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Inside the Disturbing Aftermath of the Eliza Fletcher Murder Case

Eliza Fletcher went out for a pre-dawn run on Sept. 2, part of the Memphis kindergarten teacher's usual routine.

When she hadn't come home by 7:45 a.m., her husband called police to report her missing.

Officers scoured the area around the University of Memphis campus where Richard Fletcher III's wife liked to jog and viewed security camera footage, looking for any sign of the 34-year-old mother of two young sons. Her family offered a $50,000 reward for information to help find her.

According to details released later by Memphis Police, a camera caught the moment when Fletcher was approached by an unknown assailant and forced into the back of a dark-colored SUV. A water bottle and broken cell phone were found near the alleged abduction spot.

The next day, police arrested Cleotha Abston on charges of aggravated kidnapping and tampering with evidence. An arrest affidavit noted that the GMC Terrain on the surveillance footage was traced to a house where the suspect was staying.

But the search for Fletcher continued, local and state law enforcement utilizing canine units, ATVs and a helicopter to look high and low.

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What Happened to Eliza Fletcher?

Fletcher's body was found Sept. 5 behind an abandoned duplex in a South Memphis neighborhood, about seven-and-a-half miles away from where she was last seen.

A police affidavit obtained by the Associated Press stated that officers noticed vehicle tracks next to the building's driveway and "smelled an odor of decay." Purple Lululemon running shorts that Fletcher had been wearing were found in a trash bag lying nearby. Moreover, per the document, surveillance footage showed Abston's vehicle had been in the area at 5:48 a.m. on Sept. 2.

Eliza Fletcher, Crime Scene
Mark Weber/Daily Memphian via AP

An autopsy report released Sept. 29 confirmed she died of a gunshot wound to the back of her head and blunt-force trauma. She also had injuries to her face and legs.

Abston was subsequently charged with first-degree murder and murder in perpetration of kidnapping. He has been arraigned but hasn't yet entered a plea.

"Today is a very sad day in the city of Memphis," Police Chief Cerelyn Davis said at a Sept. 6 press conference confirming the recovery of Fletcher's remains. "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." They were continuing to work the case, she noted.

Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy said at the time that they had no reason to consider Fletcher's death to have been the result of anything other than an isolated attack by a stranger.

Eliza Fletcher, Crime Scene
Mark Weber/Daily Memphian via AP

Who is the man charged with the murder of Eliza Fletcher?

Abston, 38, also referred to in some reports as Cleotha Henderson, had only been a free man since 2020 after spending 20 years in prison for abducting Memphis attorney Kemper Durand at gunpoint in May 2001.

Eliza Fletcher, Cleotha Abston, Mug Shot
Shelby County Sheriff's Office

Abston and an accomplice drove Durand to a gas station to take out money from an ATM, according to the Commercial Appeal, Memphis Flyer and more local reports on the case. They ran away when a uniformed Memphis Housing Authority officer walked in and Durand shouted for help.

Abston pleaded guilty in 2001 to especially aggravated kidnapping and aggravated robbery and was sentenced to 24 years in prison. He was 16 when he committed the crime. The accomplice, Marquette Cobbins, was 17 and got seven-and-a-half years in prison after pleading guilty to aiding a kidnapping.

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Durand, who died in 2013, wrote a letter to the judge suggesting probation for Cobbins, who Abston picked up after he had stolen Durand's wallet and forced him into the trunk of his own car. The lawyer noted that he felt the older boy had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But when Abston filed for post-conviction relief two years later, Durand provided a victim impact statement noting the teen's long juvenile record that began with assault charges when he was 11, and stated that he thought it likely Abston would have ended up killing him if that officer hadn't shown up.

Why are authorities under fire in the wake of Eliza Fletcher's murder?

In response to criticism from some public officials—including the state's lieutenant governor—that Fletcher would still be alive if Abston had been in prison serving the entirety of his sentence, Mulroy, the district attorney, countered that the suspect had served 85 percent of a 24-year sentence. And, he noted during the Sept. 6 press conference, his office had opposed parole.

"Repeat violent offenders deserve a strong response," Mulroy said, "and that's what they'll get from this district attorney's office."

Eliza Fletcher, Press Conference, Police
WREG News Channel 3/YouTube

Since then, 22-year-old Alicia Franklin has come forward saying Abston was the man who raped her on Sept. 21, 2021. She reported the assault at the time and her rape kit was taken to a state crime lab in Jackson, Tenn. According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said the kit was tested June 24. The tests came back Aug. 29 and a hit from a national DNA database identified Abston. The TBI learned of the match on Sept. 5.

In connection with this case, Abston pleaded not guilty to charges of aggravated rape and kidnapping on Sept. 15. Jennifer Case is the attorney on record representing him in both the 2021 attack and the Fletcher case.

At a Sept. 8 hearing, per Fox News, she requested the judge issue a gag order to prevent officials from commenting publicly about the case, citing Police Chief Davis calling her client a "dangerous predator" (which Davis did during the Sept. 6 presser). Prosecutors argued that the public had a right to hear about the case; the judge asked Case to submit an order for consideration.

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Franklin, meanwhile, has sued the city of Memphis for negligence, arguing that Abston could have been identified and apprehended months earlier if investigators had done their job.

Memphis Police "failed to investigate the rape adequately and with due diligence," the lawsuit alleges, per court documents obtained by Memphis' WMC. And when Fletcher was abducted and killed, the suit continues, "MPD was or should have been already familiar with him due to his criminal history and the known risk that he could commit other violent crimes."

Memphis Police and city officials have said they won't be commenting on pending litigation.

Eliza Fletcher, Alicia Franklin, Good Morning America
Good Morning America/ABC

During a Sept. 21 appearance on Good Morning America, Franklin said she met Abston on a dating app and he lured her to what she thought was his apartment to pick him up for dinner, but it turned out to be an abandoned house. When she walked inside, she said, he put a gun to her neck, forced her into her car and raped her.

She said she went directly to a hospital and then a Rape Crisis Center, where she was given a rape kit and interviewed by detectives. Franklin said she was four months pregnant at the time, and has since moved to Mississippi with her daughter.

"I'm angry. Not a day goes by that I didn't think about this," Franklin said. "They had more than enough evidence that night when they interviewed me to get him off the streets. But they didn't."

Asked about Franklin's allegation that the state was negligent in processing her kit, the TBI told ABC News in a statement, "TBI's role in forensic processing of evidence and providing the results of that analysis is to support law enforcement investigations. We do not make decisions on how the information we provide is utilized. That decision is solely made by the investigative agency, usually in consultation with the prosecuting attorney."

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On Sept. 29, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced plans to accelerate the hiring of 50 new lab techs, forensic scientists and other staff to help with the backlog of rape kits piling up in the state's crime labs. The TBI said it could take about 18 months to bring staffing to that level.

"The current turnaround times for rape kits are clearly unacceptable," Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said in a statement, per The Tennessean. An analysis conducted by the publication found that on average it took 34 weeks to process collected evidence in a sexual offense case.

How have family and community paid tribute to Eliza Fletcher?

Fletcher's family has been keeping a low profile during the investigation, but released a statement after her death was confirmed saying they were "heartbroken and devastated by this senseless loss."

Eliza Fletcher
Memphis Police Department

The granddaughter of late hardware magnate and prominent local philanthropist Joseph Orgill III had graduated from Baylor University and taught junior kindergarten at St. Mary's Episcopal School. She was an avid runner who competed in marathons wearing Nikes she designed herself. She had met her husband, Richard, at church.

"Now it's time to remember and celebrate how special she was and to support those who cared so much for her," the statement continued. "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."

Eliza Fletcher, Facebook
Facebook

Starting at 4 a.m. on Sept. 9, hundreds of people set off through the streets of Memphis for Let's Finish Liza's Run, the participants following an 8.2-mile stretch favored by Fletcher, many of them stopping to leave a flower or light a candle at the spot where she was allegedly abducted. Running groups in Nashville, Chattanooga, Tenn., Mobile, Ala., Philadelphia and more staged similar tributes.

"We're just here today to run in honor of Liza, and also to show that women in this city have a right to run at 4 o'clock in the morning or 10 at night, or any time of the day," Danielle Heineman, an organizer of the Memphis event, told the crowd. "And we don't have to completely cover our bodies while we run. There should be no excuses."

Eerily, they weren't the first to conceive such an event: The third annual Finish Sydney's Run Celebration of Life 5K was held the next day in Newport, Ark., in honor of Sydney Sutherland, who was 25 when she was kidnapped and killed while out for a run in August 2020.

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"It has been a very hard week with the last week's tragedy over in Memphis," Sutherland's mother, Maggie, told KAIT-8 at the event. "It really hit. It's just like a trigger, and it sets you back and makes you replay things." (Quake Lewellyn pleaded guilty and is serving a life sentence for Sutherland's murder.)

Also on Sept. 10, several hundred mourners packed Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis for Fletcher's funeral, the same church where she and Richard first met and then were married in 2014. In an obituary released by her family, she was remembered as "a born athlete" and "a strong believer in the importance of personal growth" who was "not afraid to be vulnerable. To the contrary, she embraced it."

Calling her "pure of heart and innocent in ways that made her see the very best in everyone she met," the family said, "The outpouring of love and grief would have surprised Liza, who never thought or acted as if she were something special—though she certainly was."

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