On September 2, 2022 at approximately 4:00 in the morning, 34-year-old Eliza Fletcher went for her morning run in her usual route near the University of Memphis. Down Central Avenue approximately 20 minutes later, she was abducted, forcibly put into a 'dark-colored GMC Terrain' by someone believed to be a stranger.
Evidence would show on video surveillance that the GMA passed by Eliza as she was running, then waited for her to run by. Allegedly, a 38-year-old man named Cleotha Abston was seen on video run 'aggressively' toward her, forcing her into the passenger side of the vehicle during what appeared to be a struggle between the two. The GMC was then seen in a nearby parking lot for about 4 minutes before driving away with both of them still in the vehicle.
About 6:45 that same morning, a resident riding his bike on Central Avenue located what would be confirmed to be Eliza's cell phone and a pair of Champion slide sandals nearby. These items were given to Eliza's family, which were then given to Investigators. DNA testing was conducted by the TBI.
About 7:45 that morning, Eliza's husband, Richard Fletcher III reported her missing. The DNA on her belongings confirmed to be that of Cleotha Abston, was was subsequently named a person of interest. Another video would show Abston wearing those Champion slides. Phone records would confirm that Abston was in the same area where Eliza was abducted.
September 3, 2022, the US Marshals located the GMC Terrain in a parking lot on the 5700 block of Waterstone Oak Way where Abston lived. The man on the videos matched Abston. His own family members relayed to Investigators that Abston was seen cleaning the vehicle with floor cleaner and washed the clothes he wore in the sink.
Abston was taken into custody but would not say where Eliza was.
Eliza's blood was confirmed to be in the GMC Terrain.
Searches were conducted in the area by law enforcement. The family publicly announced a $50,000 reward to bring Eliza home. A 90-minute prayer vigil was held the second night of her disappearance.
September 5, 2022, the MPD, TBI, FBI, ATF, Homeland Security and SCSO Search & Rescue searched for Eliza near East Person Avenue & Victor Street based on information provided by the FBI CAST Team. During this search, Officers noticed tire tracks on the grass adjacent to the driveway at 1666 Victor Street and smelled an odor of decay. Officers began walking toward the rear of the location. They noticed a set of footprints just north of the rear driveway, and to the right, they found an unresponsive female, immediately believed to have been Eliza, fitting her description.
Eliza's body was found near the crime scene, in the back of a vacant duplex apartment.
Law Enforcement then canvassed the immediate area, and one of them located a discarded trashbag about 100 feet north of 1591 S Orleans Street. Inside the bag was a purple colored Lululemon running shorts which were consistent to the ones Eliza was identified as wearing.
Abston was charged with Identity theft, theft of property, illegal possession of a credit or debit card, Aggravated Kidnapping, Tampering with/Fabricating Evidence, First Degree Murder, Premeditated Murder and Murder in Perpetration of a Kidnapping. Abston's bond was later removed and is currently being held without bond.
During the court process, the suspect's name was changed to Cleatha Henderson, per his own request.
Thousands came together for a vigil when Eliza's body was found. Onlookers and supporters for the family, the community did not rest.
In an incredible moment of strength, the community came together on September 9, 2022 OIto finish Eliza's run, one that she would never finish. She was a marathon runner, which inspired the task for hundreds of women and men to come together in her name.
Thousands of mourners attended Eliza's funeral. Family, friends, loved ones, strangers came together for her family to mourn, and to celebrate her life.
Eliza was a wife and a mother. She worked as a Kindergarten teacher and was widely admired by her family, friends and people throughout the community. She was an dedicated marathon runner and was a leader in her congregation.
Eliza Wellford Fletcher Obituary We are sad to announce that on September 2, 2022, at the age of 34, Eliza Wellford Fletcher (Memphis, Tennessee) passed away. Family and friends are welcome to leave their condolences on this memorial page and share them with the family.
She was predeceased by : her grandparents, Katherine, Harry Wellford and Joe Orgill; and her mother-in-law Diane Fletcher. She is survived by : her parents, Adele Orgill Wellford and James Beasley Wellford; her husband Richard James Fletcher III; her brother Gil Wellford; her grandmother Irene Orgill; her father-in-law Richard James Fletcher, Jr.; and her sister-in-law Annie Fletcher. She is also survived by her husband and children, she is survived by her parents.
A funeral service was held on Saturday, September 10th 2022 at 10:00 AM at the Second Presbyterian Church (4055 Poplar Ave, Memphis, TN 38111). The family requests that memorials be made to the Liza Wellford Fletcher Memorial Fund at St. Mary's Episcopal School, Christ Methodist Day School, and Second Presbyterian Church.
Cleotha Henderson had a history of violence including another abduction a year prior to Eliza's abduction & murder. Kidnapping, rape and aggravated assault was on his record. He was released in 2020 after serving a 20 year sentence. Had there been the 'truth-in-sentencing' law in place at the time of his sentence, he would have had to complete his 24 year sentence in full. Eliza would have been alive today.
And Fletcher’s slaying could potentially have been avoided if Henderson had been identified earlier as a suspect in a previously unsolved sex assault.
In a statement Saturday, a TBI spokesperson told Fox News that the bureau had received evidence in Henderson’s alleged 2021 assault back in September of that year, nearly 12 months ago, but had received no request to expedite the testing. As a result, the sample went into a lengthy queue was not revisited until June 2022 – nine months later. Initial results came back on Aug. 29, just days before Henderson would allegedly attack Fletcher, a mother of two, during her morning jog on Central Avenue near the University of Memphis.
"From there, a scientist entered the resulting unknown male DNA profile into CODIS (the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System), which returned a match on Monday, Sept. 5, for Cleotha Abston in connection to the September 2021 assault, after which TBI reported the finding to Memphis Police," Keli McAlister, a TBI public information officer, told Fox News over the weekend.
That was three days after the attack on Fletcher.
TBI’s Jackson Crime Lab, which handled the investigation, has an average turnaround of between 33 and 49 weeks, she said, describing it as a result of the workload placed on just four scientists staffing in the unit.
While she did not give a specific figure for the rape kit testing backlog, she said each of the state’s crime labs have been receiving requests for between five and seven cases a month stretching back to July 2019.
Shelby County, where Henderson’s alleged attacks took place, submitted 316 sexual assault testing requests last year, according to state records – by far the most out of any county in Tennessee. Knox County had the next most requests, with 168.
The Jackson Forensic Biology Unit is expected to add three more scientists at the end of next month.
In its last budget cycle, TBI said it requested funding for another 40 positions in its Forensic Services Unit, and received approval for half of that, McAlister told Fox News Digital Tuesday.
Of the 20 approved positions, eight new hires will be dedicated to forensic biology and DNA testing across the state, including three in the Jackson laboratory.
That almost doubles the current staff in Jackson, and next year authorities hope to add at least two more.
But an outside recommendation from the West Virginia University Department of Business called for 71 new hires total.
In addition to sexual assault cases, state forensic biologists work all sorts of investigations involving DNA testing, including burglaries, robberies and homicides. Outside the lab, they are also responsible for testifying in court and responding to crime scenes.
"Given the demands of the job, these personnel must be highly competent, highly trained, and of the highest moral character," McAlister said. "In Forensic Biology, new employees must meet the educational requirements of both the TBI and FBI, [and] must undergo 18 months of training."
Gov. Bill Lee’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Sexton, a Republican, said the Truth in Sentencing law would have also kept Memphis shooting spree suspect Ezekiel Kelly behind bars longer and called the 50-week rape kit backlog "atrocious." He said that the goal is to reduce kit processing to just 30 days.
"Every day that you wait only emboldens the criminal to commit more crimes on more victims because they're not in jail – and it increases the pain and suffering of the victims," he said. "What you should strive for is swift punishment, and in order to do that, we need to give law enforcement the resources."
In addition to the SAK backlog, he said, other testing could also be bogged down.
"When we talk about funding law enforcement, we talk about police officers and equipment, but we never really talk about giving them enough resources to turn around evidence," he added.
In cases like Fletcher’s it could be the difference between life and death.
Cleotha Abston was charged Sunday with especially aggravated kidnapping and tampering with evidence, and authorities announced Monday he has also been charged with first-degree murder.
Fletcher’s grandfather, the late Joseph “Joe” Orgill III, ran Orgill Inc., a hardware supply company that currently employs more than 5,500 people.
Orgill, who died at 80 in March 2018, was a respected businessman and philanthropist in Memphis, according to his obituary in the Commercial Appeal newspaper.
The paper described Orgill Inc. as an “under-the-radar company,” saying, “most people in Memphis have no idea of the scope of Orgill Inc.”
The company says it is “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.”
Under her grandfather’s leadership, Orgill Inc. went from a regional business to a worldwide leader in hardware supplies.
Forbes listed Orgill as the 143rd-largest private company in the country in 2021, raking in $3.2 billion in revenue that year.
According to Historic Memphis, Orgill is the city’s oldest running business, founded in 1847.
Fletcher was a mom of two young boys and married her husband, Richard James Fletcher III, in a lavish 2014 ceremony that seemed to spare no expense.
Local event planners said “without hesitation” it was the year’s most memorable wedding, according to Memphis Magazine.
“There has been no other wedding like this in Memphis,” wedding pros Russell Whitehead and Ruthie Bowlin told the magazine.
The service was held in a church where the couple met, and the party following it was in a custom tent with hand-painted wood floors.
Fletcher herself seemed to be an avid runner who loved the outdoors. Memphis Magazine described her as a “‘natural’ girl — outdoorsy, athletic, and warm.”
In a particularly chilling social media post from 2020, Fletcher asked her Facebook friends for recommendations for their favorite true crime podcast.
“Loved Tom Brown’s Body,” she commented about the show that investigated the 2016 disappearance of a popular high school senior.
“We like true crime,” she wrote in another comment.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — There are new details that were released surrounding the abduction and murder of Eliza Fletcher, court records show.
On September 5, the Memphis Police Department (MPD), the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI), The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), ATF, Homeland Security, and The Shelby County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO) Search and Rescue, searched for Eliza Fletcher near East Person Avenue and Victor Street based on data collected by the FBI just after 5 p.m., the affidavit said.
Agencies searched the area of East Person Avenue to the 1500 block of Victor Street. Officials walked northbound from East Person Avenue on Victor Street and they noticed high grass south of the vacant residence in the 1600 block of Victor Street.
According to the affidavit, the officers noticed car tracks in the grass adjacent to the driveway of the address on Victor and the officer smelled an odor of decay.
Officials panned out and walked to the rear of the location.
A set of steps were noticed just north of the rear driveway and immediately to the right of the steps, he located an unresponsive woman lying on the ground and notified his search team members, records show.
The scene investigation revealed that the woman fit the description of Eliza Fletcher.
Law enforcement from the various agencies that were near the location canvased the surrounding area and just after 6 p.m. detectives located a discarded trash bag about 100 feet just north of the home on S. Orleans Street where officials earlier indicated that Cleotha Abston had been with his brother.
The bag contained purple running shorts that were consistent with the ones Eliza Fletcher was last seen wearing the day she was abducted, records show.
Officials researched surveillance videos during the time of the incident.
The videos revealed that on Sept. 2 at just before 6 a.m.:
Camera located in the 1300 block of Cummings Street captured the suspect’s car exiting I-240 at the South Parkway East exit.
The suspect’s car was then captured on the camera located at Kerr Avenue and Clancy Street traveling westbound on Kerr Avenue shortly after.
The car then turns southwest onto Havanna Street.
The camera located in the 1600 block of Havanna Street captured the car turning south on Marjorie Street.
The car proceeded to turn westbound onto Person Avenue.
A medical examiner with the West Tennessee Regional Forensics Center arrived and pronounce the victim deceased.
The woman was positively identified as Fletcher.
Suspect Cleotha Abston now faces additional charges of first-degree murder and first-degree murder in perpetration of kidnapping, MPD said.
In his first court appearance, Cleotha Abston told the judge he cannot afford to make his $500,000 bond and cannot afford an attorney.
According to authorities, sandals were found near Fletcher’s water bottle and cell phone after she was abducted. DNA on those sandals matched Abston and Abston was seen wearing them the night before Fletcher’s abduction, according to police.
An arrest affidavit for Abston also claims that his cell phone was found to be in the area of Central Avenue and Zach Curlin, where Fletcher was abducted, around the same time that the mother of two boys and St. Mary’s teacher was kidnapped.
Court records show that Abston was previously charged with aggravated kidnapping in June of 2000. He was sentenced to 24 years but was eligible for release after 85 percent of that sentence was served.
On Tuesday, Fletcher’s family released the following statement:
“We are heartbroken and devastated by this senseless loss. Liza was a such a joy to so many - her family, friends, colleagues, students, parents, members of her Second Presbyterian Church congregation, and everyone who knew her.
Now it’s time to remember and celebrate how special she was and to support those who cared so much for her. 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.
We hope that everyone, including media representatives, understand the need for the family to grieve in privacy without outside intrusion during this painful time.”
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland also released a statement regarding Fletcher’s murder, referring to it as an evil act and saying “I hope that whoever is guilty of this heinous crime, and any such crime, is removed from society and is punished to the fullest extent of the law.”
Strickland’s full statement is below.
There is evil in this world. My heart breaks for Eliza and her family, all victims of evil. I thank the FBI, TBI, Sheriff’s office, ATF, US Marshals, and especially the men and women of the Memphis Police Department, who worked tirelessly and skillfully, as they always do, to solve this horrific crime. I hope that whoever is guilty of this heinous crime, and any such crime, is removed from society and is punished to the fullest extent of the law.
Newly-elected Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy also issued a statement on the day Fletcher’s body was identified, calling her murder a tragedy and saying that his office has been in contact with the family.
“I want to offer the condolences of both my office and myself personally to the family of #ElizaFletcher. To lose someone so young and vital is a tragedy, but to have it result from a senseless act of violence is unimaginable,” Mulroy tweeted. “Both law enforcement and our office were in contact with the family through the weekend. They’ve been fully cooperative. I have a message from the family to both the public and the media: Please respect their privacy. Please allow them to grieve. Any murder is a tragedy. Any murder in our jurisdiction is high priority. All deserve our care and best efforts. This one has triggered an extraordinary outpouring of public concern which motivates this message. We will work to do justice in this case and all other cases in the hopes we can prevent such tragedies.”
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The man accused in the abduction and murder of Memphis jogger Eliza Fletcher and a prior rape could face life in prison without parole if convicted, a judge says.
Cleotha Abston-Henderson faced a judge in Memphis on Thursday on charges related to a 2021 rape. Though a police report on the attack was taken in September of that year, he was not linked to the case until Fletcher’s body was found, about a year later.
He now faces charges related to three criminal cases: the Eliza Fletcher abduction and murder, the 2021 aggravated rape, and an identity theft case that allegedly happened around the time of his arrest, following Fletcher’s murder.
Judge Lee Coffee said under Tennessee law, Abston-Henderson would be considered a “repeat violent offender.”
“What that means, Mr. Abston, if you’re convicted of either the aggravated rape or especially aggravated kidnapping by a jury, this court would have to sentence you to life without parole,” Coffee told the defendant.
A $1,428,500 bond had been set by a judge before Abston-Henderson was in custody. Thursday, he told the court that he would not be able to make bond, had no property and no money in the bank.
Lawyer Jennifer Case of the Public Defender’s Office will continue as his attorney. She said she is considering a mental evaluation for her client.
Abston-Henderson is set to report to court again Nov. 4.
In 2000, as a juvenile, Abston was convicted of kidnapping Memphis attorney Kemper Durand, who has also been linked to Fletcher’s family. Abston was sentenced to 20 years and was released in 2018.
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