Eliza Fletcher’s family break silence on ‘senseless’ killing of Memphis heiress

The body of the kindergarten teacher was discovered on Monday afternoon in long grass behind a vacant apartment in south Memphis – more than 48 hours on from her violent abduction

Rachel Sharp
Tuesday 06 September 2022 21:30 BST
Man appears in court charged with murder of heiress Eliza Fletcher

Eliza Fletcher’s family members have broken their silence over the “senseless” killing of the Memphis business heiress, after her body was discovered in the tall grass behind a vacant property south of the city.

The grieving Orgill family, who run the hardware supply empire of the same name, released a statement on Tuesday afternoon saying that they are “heartbroken and devastated” by her murder.

They paid tribute to the 34-year-old mother-of-two, known as “Liza” to her loved ones, as “such a joy” to all who knew her.

“We are 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 in the statement.

“Now it’s time to remember and celebrate how special she was and to support those who cared so much for her.”

The family thanked well-wishers for their support as well as all the law enforcement agencies who worked to find the kindergarten teacher and arrest the man accused of carrying out the “horrible crime”.

“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,” the statement continued.

“We hope that everyone, including media representatives, understand the need for the family to grieve in privacy without outside intrusion during this painful time.”

Ms Fletcher’s body was discovered on Monday afternoon in long grass behind a vacant apartment on the 1600 block of Victor in south Memphis – more than 48 hours on from her violent abduction.

Officers had spotted vehicle tracks and noticed the smell of decay at the rear of the vacant property as they were canvassing the area for signs of the missing teacher, according to an affidavit.

Eliza Fletcher, who was abducted and murdered while jogging in Memphis on Friday, with husband Richard Fletcher

Soon after making the tragic discovery, the 34-year-old’s purple Lululemon running shorts were also found nearby dumped inside a discarded trash bag.

Law enforcement said it was “too early” to determine the cause of death and it remains unclear if Ms Fletcher was murdered at the residence or if her body was dumped there after her death.

The dump site is less than a mile from the home of the brother of her alleged killer Cleotha Abston.

Abston, who served 19 years for a separate kidnapping, had been spotted by multiple witnesses cleaning his vehicle and clothes at his brother’s home in the hours after Ms Fletcher was snatched from the street early on Friday morning, according to the affidavit.

His vehicle was also captured on several surveillance cameras driving towards the dump site around an hour after the abduction, the affidavit says. The car turned onto the street where Ms Fletcher’s body was found at around 5.52am on Friday morning.

Abston, 38, is charged with first-degree murder, first-degree murder in perpetration of kidnapping, especially aggravated kidnapping and tampering with evidence.

Eliza Fletcher’s family in a video statement on Saturday where they pleaded for her safe return

He appeared in court in Shelby County on the kidnapping charges on Tuesday morning. He is scheduled to appear on the murder charges at 9am local time on Wednesday.

Abston is also charged with three counts of theft after he allegedly used another woman’s Cash App card and Wisely Card at gas stations one day before the attack on the kindergarten teacher.

Ms Fletcher was snatched while out on her regular early morning jog near the University ofMemphis 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.

Ms Fletcher’s family reported her missing when she failed to return home from her run. The jogger’s cellphone and water bottle were discovered at the site of her abduction.

Cleotha Abston appears for his arraignment on Tuesday morning

Investigators also found a pair of Champion slide shoes – believed to belong to Abston – which were left behind in the struggle.

Surveillance footage captured the same SUV stalking the area where Ms Fletcher was taken just 24 minutes before the kidnapping unfolded.

The net closed in on Abston when investigators found DNA on the slides matched that of the 38-year-old, according to the affidavit.

Surveillance footage also appeared to show the suspect wearing the same shoes days earlier and cellphone data also placed him at the scene of the abduction, the affidavit said.

On Saturday, US Marshals then found an SUV with the same damaged taillight and partial licence plate identification seen in the surveillance footage in a parking lot close to Abston’s brother’s home, according to an affidavit.

When officers found Abston nearby, he tried to flee, but he was arrested on the scene – around 24 hours on from the teacher’s abduction.

According to the affidavit, a witness and the suspect’s brother Mario Abston spotted Abston cleaning the inside of his car and washing his clothes in the sink in the hours after the abduction took place.

The witness also said they saw him behaving oddly at the house.

The suspect vehicle captured on surveillance footage

Even after the clean, authorities were able to recover evidence including blood from inside the vehicle, which led them to believe Ms Fletcher had suffered a “serious injury”.

However, Abston refused to cooperate with the police investigation or give up Ms Fletcher’s whereabouts, according to the affidavit.

No motive has been given and it is not clear if the victim was targeted or randomly attacked.

However, Abston has a prior kidnapping conviction and was released from prison less than two years ago after serving 20 years behind bars.

In an eerily similar situation to the kidnapping of Ms Fletcher, Abston bundled a Memphis attorney into his vehicle in an early morning attack.

On 24 May 2000, at around 2am, Abston and an accomplice approached Kemper Durand in his vehicle, got out and forced the attorney into the trunk of his car. They then drove the victim around for several hours before taking him to an ATM where they robbed him.

The victim was saved when he shouted for help from a passer-by, prompting his attackers to flee.

Mr Durand said in a victim impact statement he believed that Abston would have killed him if he hadn’t managed to escape.

Abston pleaded guilty in 2001 to especially aggravated kidnapping and was sentenced to 24 years in prison.

He was released in November 2020, after serving 19 years.

Ms Fletcher is the granddaughter of the late local businessman and philanthropist Joseph “Joe” Orgill III, who founded the Memphis hardware supply company Orgill.

The private, family-ran business is now worth $3.2bn with the company website describing it as the “world’s largest independently owned hardlines distributor, providing retailers across North America and in more than 60 countries throughout the world access to over 75,000 products and industry-leading retail services”.

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