Police in Tennessee have found the body of a woman who was forced into a car and kidnapped during an early morning jog near the University of Memphis.
Memphis police said on Tuesday that investigators identified the body of 34-year-old Eliza Fletcher, a schoolteacher and a prominent Memphis businessman’s granddaughter whose disappearance horrified people across the country.
A series of searches over the Labor Day weekend led authorities to Fletcher’s body on Monday. She had been kidnapped about 4am on Friday, when a man approached her and forced her into a sport utility vehicle after a brief struggle, police said.
Fletcher, a mother of two young boys, was reported missing when she did not return home from her regular morning jog.
A man charged with aggravated kidnapping and tampering with evidence in the nationally publicized case was arraigned on Tuesday. Federal marshals jailed Cleotha Abston, 38, on Saturday in connection with Fletcher’s kidnapping after police detected his DNA on a pair of sandals found near where she had last been seen, according to a sworn statement justifying his arrest.
Memphis police said in a tweet on Tuesday that Abston will now also face charges of first-degree murder while carrying out a kidnapping, which under Tennessee law can carry life imprisonment or even execution.
According to the arrest affidavit, security footage from the scene showed a black GMC Terrain passing and then waiting for Fletcher to run by. The affidavit added that a man then got out of the car, ran aggressively towards Fletcher and forced her into the passenger’s seat after a struggle.
The car then idled in the parking lot with Fletcher inside for about four minutes before it drove off, according to the affidavit.
Relatives of Fletcher and more than 20 media members were in the courtroom on Tuesday morning for Abston’s arraignment, which was his first appearance before a judge on charges of kidnapping, tampering with evidence, theft, identity theft and fraudulent use of a credit card.
The judge ordered Abston detained in lieu of a $510,000 bond. Abston said he could not afford the bond or a lawyer, and the judge, Louis Montesi, appointed a public defender to represent Abston.
Police also linked the vehicle they believe was used in Fletcher’s kidnapping to a person at a home where Abston was staying.
On Sunday, Memphis police announced that authorities had charged Abston’s brother, 36-year-old Mario Abston, with drug and firearms offenses and that he was not believed to be involved in Fletcher’s kidnapping.
Late on Monday, the police tweeted that a body had been found in a Memphis neighborhood but stopped short of identifying that person or providing a cause of death.
There was a large police presence in the area where authorities reported the body’s discovery.
Police had searched several locations with dogs, ATVs and a helicopter throughout the long weekend.
According to the Memphis television station Fox13, Fletcher’s body was found within walking distance of an area where Abston was said to have been seen cleaning a GMC Terrain hours after her kidnapping. Abston’s employer confirmed to the police that he worked for a cleaning service.
Court records reviewed by the New York Times said that Abston “declined to provide investigators with the location of the victim”, adding that “it is believed and supported by the facts and physical evidence that she suffered serious injury”.
“Further, it is probable and apparent from witness statements that these injuries left evidence, [for example] blood, in the vehicle that the defendant cleaned,” the court documents added.
Fletcher is the granddaughter of the late Joseph Orgill III, a Memphis hardware businessman and philanthropist. The family released a video statement asking for help in finding Fletcher and offered a $50,000 reward for information in the case.
Abston previously kidnapped a prominent Memphis attorney in 2000, the Commercial Appeal reported. When Abston was just 16 years old, he forced Kemper Durand into the trunk of Durand’s car at gunpoint. Abston took Durand out after several hours and forced him to drive to a Mapco gasoline station to withdraw money from an automated teller machine.
At the service station, a Memphis Housing Authority guard armed with a gun walked in and Durand yelled for help. Abston ran away but was later arrested.
He pleaded guilty in 2001 to aggravated kidnapping and aggravated robbery, according to court records. He received a 24-year sentence.
Durand wrote in a victim impact statement, “I was extremely lucky that I was able to escape from the custody of Cleotha Abston,” the Commercial Appeal reported. “It is quite likely that I would have been killed had I not escaped.”
Durand died in 2013, seven years before Abston would be released in November 2020 at age 36. In the two years since his release, there were no further documented charges against Abston in the Memphis area prior to his arrest on Saturday, the Commercial Appeal reported .