she alleges, Abston drew a gun on her and forced her into an empty apartment, blindfolding her with a T-shirt and threatening to kill her. He walked her through the apartment and to his car, where, she says he forced her into the back seat and raped her. Franklin says she was pregnant at the time, and told Abston as much, to which she says he responded: “All you bitches say that.”

At the time, Abston had recently been released from prison after serving 20 years for kidnapping and aggravated robbery in 2001. According to the suit, this meant his DNA and other information was available in an FBI database for comparison if he committed other crimes. Franklin reported the incident to law enforcement immediately, providing them with the suspect’s first name, phone number, a description of his car, and information about the dating app where they met. She also completed a rape kit, which, when tested, would ultimately connect the crime back to Abston.

But the rape kit was not completed for another nine months, until June 24, according to the suit. A final report was not issued until Aug. 29, and the DNA information was not entered into the national law enforcement system until Sept. 5—three days after Fletcher was abducted on her morning run.

The abduction of Fletcher—the granddaughter of the founder of multibillion-dollar hardware distributor Orgill, Inc.—spurred national headlines and a multi-agency search. The 37-year-old mother of two was last seen running near the University of Memphis campus Sept. 2; her body was later found in an abandoned house nearby. Surveillance footage from the area of the abduction showed a man forcing Fletcher into his car and struggling with her inside.

According to the complaint, police ordered a “rush order” on the DNA from a pair of sandals found near the scene of the abduction, and quickly matched it to the genetic material entered after Abston’s 2001 conviction. They also obtained surveillance footage of Abston wearing the sandals, located his car, and followed him to his residence. He was arrested and indicted for Fletcher’s abduction on Sept. 4, and with her murder shortly after her body was found.

Abston was also indicted on charges of aggravated rape, especially aggravated kidnapping, and unlawful possession of a weapon in connection with Franklin’s rape on Sept. 8. But in her complaint, Franklin argues that Fletcher’s murder could have been prevented had her rape kit been processed sooner, or other leads investigated more thoroughly. She notes that police even showed her a photo of Abston in a lineup of suspects at the time she reported, but that she was unable to identify him at the time. (She alleges police offered to get a more recent photo of Abston to show her, since the photo in the lineup was more than a decade old, but never did.)

Franklin also alleges that she called to follow up on her case a month later and was told there were no updates.

“They was like, ‘Well, just keep in mind that it can take anywhere from a year or two to process a rape kit,’ she told The Daily Memphian. “So at that point, I gave up.”

A police department spokesperson said the department does not comment on pending litigation.

Smith, Franklin’s attorney, currently represents a number of women in a proposed class-action lawsuit against Memphis over a backlog of rape kits. The women are some of the 12,000 victims whose kits were discovered by Memphis police to be untested back in 2013. That case is still awaiting class action certification from a judge.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation told a local Fox station that its turnaround time for testing rape kits was anywhere from 33 to 49 weeks. The lab in Jackson, where Franklin’s kit was tested, received an average of almost 350 sexual assault evidence requests per month, according The Tennessean, causing wait times to stretch to the top of that range. TBI Communications Director Josh DeVine told The Tennessean that his agency had the highest number of submitted cases analyzed per scientist of the six surrounding states.

The bureau requested funding for 40 more forensic scientists during the last budget cycle, according to local news outlet WKRN, but received only half of what they asked. They are in the process of hiring new candidates who will start at the end of October.

In her suit, Franklin claimed that if police had followed any of her leads or ordered a rush test of the rape kit, Fletcher’s murder may never have happened.

“They had more than enough evidence that night when they interviewed me to get him off the streets. But they didn’t,” Franklin told Good Morning America. She added: “I’m angry. Not a day goes by that I didn’t think about this.

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