By Bill Hutchinson
A body discovered in Memphis has been identified as abducted school teacher Eliza Fletcher, authorities said Tuesday.
Fletcher’s remains were found in a South Memphis residential neighborhood several miles from where she was abducted and were identified Tuesday, police said.
Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis said at a news conference Tuesday that Fletcher’s body was discovered just after 5 p.m. Monday behind a vacant duplex and that further forensic investigation confirmed the remains to be those of the missing kindergarten teacher and married mother of two.
The grim news came as 38-year-old Cleotha Abston, the suspect in the kidnapping, made his first court appearance Tuesday and was arraigned on charges of especially aggravated kidnapping and tampering with evidence in connection with Fletcher’s disappearance, said Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy.
Mulroy said Abston is scheduled to return to court on Wednesday to be arraigned on additional charges of first-degree murder, premeditated murder and first-degree perpetration of kidnapping.
During Tuesday’s court hearing, a judge said he will appoint an attorney from the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office to represent Abston, who informed the judge that he cannot afford an attorney on his own.
Abston previously served 20 years in prison for a gunpoint kidnapping in 2000 of a prominent Memphis attorney, according to a report by The Commercial Appeal , a Memphis newspaper. Abston, who was 16 at the time, forced the attorney into the trunk of a car and made him withdraw cash from an ATM, the newspaper reported.
“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,” Mulroy said. “We will do our best to bring justice to this tragic situation.”
Davis said Abston was also charged over the weekend with counts unrelated to Fletcher’s abduction, including identity theft, theft of property valued at $1,000 or less and fraudulent use of a credit card.
Abston is being held at the Shelby County Jail in Memphis on $500,000 bail.
“While the outcome of this investigation is not what we hoped for, we are nonetheless pleased to remove this dangerous predator off the streets of Memphis,” Davis said.MORE: Video shows violent abduction of missing Memphis jogger: Criminal complaint
She said the investigation remains active and did not rule out the possibility of more arrests connected to the case.
Davis declined to comment on what led investigators to the duplex where Fletcher’s body was found, but she noted, “We have not gotten very much information from that individual (Abston).” She also said it was too soon to comment on how and when Fletcher was killed.
Mulroy said Fletcher’s family members have been fully cooperative with law enforcement throughout the ordeal and slammed “baseless speculation” that said otherwise.
“We have no reason to think this is anything other than an isolated attack by a stranger,” Mulroy said.
The Fletcher family released a statement Tuesday, saying, “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,” the family said. “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.”
Fletcher was last seen jogging in the area of Central Avenue and Zach Curlin Street in midtown Memphis, near the University of Memphis campus in southwest Tennessee, on Friday morning around 4:20 a.m. local time, according to the Memphis Police Department. She was approached by a man and forced into a dark-colored GMC Terrain, which then took off, traveling westbound on Central Avenue, police said.
Fletcher’s husband, Richard Fletcher, reported her missing about three hours later, telling investigators that she never returned home from her regular 4 a.m. run, according to an affidavit of the complaint made public Sunday by the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office.
Fletcher was the granddaughter of Joseph “Joe” Orgill III, a prominent Tennessee businessman who died in 2018. Her family had offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to her safe return. The family released a video statement over the weekend pleading for people to come forward with information on Fletcher’s whereabouts.
According to the affidavit, police believe Fletcher suffered “serious injury” during the abduction, which was captured on surveillance video.MORE: Man, woman allegedly held at gunpoint by kidnapping suspect while hiking in Colorado
The video showed a black GMC Terrain initially driving by Fletcher as she jogged, then stopping in a parking lot ahead of her and waiting for her to come by, according to the affidavit.
“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. During this abduction, there appeared to be a struggle,” the affidavit states.
Citing the video, investigators said the SUV sat in a parking lot with the victim inside for about four minutes before it drove off, according to the affidavit.
The video also captured the same SUV in the area of the kidnapping about 24 minutes prior to the abduction, the affidavit alleges.MORE: 6-year-old speaks out after saving herself from attempted kidnapping
U.S. Marshals arrested Abston on Saturday after learning that the registered owner of the GMC Terrain lived at the same residence as Abston, according to the affidavit. As the U.S. Marshals Service moved in to make the arrests, Abston allegedly tried to flee in the SUV but was quickly taken into custody.
During questioning, Abston, who works at a dry cleaners, refused to tell investigators anything about Fletcher’s whereabouts, according to the affidavit.
Officials at the St. Mary’s Episcopal School, the all-girls school where Fletcher taught, released a statement Tuesday, saying, “We are heartbroken at the loss of our beloved teacher, colleague, and friend Liza Fletcher.”
“This morning our faculty and staff started the day in chapel. We lit candles to remember Liza who was a bright light in our community,” the school’s statement said. “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.'”
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and his wife, Maria, also released a statement, expressing condolences to Fletcher’s family and praising the swift work of law enforcement in identifying and capturing the suspect.
“Maria & I are heartbroken by the tragic death of Eliza Fletcher, a dedicated teacher, wife & mother of two,” the governor wrote. “We lift the Fletcher family up in prayer during this time of unspeakable grief. I thank law enforcement for their tireless efforts & trust justice will be swift & severe.”
- Mark Weber/Daily Memphian via AP – PHOTO: Cleotha Abston appears in Judge Louis Montesi courtroom for his arraignment on Sept. 6, 2022 in Memphis, Tenn.
- Shelby County Sheriffs Office – PHOTO: Cleotha Abston, 38, has been charged with especially aggravated kidnapping and tampering with evidence in the case of missing jogger Eliza Fletcher, 34. who police said was abducted in Memphis, Tennessee, on Sept. 2, 2022.
- Memphis Police Department – PHOTO: Memphis police released this image of the suspect’s car in the alleged abduction..
- Mark Weber/Daily Memphian via AP – PHOTO: Memphis police officers search an area where a body had been found in South Memphis, Tenn., near Victor Street and East Person Ave., Monday, Sept. 5, 2022.
Featured Photo: Memphis Police Department – PHOTO: Memphis police released this undated photo of Eliza Fletcher.
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