Sadly, we were not granted the happy ending to this mystery we had all hope for.
Police found the body of Eliza Fletcher, known as Liza, Monday afternoon in the 1600 block of Victor Street, less than a mile from where the man charged with abducting her is said to have cleaned an SUV used in the kidnapping.
Police located Fletcher around 5:07 p.m. Monday, notifying the public via a tweet shortly before 7:30 p.m. At the time, the identity of the deceased person and cause of death were unconfirmed, according to the tweet.
On Tuesday morning, police confirmed the remains found were those of Fletcher and charges of first-degree murder and first-degree murder in perpetration of a kidnapping were added against 38-year-old Cleotha Abston, who was arrested Sunday.
Fletcher, 34, was a teacher and mother of two who was abducted while jogging early Friday morning near the University of Memphis.
Abston also faces charges of especially aggravated kidnapping and tampering with evidence in the case. His arrest came roughly 12 hours after police announced they had found the GMC Terrain they believe was used in Fletcher’s abduction early Friday morning as she jogged on the University of Memphis campus.
Massive search over three days
Abston, who was released from prison in 2020 after serving two decades for the kidnapping of Memphis-based lawyer Kemper Durand, refused to tell law enforcement Fletcher’s location as of Sunday, police said.
Saturday and Sunday, Memphis police and other agencies searched Overton Park, Pine Hill Park, Longview Apartments, McMillan Street and Shawnee Avenue and an area near Interstate 240 and Mt. Moriah.
The search continued Monday throughout Memphis, including along Nonconnah Creek and near the apartment building where Abston was seen washing his clothes and the GMC Terrain.
Monday afternoon, police would not say how many locations they had searched while looking for Fletcher.
Fletcher was ‘full of life,’ loved running
A mother of two, Fletcher married her husband Richard Fletcher III at Second Presbyterian Church in 2014. The couple had two sons and were active in their church, with the Rev. George Robertson, senior pastor at Second Presbyterian, describing Fletcher as “full of life.”
A junior kindergarten teacher at St. Mary’s Episcopal School, Fletcher previously taught kindergarten at Promise Academy in Nashville and coached soccer
“She knows each student individually and does whatever she can to excite them for learning,” St. Mary’s posted on Facebook last year. “You will always find her celebrating big and small successes in the classroom.”
Fletcher was the granddaughter of the late Joseph “Joe” Orgill III, a philanthropist who ran the family-owned hardware distributor Orgill Inc. and supported causes, including Dixon Gallery and Gardens and Church Health.
She graduated Hutchison School in Memphis in 2006, according to the all-girl’s school’s website, then would go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in exercise and sports science at Baylor University and a master of art in teaching with an emphasis in elementary education at Belmont University, according to the Facebook post from St. Mary’s.
Fletcher appears to have been a dedicated runner for years. In 2019, she finished the St. Jude marathon with a time of 3:26:09, a fast enough time to qualify for the Boston Marathon, one of the most elite marathons in the world. Out of all the women running the St. Jude marathon that year, she finished 22nd.
DNA, phone records led to arrest
Memphis police were first notified of Fletcher’s disappearance by her husband, Richard Fletcher, when she did not return from her run by 7 a.m.
A man on a bike, who was riding the same route Fletcher was running, found her cellphone and a pair of Champion brand slides in the street, according to the arrest affidavit for Abston.
Police reviewed surveillance footage from the nearby Earthquake Research and Information Center on the U of M campus. Police said that video showed a black GMC Terrain passing by and then waiting for Fletcher to run past.
“A male exited the black GMC Terrain, ran aggressively toward the victim, and then forced the victim Eliza Fletcher into the passenger’s side of the vehicle,” the affidavit read. “During this abduction, there appeared to be a struggle.”
Police said the SUV was parked for approximately four minutes before driving away from the site.
Law enforcement officials, after reviewing footage, found that “approximately twenty-four minutes before the abduction, surveillance footage captured the same vehicle in the area and captured a partial plate of ___DX___.”
The slides were sent to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation for DNA testing, which later was found to match Abston in a national DNA database from a previous conviction.
MPD investigators began looking into what Abston had been doing in the days prior and after Fletcher’s disappearance and found footage of him wearing the same slides at the Malco Cordova Cinema Thursday.
During the investigation, MPD also found that the Terrain was registered to a woman, who is not being named because she has not been charged with a crime.
Police questioned the owner of Majesty’s Cleaning Service, where Abston worked. The owner verified that Abston drove the Terrain and also provided investigators with his cellphone number. That number was used to determine where Abston was at the time of Fletcher’s abduction, confirming he was in the area at the time, according to the affidavit.
U.S. Marshals found the car Saturday, parked at the address listed on an incident report from Thursday. Along with confirming the car from the license plate, surveillance footage also showed the car to have “noticeable damage” to the rear passenger-side taillight, which was also visible to marshals at the apartment complex.
When law enforcement officials tried to arrest Abston, who was in the Terrain at the time, they say he attempted to drive away but ended up being taken into custody.
Another woman was interviewed, although it is not clear from the affidavit when or where she spoke to law enforcement. The woman said she saw Abston outside the home of his brother, Mario Abston. She told investigators that Cleotha Abston did not live there but that “she saw Cleotha Abston cleaning the interior of the GMC Terrain with floor cleaner and stated that he was behaving oddly.”
The woman and Abston’s brother both told investigators they saw Abston cleaning his clothes in the house sink.
Mario Abston was also arrested Sunday on a variety of drug and weapons charges. He has not been charged in relation to Fletcher’s disappearance. Police said Mario Abston is not believed to be involved with Fletcher’s abduction.
Fletcher is still missing, and the affidavit said Abston would not provide her location to investigators.
In the affidavit, police said they believed Fletcher suffered serious injury based on the violence of the abduction, with “the suspect waiting for, then rushing toward the victim, then forcing the victim into the vehicle, where she was confined and removed and continues to be missing… Further, it is probable and apparent from witness statements that these injuries left evidence, e.g., blood, in the vehicle that the Defendant cleaned.”
Suspect convicted of prior kidnapping
Abston was also convicted of aggravated kidnapping just over 22 years ago, according to court records. He was sentenced to 24 years in that case, and his sentence ended in November 2020.
In that case, Abston had kidnapped a Memphis lawyer who worked in part for the Innocence Project.
Court records say that Kemper Durand was forced into the trunk of Abston’s car at gunpoint before being forced to drive a Mapco gas station to withdraw money from an ATM for Abston.