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Police identify body of abducted runner Eliza Fletcher

Police have identified a body found Monday as that of 34-year-old Eliza Fletcher, who was abducted and forced into a vehicle while jogging. (Memphis Police Department/AP)

A body found Monday has been identified as that of a kindergarten teacher who was abducted during an early-morning run last week in Memphis, authorities announced Tuesday.

Eliza Fletcher, 34, who also went by “Liza,” was last seen around 4:20 a.m. Friday, running in a pink top and purple shorts near the University of Memphis campus. Surveillance footage captured the mother of two being forced into a black SUV, and as authorities mounted an extensive search over Labor Day weekend, Memphis police said they feared she had suffered “serious injury.”

Investigators found Fletcher’s body behind a vacant home several miles from where she was abducted. The discovery came a day after the arrest of a suspect, Cleotha Abston, who will now face murder charges on top of the kidnapping charges initially filed against him, police said. The 38-year-old had been released from prison in November 2020 after serving nearly 20 years for a 2000 kidnapping.

“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,” the city’s police chief, Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis, said during a news conference. She called it “very sad day in the city.”

The suspect’s brother was also arrested over the weekend but was not believed to be connected to the abduction, Memphis police said. Mario Abston, 36, is facing drug and weapons-possession charges.

Authorities said it was too early to say whether others would be charged in Fletcher’s kidnapping and death. They said they were still determining where and how she was killed, stressing that the investigation is ongoing.

Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy said there was “no reason to think this was anything other than an isolated attack by a stranger.”

In a statement released to local media Tuesday, Fletcher’s family said they were “heartbroken and devastated by this senseless loss.”

“Liza was 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.”

The search for Fletcher began early Friday morning, when her husband told police that she had not returned from her regular 4 a.m. run, according to court records filed in Shelby County. At about 6:45 a.m., a bicyclist discovered the missing woman’s cellphone along with a pair of Champion sandals in a roadway just outside the college campus.

Investigators tracked down surveillance footage from the area, which showed a black GMC Terrain passing and then waiting for Fletcher to run by, the affidavit said. A man climbed out of the vehicle, “ran aggressively” toward her and then forced her into the passenger side of the car. The vehicle lingered in the parking lot for about four minutes after the woman was pulled inside, and then drove away.

“During this abduction,” court documents said, “there appeared to be a struggle.”

DNA lifted from the sandals linked Cleotha Abston to the kidnapping, and records from his cellphone showed he was in the vicinity at the time Fletcher was forced into the SUV. The owner of a cleaning service confirmed that Abston worked for her company and drove a GMC Terrain.

A Memphis police sergeant found Abston on Saturday evening at an apartment complex, with the SUV in the parking lot outside. Abston tried to get away but was stopped and taken into custody by a team of U.S. marshals, officials said.

Court records said blood was probably left in the car. A woman named Shantel Anthony, whose relationship to Abston was not clear, told investigators she saw him around 7:50 a.m. Friday at Mario Abston’s house, about seven miles from where Fletcher was snatched. He was cleaning the inside of the SUV and “behaving oddly,” court records said.

Mario Abston said he saw his brother washing his clothes in a sink inside the home. He, too, described him as “acting very strange.”

Cleotha Abston was charged Tuesday with first-degree murder and first-degree murder in perpetration of a kidnapping, along with earlier charges of “especially aggravated kidnapping and tampering with evidence,” police said.

More than two decades earlier, he faced another aggravated-kidnapping charge. In that case, the Independent reported, the then-16-year-old and an accomplice abducted Memphis attorney Kemper Durand.

The two forced Durand into the trunk of his car and drove around for hours before taking him to a gas station ATM to rob him. He managed to escape when he spotted an armed Memphis Housing Authority guard and cried out for help, causing his assailants to run.

“It is quite likely that I would have been killed had I not escaped,” Durand said in court documents filed in 2003.

Abston was sentenced in 2001 to 24 years in prison but was released early, according to the Tennessee Department of Correction. He had been out for a little less than two years when, according to police, he encountered Fletcher and targeted her.

Court records state that after his arrest in Friday’s kidnapping, he refused to tell authorities where to find Fletcher.

They discovered her body in the tall grass outside an abandoned house about a half-mile from Mario Abston’s apartment after noticing vehicle tracks and a smell of decay. Nearby was a trash bag containing purple Lululemon shorts. A forensic investigation identified the body as Fletcher’s, authorities said.

“To lose someone so young and so vital is a tragedy in and of itself, but to have it happen this way with the senseless act of violence, it’s unimaginable,” Mulroy said.

Fletcher was a granddaughter of the late Joseph Orgill III, who ran Orgill, a large distributor of hardware and home-improvement supplies. She was an avid runner who taught at the all-girls St. Mary’s Episcopal School, which described her as a “beloved” junior kindergarten teacher.

“This morning our faculty and staff started the day in chapel,” the school said in a statement. “We lit candles to remember Liza who was a bright light in our community. 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.’”