Eliza Fletcher was a pre-kindergarten teacher and married mother of two who was abducted and murdered in Memphis, Tennessee, while jogging in the early morning hours of September 2, 2022.
On September 4, 2022, Memphis police announced the arrest of a suspect, Cleotha Abston, a felon who was charged with kidnapping and is now also facing first-degree murder and other charges. Read more about him here. Abston, known as “Pookie” and “Wild,” was recently released from prison after being convicted in 2001 of kidnapping a Memphis defense attorney, who was stuffed into the trunk of his for two hours. Abston had shared photos of guns on Facebook.
Authorities found Fletcher’s body behind a vacant apartment, they announced on September 6, 2022, ending a multi-day search that had gripped the city. The police chief said it was too early to determine the place and cause of death for Fletcher.
In a press conference on September 6, Memphis police Chief C.J. Davis said, “Today is a very sad day in the city of Memphis.” She expressed condolences to the family and friends impacted by the “heinous” kidnapping and murder of Fletcher. At 5:07 p.m. on September 5, police discovered human remains at the rear of a vacant duplex apartment 1600 block of Victor Street. The body was then positively identified as Fletcher, Davis said. Authorities described Fletcher as touching many lives.
The amended affidavit provided more disturbing details into Fletcher’s death.
It says that authorities searched for Fletcher near East Person Avenue and Victor Street on September 5, 2022, based on data from the FBI. An officer noticed high grass south of a vacant residence, vehicle tracks in the grass and smelled “an odor of decay.”
Immediately to the right of the steps, the officer “located an unresponsivle female lying on the ground.”
About 100 feet north of 1591 S. Orleans Street, officers found a discarded trash bag that contained the purple Lululemon shorts consistent with those Fletcher was wearing to jog.
Video analysis captured the suspect’s vehicle on the morning of the abduction between 5:48 a.m. and 5:52 a.m. driving to different locations.
Steven J. Mulroy, the District Attorney, said the murder was an “isolated attack by a stranger,” and that Fletcher’s family was always cooperative with authorities. He read a message from the family: “Please respect their privacy. Please allow them to grieve. At an appropriate time, they will be making a statement.”
The police affidavit paints a terrifying scene in which Abston, 38, is accused of waiting for Fletcher to run by, then rushing her and forcing her into his vehicle. He was later seen cleaning the SUV. Cleotha Abston “declined to provide investigators with the location of the victim,” according to the affidavit.
The affidavit describes the abduction as “violent,” with the suspect, “waiting for, then rushing toward the victim.” Authorities believe Fletcher, 34, “suffered serious injury” that probably left “evidence, e.g. blood, in the vehicle that the defendant cleaned.”
Fletcher goes by the name Liza Fletcher on Facebook, but authorities gave her name as Eliza Fletcher. She is from a prominent Memphis family, the granddaughter of a well-known philanthropist and business owner who died in 2018. The Daily Beast referred to her as a “billionaire’s granddaughter.”
Fletcher’s abduction occurred near the University of Memphis campus, Memphis police wrote in a news release.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Police Have Charged Cleotha Abston With ‘Especially Aggravated Kidnapping,’ Saying He ‘Aggressively’ Rushed Fletcher
The police affidavit reveals chilling details. It says they responded to a missing person report in the 1500 block of Carr Avenue at 7 a.m. September 2. Richard Fletcher advised that his wife went for her regular run around 4 a.m. and did not return home.
At about 6:45 a.m., a citizen on a bike found her cellphone and a pair of men’s Champion slides laying in the street in the same area. Investigators then obtained video that showed a black GMC Terrain passing and then waiting for Fletcher to run by.
A male exited the Terrain and “ran aggressively toward the victim,” forcing her into the passenger’s side of the vehicle after a struggle. The Champion slides were found in that area. The vehicle then sat in a parking lot, with the victim inside it, for about four minutes.
Police obtained a partial license plate number from other video, and they sent the Champion slides for DNA testing and got a hit in the CODIS database: Cleotha Abston (Henderson).
Authorities then worked on confirming Abston’s whereabouts “before, during and after the abduction.” They obtained surveillance footage of him wearing the same slides the day before the abduction at a Malco Theatre location. They found that he resided in the 5700 block of Waterstone Oak Way, a location with active utilities in the name of Gwendolyn Brown, who has a black 2013 GMC Terrain registered to her name.
They also located a September 1, 2022, police report for Abston that listed his address at Waterstone Oak Way. The affidavit does not explain what that report was about.
The affidavit continues to allege that:
The owner of Majesty’s Cleaning Service verified that she employed Abston and he drives a GMC Terrain.
Police determined Abston’s cell phone was near the area where Fletcher was forced into the Terrain at the time of the abduction. At 10:45 a.m. on September 3, 2022, the GMC Terrain was located by members of the U.S. Marshals Service.
Officers detained Abston when they saw him standing in a doorway. He tried to flee but was taken into custody.
A woman told police that she saw Abston at around 7:50 a.m. on the day of the abduction. He was at a different home — that of his brother, Mario Abston. He was cleaning the interior of the GMC Terrain with floor cleaner and “behaving oddly.”
Mario Abston stated that he saw Cleotha Abston cleaning the interior of the car with floor cleaner. Both also saw Abston washing his clothes in a sink in the house. Mario stated that Abston was “acting very strange.”
Police announced that Abston was charged in connection with Fletcher’s disappearance on their Facebook page.
“The individual who was detained has been officially charged in connection with the abduction of Eliza Fletcher. At this point in the investigation, Cleotha Abston, 38, has been charged with Especially Aggravated Kidnapping and Tampering with Evidence,” they wrote.
“Eliza Fletcher has not been located at this time. MPD Investigators and officers, along with our local and federal partners, continue searching for Mrs. Fletcher.”
A second individual, currently not believed to be connected to Fletcher’s abduction, was also arrested during this investigation. Mario Abston, 36, was charged with Possession of a Controlled Substance with Intent to Manufacture and Sell Fentanyl, Possession of a Controlled Substance with Intent to Manufacture and Sell Heroin, and Convicted Felon in Possession of a Firearm During the Commission of a Dangerous Felony.
This remains to be an active and ongoing investigation.
We continue to ask for assistance from the community. If anyone has any information concerning this investigation, they should call CrimeStoppers at 901-528-CASH.
University of Memphis police said in a safety alert that Fletcher regularly “runs on Central Avenue,” they wrote, and she was “reported missing after not returning home” at 7 a.m. Her “cell phone and water bottle were discovered in front of a house in the 3800 block of Central that is owned by the University.”
The phone was smashed, according to Action News 5.
In a city watch alert, Memphis police characterized Eliza W. Fletcher, 34, as a “missing adult.”
“Victim went running early morning, was abducted, and forced into a mid-sized dark-colored SUV,” police wrote.
They said Fletcher is a white female, 5 foot 6 inches tall, 137 pounds, with brown hair, green eyes, hair in a bun, a pink jogging top and purple running shorts. The suspect was described as an unknown male. People with information are encouraged to call the Memphis Police Department at 901-545-COPS (2677). Others have described her hair as blonde.
In a short news conference, Memphis police said that the University of Memphis called the Memphis Police Department, and initially they were “handling possibly a missing person.”
Police said in the news conference that they were not aware of a connection to a dark SUV harassing members of the University of Memphis women’s cross country team.
They also have not indicated any connection between Fletcher’s abduction and the kidnapping of a young mother and child by gunpoint at a Memphis Target store on Wednesday. In that case, however, the victims were released after they withdrew $800 out of an ATM.
2. Loved Ones Say Liza Fletcher, a Teacher & Avid Runner, Qualified for the Boston Marathon & Was a College Athlete; Her Family Spoke at a News Conference Before the Arrest
Fletcher’s family held a news conference and spoke publicly on her abduction for the first time on September 3, 2022.
Fletcher’s uncle read a statement, including from her husband, brother, and parents. Richie Fletcher and the other family members flanked the uncle.
Fletcher is listed as a teacher at St. Mary’s Episcopal School under the name Liza Fletcher.
Her husband, Richie Fletcher III, works as a dealership manager for a Memphis boat center and was previously a Coast Guard mechanic, according to his LinkedIn page. The Fletchers have two small children. His full name is Richard Fletcher III.
“We want to start by thanking everyone for their prayers and outpouring of support. Liza has touched the hearts of many people and it shows. We want to thank the Memphis Police Department, Shelby County Sheriff’s Department, TBI, FBI and all of the other law enforcement agencies who are working tirelessly to find Liza,” the uncle said.
“The family has met with police and we have shared with them all the information we know. More than anything we want to see Liza returned home safely. The family has offered a reward for any information that leads to her safe return. We believe someone knows what happened and can help. If you have any information on this crime or Liza’s location, call the police at 901-545-COPS or CrimeStoppers, 901-528-CASH.”
Journalist Ian Ripple reported, before Abston’s arrest, that police had removed items from Fletcher’s home.
“Police are towing this vehicle from the home in the investigation of Eliza Fletcher’s abduction. We also saw a computer and lawn shears tagged as evidence and removed from the home,” he tweeted.
Various items were marked as evidence, and a $50,000 reward is being offered, he reported.
Family members asked for the community’s help in finding Fletcher.
“Liza Fletcher is my niece and she was abducted this morning while jogging on Central near the U of Memphis campus around 4:30 am. She was forced into a dark SUV. If you have seen her or have any of info please call 911,” her aunt, Jennifer Sink, wrote on Facebook. Sink works as the chief legal officer for the City of Memphis at Memphis City Attorney’s Office.
In college, she played soccer for the University of Memphis. That bio says that Eliza, then Eliza Wellford, was born in Memphis, and it reads:
A four-year All-Region player who prepped at Hutchison School … A four-time Commercial Appeal Best of Preps All-Metro Team selection and was the finalist for All-Metro Player of the Year in 2004 and 2005 … All-state as a junior and senior … Named the Most Valuable Player in 2003 … Coached in high school by former Memphis soccer player Larry Creson … Led school team to a 15-4-2 record as a senior … Scored four goals against Collierville in 2005 … Totaled 28 goals with five assists as a senior and 87 goals with 22 assists in her four years at Hutchison … Play club soccer with the Memphis Mercury, coached by U of M assistant Jodi Grant … Was a teammate of fellow Lady Tigers Brittany Baldwin and Lia Fannin … Also a four-year letterwinner in track and was named to The Commercial Appeal Best of Preps All-Metro team from 2001-05 … Named the Outstanding Athlete at the Harding Relays in 2004 and was the pentathlon winner in 2004.
A friend wrote in a Facebook group devoted to finding Fletcher: “She is an avid runner, mother and teacher. She qualified for the Boston Marathon. You can’t teach, raise children and train all in regular business hours. She is a phenomenal amazing woman who needs our help, not any judgment.”
Hutchinson School posted, “Hutchison family, we ask that you please join us in praying for the safe return of Liza Wellford Fletcher ’06. She was abducted this morning near the University of Memphis while running. She is a beloved alumna, and we pray for her safety and for her family.”
3. Fletcher Showcased Pictures of Her Family on Social Media & Wrote About Her Love of True Crime Podcasts
On her Facebook page, Fletcher showcased photos of her husband, Richie Fletcher, and their two young children. Her most recent post, in 2021, other than a profile picture of her family, reads, “Need a new general practitioner. Can someone recommend a good, easy to get an appointment of Dr or NP?”
Other photos show her wedding.
Fletcher’s Facebook posts were about mundane activities. “I need tv show recommendations…? I’m up for older shows or newer ones,” read one. In one post, though, she told her friends she was looking for a new true-crime podcast.
She also wrote about running: “Long distance runners, what do you think is the best form of cross training?”
She wrote, “Best podcasts to listen to while running. I liked serial, up and vanished and dr death. I enjoy the happy hour and I’ll have another.”
Her Instagram page is filled with photos of her husband and kids, biking, family trips and so forth. She wrote recently on Instagram,
The boys woke me with handmade cards, balloons and breakfast. I love my family. I am an imperfect mother. Everyday I am working to move from rigidity to flexibility, shame to grace, perfection and criticism to acceptance and gratefulness. I want to be a mom that is a safe place for the boys to feel, be themselves and fail while learning. As a raise these boys I am reteaching my inner child at the same time. Gotta give a shout out to @fletch_livves who goes through this process with me and loves me at the same time. #surrender
View this post on Instagram
@fletch_livves is the Instagram page of her husband, Richie Fletcher, a long-distance bicycle rider. In March, he wrote on Instagram, “8 years in the making with this smoking hot babe! Wouldn’t want it any other way.”
The page has now been set to private.
In February, Richie Fletcher wrote, “The boys and I had a blast chasing Mom around the mountains as she ran her first 50k trail run!”
His most recent Instagram posts were focused on a VW van he was fixing up. Four days before his wife was abducted, Richie Fletcher posted a video showing her boating with their kids. He frequently posted pictures showing the couple on date nights, involved in outdoors activities, or with their children.
4. Fletcher Is From a Well-Known Memphis Family & Is Active in Church
According to the Commercial Appeal, Fletcher is from a well-known family in Memphis. She is “the granddaughter of the late Joseph ‘Joe’ Orgill III,” described by the publication as a “Memphis hardware businessman and philanthropist who has supported causes including Dixon Gallery and Gardens and Church Health.”
Orgill’s obituary says he left behind nine grandchildren at the time of his death.
She married Richard Fletcher III in 2014, Memphis Magazine reported. That article described the nuptials as a “Memorable Memphis Wedding.” Richard Fletcher III is also called Richie Fletcher.
The magazine described Fletcher as “a ‘natural’ girl — outdoorsy, athletic and warm — and the plans for her wedding emanated from her personality and style.” The story noted that Fletcher’s parents, “Adele and Beasley Wellford, were happy to be able to give their daughter the woodland-themed wedding she envisioned.”
The story continued, “The wedding ceremony was held at nearby Second Presbyterian Church, which was indeed where the happy couple met; the officiant was Reverend Mitchell Moore. Echoing the naturalistic theme, Liza’s elegant wedding gown by Austin Scarlett was painted with pale mauve flowers.”
George Robertson, the senior pastor at Second Presbyterian Church, told the Commercial Appeal, “She and her husband Ritchie are both very active and great leaders in our congregation. They have two little boys who have come up to me every week and give me a hug.”
5. There Was a Sudden Flurry of Law Enforcement Activity in the Case in Sunday Night, September 3, 2022
On Saturday, September 3, 2022, there was a sudden flurry of activity in the case. Memphis police tweeted, “UPDATE: the vehicle of interest has been located and a male who was occupying the vehicle has been detained. Eliza Fletcher has not been located. This is an ongoing investigation. Anyone with information should call CrimeStoppers at 901-528-CASH.”
According to ABC24, the SUV crashed into an ATF vehicle. A woman who lives in the apartment complex near where the SUV was found posted photos showing crime scene tape around the grounds and a pond and wrote, “…It’s yellow tape EVERYWHERE… now it’s 2 tow trucks and ambulance over here.” Social media comments indicated the apartment complex is called Lakes at Ridgeway and is about 15-20 minutes from the abduction scene.
There was a massive law enforcement presence at the Memphis apartment complex.
A woman shared photos showing crime scene tape near a Family Dollar and McDonald’s restaurant and claimed a McDonald’s employee told them clothes were found in a dumpster. However, authorities have not confirmed the latter information.
ABC24 journalist Ian Ripple tweeted photos from that scene, writing, “Now there is a large police presence at this shopping center a few miles from the apartment complex where a vehicle matching the description was towed. Can’t confirm a relation to #ElizaFletcher investigation. Some of these officers were also searching Overton Park last night.”
Memphis police immediately released photos of the suspect SUV.
“Officers have been able to obtain video of the possible suspect’s vehicle,” Memphis police wrote.
In one Facebook group devoted to the case, people claim you can see what might be a masked face or dog through the windshield when the photo is enlarged.
Later on Friday evening, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation released updated vehicle information, saying it was a dark-colored GMC Terrain.
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