Missing Memphis mother found dead: What we know about Eliza Fletcher’s murder

Here’s a look at the timeline and what we know so far about the abduction and murder of the woman who went missing while jogging near the University of Memphis.

By Kim Chaney

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The abduction and murder of Memphis mother and teacher Eliza Fletcher has shaken the Mid-South, and garnered national attention. In less than a week, it has forever changed the lives of families, friends, and the community.

Here’s a look at what we know about the crime so far.

The abduction

Memphis Police said the mother and St. Mary’s Episcopal School junior kindergarten teacher was jogging about 4 a.m. Friday, Sept. 2, 2022, near Central Ave. and Zach H. Curlin St. in the University of Memphis area.

The University of Memphis Police called MPD to assist around 7 a.m. Friday after receiving a missing person report for Fletcher, known as Liza. According to an affidavit for the suspect – Cleotha Abston – surveillance video showed a black GMC Terrain passing Fletcher, then waiting for her to run by.

Investigators said video showed a man get out and struggle with Fletcher before forcing her into the SUV. Police said the SUV then sat in the parking lot with Fletcher inside for about four minutes before the driver took off.

University of Memphis police issued a Safety Alert to students and staff about the abduction, and Memphis Police issued a City Watch Alert for the missing jogger.

Credit: Memphis Police Department

The Investigation

According to the police affidavit, investigators said video showed the GMC Terrain used in the kidnapping had noticeable damage to the back-passenger taillight area. They also said footage taken 24 minutes before the abduction was clear enough to provide them with a partial view of the license plate.

Friday morning, investigators said a pair of sandals, along with Fletcher’s cell phone and water bottle, were found by a bicyclist in front of a home owned by the university in the 3800 block of Central Ave. They said the person who found the items gave them to Fletcher’s family, who turned them into police, according to the affidavit.

The sandals were sent to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) and investigators said DNA found on the shoes matched the DNA of the suspect – Abston – from their “CODIS” database. According to the affidavit, Abston was then developed as a person of interest, and investigators found surveillance footage of Abston at a Malco theater on Germantown Parkway wearing the same sandals a day before the kidnapping.

Suspect’s arrest

According to the police affidavit, a witness told investigators they saw Abston just a few hours after the abduction on Friday, around 7:50 a.m., at the Longview Gardens Apartments in the 1700 block of South Orleans Street, reported to be his brother’s apartment. The witness told investigators Abston was cleaning the interior of the GMC Terrain, and they saw him through the apartment window washing his clothes in the sink.

The affidavit said investigators connected Abston to the GMC through his home residence and witnesses who saw him regularly drive the SUV. Police also said they were able to get a cell phone number for Abston, which they said records and analysis were able to show was in the area near Central Ave. at the time of Fletcher’s abduction.

On Saturday morning, Sept. 3, 2022, U.S. Marshals located the GMC Terrain in the area of Waterstone Way in southeast Memphis. According to the affidavit, they were able to confirm a match based on the license plate and the damage to the rear taillight.

They said a man matching Abston’s description was standing in the doorway of the residence where the car was parked. Investigators said when officers approached Abston he tried to run but was detained inside the SUV.

Sunday, Sept. 4, the 38-year-old was charged with especially aggravated kidnapping and tampering with evidence as the search for Fletcher continued. According to the police affidavit, Abston declined to provide investigators with the location of the victim.

Credit: Shelby County Jail
Memphis police have arrested 38-year-old Cleotha Abston in connection with the abduction of Eliza Fletcher.

Suspect’s history

After his arrest, we learned Abston was previously convicted in 2000 of especially aggravated kidnapping and aggravated robbery in Shelby County, according to the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC).

In that case, when he was just 16-years-old, Abston forced prominent Memphis attorney Kemper Durand into the trunk of his own car at gunpoint. After several hours, Abston took Durand out and forced him to drive to a Mapco gas station to withdraw money from an ATM. At the station, an armed Memphis Housing Authority guard walked in and Durand yelled for help. Abston ran away but was found and arrested. He pleaded guilty in 2001 to especially aggravated kidnapping and aggravated robbery, according to court records. He received a 24-year sentence and was released in November 2020. Durand died in 2013.

Monday, Sept. 5, court records revealed new charges filed against Abston. He was charged with identity theft, theft of property $1,000 or less, and fraudulent use/illegal possession of credit/debit card $1,000 or less for a theft the day before the kidnapping.

According to the affidavit for those newer charges, a woman (not Fletcher) reported her wallet was stolen Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022, while she was at work at the Malco in the 1000 block of Germantown Pkwy. Investigators said video showed an employee of the cleaning service, identified as Cleotha Henderson (aka Abston), taking the wallet. (This is the same video where investigators said he was wearing the sandals left behind at the scene of the abduction.) According to the affidavit, the victim got texts about her cards being used, and police determined they had been used at two gas stations for more than $910.

Fletcher’s body found

As we learned new information on the suspect, the search continued for Fletcher. Family and friends held out hope she would be found alive.

The FBI, TBI, and multiple other federal investigation agencies joined Memphis Police to search several wooded and residential areas in the city, especially in South Memphis.

Monday evening, searchers were checking out a South Memphis area near a vacant home in the 1600 block of Victor not far from where Abston had been seen cleaning the GMC Terrain.

According to the affidavit, searchers noticed high grass near a home on Victor near Person Ave. Police said they noticed vehicle tracks in the driveway and “the odor of decay.” Then while searching around the home about 5 p.m., they found the body of a woman.

According to the affidavit for the murder charges, investigators found a garbage bag with shorts matching those Fletcher was last seen wearing. Investigators also said surveillance video showed the GMC Terrain in that area in the couple hours after the abduction.

ABC24 crews were at the scene when a transport van with the medical examiner’s office left around 11:28 p.m. Monday.

Tuesday morning about 8:40 a.m., Memphis Police canceled the City Watch Alert for Fletcher, then tweeted out minutes later confirming the body found at that location was indeed Fletcher.

Abston in court

Abston appeared in court Tuesday morning on the original kidnapping and tampering with evidence charges, and the charges in the theft the day before the abduction.

His bond had previously been set at $510,000 for those, however, prosecutors Tuesday morning said they would request no bond when he is arraigned on the new murder charges at his next hearing, set for Wednesday morning.

Credit: Bradley Broders

News conference with Memphis and Mid-South officials

A news conference was held Tuesday morning following Abston’s appearance in court. Memphis Police Chief CJ Davis, FBI, ATF, US Marshals, and new Shelby County District Attorney General Steve Mulroy all spoke.

Chief Davis called it a sad day for Memphis and said, “while the outcome is not what we hoped for, we are happy to get this perpetrator off the streets.” Davis said it is too early for them to say where or how Fletcher died. She said MPD followed hundreds of tips, and the investigation is ongoing.

Mulroy said they believe this is a “random attack by a stranger.” He said the family has asked for media to respect their privacy and allow them to grieve.

Statement from Fletcher’s family

Eliza Fletcher’s family released this statement Tuesday morning: “We are heartbroken and devastated by this senseless loss. Liza was a such a joy to so many – her family, friends, colleagues, students, parents, members of her Second Presbyterian Church congregation, and everyone who knew her. 

Now it’s time to remember and celebrate how special she was and to support those who cared so much for her. We appreciate all the expressions of love and concern we have received. We are grateful beyond measure to local, state and federal law enforcement for their tireless efforts to find Liza and to bring justice to the person responsible for this horrible crime. 

We hope that everyone, including media representatives, understand the need for the family to grieve in privacy without outside intrusion during this painful time.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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