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Body found in Memphis is that of abducted teacher and a suspect is being charged with murder, police say

<i>Memphis Police Department</i><br/>Missing Memphis teacher Eliza
Memphis Police Department
Missing Memphis teacher Eliza "Liza" Fletcher is pictured here.

By Jason Hanna, Melissa Alonso and Aya Elamroussi, CNN

A body found this week in Memphis is that of a teacher who was abducted there while jogging last week, and a suspect is being charged with murder, police said Tuesday.

Eliza “Liza” Fletcher, 34, was identified as the person found dead Monday in the rear of a vacant duplex in the Tennessee city, roughly 7.5 miles from where surveillance video shows she was forced into an SUV early Friday, Memphis police said.

A suspect arrested over the weekend, Cleotha Abston, 38, will be arraigned Wednesday on charges including first-degree murder — adding to kidnapping and other charges he already faced, Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy said.

“To lose someone so young and so vital is a tragedy in and of itself, but to have it happen in this way, with a senseless act of violence, it’s unimaginable,” Mulroy, offering his condolences to Fletcher’s family, said in a Tuesday news conference.

“We have no reason to think this was anything other than an isolated attack by a stranger,” Mulroy said.

Live updates: Eliza Fletcher case

It is too early to determine the “place and method of death,” Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis at the same news conference.

Fletcher, a junior kindergarten teacher at St. Mary’s Episcopal School in Memphis, was jogging around 4 a.m. Friday in a neighborhood near the University of Memphis when a man chased her and forced her into a black SUV, authorities said.

Her husband reported her missing that morning, sparking an intense weekend hunt that led to Abston’s arrest near his Memphis home Saturday after investigators unearthed clues including surveillance video of the abduction, authorities said in court documents.

Fletcher was the granddaughter of hardware magnate Joseph Orgill III, who died in 2018 at the age of 80. According to the company, Tennessee-based Orgill has annual sales of $3 billion.

Suspect appears in court on kidnapping charges

Abston was arraigned Tuesday morning in a Memphis courtroom on charges filed against him before Fletcher’s body was identified: aggravated kidnapping and tampering with evidence.

Wearing jail garb and a mask over his mouth, he spoke only to respond to a judge’s questions, and said he does not have an attorney or funds to post bail.

Shelby County Judge Louis J. Montesi Jr. appointed a public defender to represent Abston.

Five of Fletcher’s relatives were in the courtroom. Before the hearing started, Montesi asked them to refrain from having any outburst or emotional reaction during the arraignment.

Abston was being held in county jail Tuesday on the initial charges with bond set at $510,000. He will be arraigned Wednesday on charges of first-degree murder, premeditated murder and murder in the course of the perpetration of a kidnapping, Mulroy, the district attorney, said Tuesday.

Abston served a prison sentence for an aggravated kidnapping more than 20 years ago, court records show.

The evidence in the case

Fletcher’s husband told police Friday morning that she’d not returned from her early morning jog, authorities said in an affidavit filed Sunday.

Someone found her phone in the street on Central Avenue that morning, and it was given to one of Fletcher’s relatives, who gave it to investigators, the affidavit reads.

Police then found surveillance video of the area, which shows a black GMC Terrain pass by her, according to the affidavit. A man is seen in the footage getting out of the SUV and “aggressively” running toward her before forcing her into the vehicle’s passenger seat, according to the affidavit.

The SUV remained in a parking lot for about four minutes after both people were inside and then drove away, the affidavit states.

Police also analyzed a pair of sandals that were found at the abduction site, near the victim’s phone. DNA found on the shoes matched DNA for Abston, the affidavit reads.

Surveillance footage captured from a local theater the day before Fletcher’s disappearance showed Abston wearing what authorities believe are the same pair of Champion slide sandals found at the crime scene, according to the affidavit.

Researching Abston’s residence, police found that he lived at a home whose utilities were registered in the name of a woman who owned a GMC Terrain, the court document reads.

Investigators then interviewed Abston’s employer, who said he drove a GMC Terrain and verified his phone number. Investigators checked Abston’s cell phone records, which showed he was near the abduction scene during the time of Fletcher’s kidnapping, according to the affidavit.

Members of a US Marshals task force found a GMC Terrain near Abston’s residence on Saturday morning, and it had the same distinguishable damage and partial license plate information seen in the surveillance footage from Fletcher’s abduction, the affidavit reads.

The task force saw him standing in the doorway of the home, and detained him Saturday, the court document said.

Police also gathered details from witnesses who said they encountered Abston after the abduction.

One witness said she saw Abston at his brother’s Memphis home after the kidnapping, according to the affidavit. The witness and Abston’s brother said Abston was behaving oddly as he cleaned the interior of his SUV and washed his clothes in the sink, the affidavit said.

On Monday, searchers, acting on information from an FBI team that analyzes cell phone data, found Fletcher’s body just after 5 p.m., according to an amended affidavit filed Tuesday.

The searchers using the cell phone data had focused on an area near an intersection less than a mile from the brother’s home. The team smelled an odor of decay coming from an area near a vacant home and saw vehicle tracks in the grass near the driveway, and eventually found a body on the property, according to the affidavit.

“The scene investigation revealed that the female fit the description of missing person, Eliza Fletcher,” the affidavit states.

That property was in the 1600 block of Victor Street, authorities said. That’s about a half-mile drive from the address that authorities gave for his brother’s home, a 7.5-mile drive from the alleged abduction site and about a 15.5-mile drive from Abston’s home.

A little more than an hour after the body was found and about three tenths of a mile away, a detective found a trash bag with running shorts consistent with the ones Fletcher was wearing when she was abducted.

Memphis school community ‘heartbroken at the loss’

Officials at the school where Fletcher worked said Tuesday they “are heartbroken at the loss of our beloved teacher, colleague, and friend.”

“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,” a Facebook post from St. Mary’s Episcopal School reads.

“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,'” the post reads.

“We continue to draw strength from our all-school read, ‘The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse’ by Charlie Mackesy. ‘We don’t know about tomorrow,’ said the horse, ‘all we need to know is that we love each other,'” the post reads.

Abston served sentence in previous kidnapping case

Following Abston’s arrest Saturday, charges unrelated to Fletcher’s kidnapping also were filed against him.

The charges include identity theft, theft of property $1,000 or less and fraudulent use/illegal possession of a credit or debit card $1,000 or less, Shelby County jail records show.

Those charges are connected to a Thursday theft report filed by a woman who reported someone was using her Cash App card and Wisely Card at gas stations without her knowledge.

CNN has reached out to the Shelby County district attorney and Memphis police regarding the charges in the Thursday theft report.

Court records also reveal that Abston previously served a prison sentence for an aggravated kidnapping more than 20 years ago. In November 2001, Abston pleaded guilty to the charge and was released in November 2020, court records show.

Abston had been convicted in the kidnapping of a local attorney in 2000, the Shelby County district attorney’s office told local outlet WREG.

™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Anne Clifford, Jamiel Lynch, Chuck Johnston, Jennifer Henderson, Tina Burnside, Hannah Sarisohn, Jennifer Feldman and AnneClaire Stapleton contributed to this report.

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