A body found in a Memphis neighborhood Monday was confirmed to be a Tennessee woman who was abducted late last week, police said Tuesday. Eliza Fletcher, 34, was seen on surveillance video being forced into an SUV while she was jogging near the University of Memphis early Friday morning.
The suspect arrested in the case, 38-year-old Cleotha Abston, is being charged with first-degree murder and first-degree murder in perpetration of kidnapping, police said. Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis told reporters it was possible others would be charged in the case but as of Tuesday morning no one else has been.
Abston hasn’t provided much information to investigators, Davis said. “We are still working with that suspect,” she said.
According to the chief, it was too early for investigators to determine how and where Fletcher died. Her body was found behind a vacant duplex, Davis said.
A police affidavit said officers noticed vehicle tracks next to the duplex’s driveway and smelled an odor. Purple running shorts consistent with the shorts Fletcher was wearing were found in a discarded trash bag nearby, the affidavit said.
Steven Mulroy, the district attorney for Shelby County, which includes Memphis, said Abston would be arraigned on the murder charges Wednesday.
“We have no reason to think this was anything other than an isolated attack by a stranger,” Mulroy told reporters.
Abston appeared before a judge earlier Tuesday on charges of kidnapping, tampering with evidence, theft, identity theft and fraudulent use of a credit card. Relatives of Fletcher and more than 20 media members were in the courtroom.
Abston was issued a $510,000 bond. Abston said he could not afford bond and he could not afford a lawyer. General Sessions Judge Louis Montesi appointed a public defender to represent Abston.
U.S. Marshals arrested Abston on Saturday after police detected his DNA on a pair of sandals found near where Fletcher was last seen, according to an arrest affidavit.
Cellphone records allegedly pinged Abston to the area at the time of the kidnapping, CBS News correspondent Elise Preston reports. According to records, Abston’s brother told police he spotted Abston acting strange and washing the interior of his car with floor cleaner.
Police also linked the vehicle they believe was used in the kidnapping to a person at a home where Abston was staying.
Late Monday, police tweeted that a body had been found but that the identity of that person and the cause of death was unconfirmed. A large police presence was reported in the area where authorities reported finding the body just after 5 p.m. Memphis police had searched several locations with dogs, ATVs and a helicopter throughout the long Labor Day weekend.
Fletcher, a mother of two and a school teacher, is the granddaughter of the late Joseph Orgill III, a Memphis hardware businessman and philanthropist. The family offered a $50,000 reward for information in the case.
In a statement Tuesday, the family said they were “grateful beyond measure” to authorities for finding Fletcher and for arresting a suspect.
“We are heartbroken and devastated by this senseless loss,” the family said. “Liza was a such a joy to so many … Now it’s time to remember and celebrate how special she was and to support those who cared so much for her.”
Fletcher taught kindergarten at St. Mary’s Episcopal School in Memphis. On social media, the school said faculty and staff started Tuesday in chapel. “We lit candles to remember Liza who was a bright light in our community,” the school said on Twitter.
Abston previously kidnapped a prominent Memphis attorney in 2000, the Commercial Appeal reported. When he was just 16 years old, Abston forced 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.
Durand, in a victim impact statement, wrote, “I was extremely lucky that I was able to escape from the custody of Cleotha Abston. … It is quite likely that I would have been killed had I not escaped,” the Commercial Appeal reported.
Durand died in 2013, seven years before Abston would be released in November 2020 at age 36. In the two years since his release, there were no further documented charges against Abston in Shelby County prior to his Saturday arrest, the Commercial Appeal reported.
During Tuesday morning’s press conference, Mulroy seemed to refer to Abston’s criminal history, saying, “Any kind of violence, of course, is unacceptable, but repeat violent offenders particularly deserve a strong response, and that’s what they’ll get from this district attorney’s office.”