MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Police in Tennessee said Tuesday they had found the body of a Memphis woman abducted during a pre-dawn run, confirming fears that Eliza Fletcher was killed after she was forced into an SUV on Friday morning.
The news followed an exhaustive search throughout the long weekend with dogs, ATVs and a helicopter in a case that has drawn national media attention and is already becoming a source of partisan controversy over criminal sentencing and parole.
U.S. Marshals arrested Cleotha Abston, 38, on Saturday after police detected his DNA on a pair of sandals found near to where Fletcher was last seen, according to an arrest affidavit. Police did not find Fletcher's body until just after 5 p.m. on Monday and did not publicly confirm that the body was Fletcher's until Tuesday morning. The 34-year-old Fletcher was a school teacher and the granddaughter of a prominent Memphis businessman.
Abston was released from prison in 2020 after serving 20 years for a previous kidnapping. On Tuesday morning, he made his first court appearance on charges of kidnapping, tampering with evidence, theft, identity theft, and fraudulent use of a credit card.
Several of Fletcher's relatives were in the courtroom along with more than 20 media members as 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.
Court records showed Abston also has been charged with first-degree murder. He is scheduled to appear in court again Wednesday.
Memphis Police Director Cerelyn “CJ” Davis said it was too early in the investigation to determine how and where Fletcher was killed. Davis said the body was found behind a vacant duplex. A police affidavit said officers noticed vehicle tracks next to the duplex's driveway, and they “smelled an odor of decay.”
Purple running shorts whose appearance was consistent with those Fletcher was wearing were found in a discarded trash bag nearby, the affidavit said.
Abston previously kidnapped a prominent Memphis attorney in 2000 when he was just 16 years old. He spent 20 years in prison for that crime, but he had been sentenced to 24. Some prominent Tennessee Republicans on Tuesday were quick to argue that had Abston served his full sentence, Fletcher would still be alive.
“This case not only proves that the recently passed Truth in Sentencing Act was necessary, but that it was long overdue,” Tennessee Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said in a statement Tuesday. “We must redouble our efforts to ensure those who transgress against citizens are punished — and severely.”
The statute requires serving entire sentences for various felonies, including attempted first-degree murder, vehicular homicide resulting from the driver’s intoxication and carjacking.
Newly elected Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy, a Democrat, said Tuesday it was time for grief and “not trying to use this case as a political football.”
Mulroy has notably voiced his opposition to the truth in sentencing law, arguing it does not reduce crime and drives up Tennessee’s prison budget. Speaking Tuesday, he called Fletcher's case an “isolated attack by a stranger.” Mulroy noted that Abston served 85% of his previous sentence and the DA’s office had opposed parole.
In the earlier kidnapping, Abston forced Kemper Durand into the trunk of his own car at gunpoint, the Commercial Appeal reported. 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.
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.
Fletcher is the granddaughter of the late Joseph Orgill III, a Memphis hardware businessman and philanthropist. Her case is the latest that reinforces the fears of many female athletes when it comes to working out alone, at night or in secluded places. Crime statistics show these types of attacks are exceedingly rare. Women out for a run face much greater dangers from traffic. But the fear they inspire is real, as are smaller-scale episodes of harassment or assaults on women, even in well-populated areas.
In a statement, Fletcher's family said it was “heartbroken and devastated by this senseless loss.”
“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,” the statement said.
In a Facebook post, St. Mary's Episcopal School, where Fletcher taught kindergarten, said faculty and staff started Tuesday in chapel and lit candles to remember her as “a bright light in our community.”
Associated Press writers Kimberlee Kruesi and Travis Loller contributed to this report from Nashville, Tennessee.