The body of a kindergarten teacher in Memphis, Tennessee, who was abducted last week during an early morning jog has been found, the city’s police department said Tuesday.
The teacher and mother of two, Eliza Fletcher, 34, who also went by Liza, was last seen jogging near the University of Memphis campus about 4:30 a.m. Friday when, police say, she was forced into a dark-colored SUV.
Her body was found behind a vacant duplex apartment in South Memphis on Monday afternoon, a day after police detained Cleotha Abston, 38, who was charged in her disappearance. The Memphis Police Department said Tuesday that, in addition to previously announced kidnapping charges, Abston had been charged with first-degree murder. Abston had been in the SUV used in the abduction, court records said.
Abston’s brother Mario Abston, 36, was also arrested over the weekend, but that was not believed to be connected to the abduction, police said. Mario Abston faces drug and weapon possession charges.
The investigation is still ongoing. It is too early to know if more people will be charged, officials said during a Tuesday morning news conference. The place and manner of Fletcher’s death were still under investigation, Memphis Police Chief C.J. Davis said.
Fletcher’s remains were found about 7 miles from where she was abducted but just blocks from Mario Abston’s apartment.
“Today is a very sad day in the city of Memphis,” Davis said Tuesday morning. “First I’d like to express our sincere condolences to the family, friends and numerous others who have been impacted by the tragic and heinous kidnapping of Eliza Fletcher.”
Fletcher was a joy to family, friends, students, colleagues and her church community, her family said in a written statement Tuesday afternoon.
“Now it’s time to remember and celebrate how special she was and to support those who cared so much for her,” they wrote. “We appreciate all the expressions of love and concern we have received.”
Cleotha Abston was sentenced to 24 years in prison in 2001 in the abduction of Kemper Durand, a well-known Memphis lawyer, as well as a charge of aggravated robbery, court records show. The formal charge in the abduction case was “especially aggravated kidnapping.” He was released in November 2020.
On Friday, officers were dispatched at 7:45 a.m. after Fletcher’s husband, Richard Fletcher, reported that she had not returned home, according to court records.
Video surveillance showed that a person exited the SUV when Eliza Fletcher went by, ran toward her and forced her into the passenger’s side of the vehicle. “There appeared to be a struggle,” court records said.
A person who was biking in the area around 6:45 a.m. found Fletcher’s cellphone and gave it to her family, who turned it over to police, court records said. The biker also found a pair of shoes in the same area.
The shoes were linked by DNA testing to Abston, and video evidence also showed him wearing the shoes, court records said. Authorities, relying on cellphone data, tracked Abston’s phone to near where Fletcher was forced into the SUV.
Court records said he “declined to provide investigators with the location of the victim.”
“It is believed and supported by the facts and physical evidence that she suffered serious injury,” court records said. “Further, it is probable and apparent from witness statements that these injuries left evidence, e.g., blood, in the vehicle that the defendant cleaned.”
Shantel Anthony, whose connection to Abston is not clear, said that she saw him cleaning the interior of the SUV with floor cleaner and that he was “behaving oddly,” court records said.
Abston worked for a cleaning service, his employer confirmed to police. He drives the SUV that was captured in the surveillance footage, the employer also said.
Abston was at the home of Mario Abston, who said his brother was acting “very strange.” Cleotha Abston washed his clothes in the sink at the house, according to court records.
A public defender was requested for Abston on Tuesday with a court appearance scheduled for 9 a.m. Wednesday, according to court records.
“We have no reason to think this is anything other than an isolated attack by a stranger,” Steve Mulroy, the Shelby County district attorney, said Tuesday.
Fletcher’s grandfather, Joseph Orgill III, was a wealthy philanthropist who ran Orgill Inc., a hardware distributor based in Memphis with a revenue of $3.2 billion last year. He died in 2018. Contrary to media reports, he was not a billionaire, his family said in a statement.
Fletcher was a junior kindergarten teacher at St. Mary’s Episcopal School in Memphis.
“We are heartbroken at the loss of our beloved teacher, colleague and friend Liza Fletcher,” the school posted on Facebook, adding, “We lit candles to remember Liza who was a bright light in our community. Liza embodied the song that we sing every week in Early Childhood chapel, ‘This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.’ ”