A man kidnapped and held at gunpoint by Cleotha Abston believed that he would have killed him if he had the chance – two decades before the suspect allegedly abducted and murdered Memphis business heiress Eliza Fletcher.
Memphis attorney Kemper Durand said in a 2003 victim impact statement that he was “lucky” to escape from Abston, now 38, during the violent kidnapping back in 2000.
“It is quite likely that I would have been killed had I not escaped,” he said.
Mr Durand, who died in 2013, was bundled into his vehicle in an early morning attack at around 2am on 24 May 2000.
Abston, then 16, and his accomplice Marquette Cobbins approached Mr Durand and forced the attorney into the trunk of his own car.
They then drove the victim around for several hours before taking him to an ATM at a Mapco gas station to rob him.
The victim was luckily saved when he spotted an armed Memphis Housing Authority guard at the station and shouted for help, prompting his attackers to flee.
Mr Durand long believed that Abston was the mastermind behind the attack and – in an unusual twist – testified at trial that Cobbins should be handed a more lenient sentence because he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
An obituary for Mr Durand, posted by his law firm Lewis Thomason in 2013, revealed how “the victim became the advocate for one of his assailants”.
“Kemper then further described how during those hours he spent in the trunk of his car, he heard the two men talking. The man who was now about to be sentenced had pleaded with his friend to ‘stop the car, let this man out, give him his keys, and go!’” it read.
Abston pleaded guilty in 2001 to especially aggravated kidnapping and aggravated robbery.
He was sentenced to 24 years in prison.
Just two years later, Abston filed a petition for post-conviction relief, prompting Mr Durand to impact statement detailing his belief that he would have been killed if it wasn’t for the chance encounter with the armed guard.
“My feelings about being the victim of this crime, and the feelings of those around me, are that I was extremely lucky that I was able to escape from the custody of Cleotha Abston. I had been taken from the trunk of my car, where he and his co-defendant had placed me for a number of hours, and made to drive to the Mapco station,” he wrote.
“The purpose was that I was to use my ATM card to get cash for Cleotha Abston. It was very fortunate that an armed, uniformed Memphis Housing Authority guard happened to come into the Mapco station while Cleotha Abston, Marquette Cobbins (the second defendant), and I were using the ATM machine.
“It is quite likely that I would have been killed had I not escaped.”
Mr Durand also pointed to Abston’s long rap sheet prior to the kidnapping, having been in and out of the juvenile system since he was around 12 years old on charges of theft, aggravated assault, aggravated assault with a weapon, and rape.
Abston’s request was denied.
He served 19 years in prison and was released in November 2020 – less than two years before Ms Fletcher’s murder.
More than two decades on, the kidnapping of Ms Fletcher appears to be chillingly similar to Mr Durand’s terrifying experience at the hands of Abston.
Ms Fletcher, a kindergarten teacher and granddaughter of the Orgill hardware empire, was snatched while out on her regular early morning jog near the University of Memphis campus on Friday.
At around 4.20am, surveillance footage captured a black 2013 GMC Terrain SUV driving past her as she ran through the area.
The SUV pulled up and a man was seen getting out of it, before he “ran aggressively” toward the jogger.
A violent struggle broke out and the man forced Ms Fletcher into the passenger side of the vehicle.
The car then remained stationary in a parking lot with the two inside for around four minutes before driving off, police said the footage shows.
On Monday afternoon, the mother-of-two’s body was found dumped in the rear of a vacant duplex in South Memphis, walking distance from the home of Abston’s brother.
Abston had been spotted by multiple witnesses cleaning his vehicle and clothes in the hours after her abduction.
No cause of death has been released and Abston is said to be refusing to cooperate with the investigation.
Abston has been charged with first-degree murder, first-degree murder in perpetration of kidnapping, especially aggravated kidnapping and tampering with evidence.
He is also charged with identity theft, theft of property under $1,000 and fraudulent use of a credit card for an unrelated incident.
He appeared for his first court appearance on Tuesday morning.
In a press conference, Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis said that law enforcement were glad to be “removing this dangerous predator off the streets of Memphis”.