A young woman abducted while she was out jogging in the early hours, her body found dumped behind tall grass at an abandoned home and an ex-con with a violent history swiftly charged with her kidnapping and murder.
The death of 34-year-old Memphis kindergarten teacher and mother Eliza Fletcher appeared at first glance to be a tragically familiar crime story in modern America – a classic crime of opportunity involving the random victim of a habitual criminal who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The surveillance camera picture of her in her Lululemon jogging gear on her last early morning run prompted the familiar warnings to young female exercisers about varying their routes, staying alert and carrying pepper spray.
And yet America has been gripped by this case as successive revelations both about the heiress victim and the accused, Cleotha Abston, have prompted an experienced former FBI investigator to make a shocking allegation – that the killing may well have been anything but random.
Mrs Fletcher, a mother of two young children, was the granddaughter of a hardware magnate and an heiress to his multi-billion dollar business. Joseph Orgill III, who died in 2018, ran Orgill, a hardware distributor and was a well-known businessman and philanthropist. The company is the 143rd-largest in private hands in the US with revenue of $3.2 billion last year.
If there are details about Mrs Fletcher’s background that suggest she might not have been targeted completely by chance, the facts about her alleged killer also suggest that he may have more than murder on his mind.
In 2000, aged 16, he and an accomplice, Marquette Cobbins, forced a prominent Memphis lawyer into the trunk of his Mercedes at gunpoint as he left a party in the early hours and drove him to a gas station so he could withdraw money from an ATM.
However, the lawyer, Kemper Durand, managed to escape after alerting an armed security guard who walked into the petrol station.
Mr Durand said that while he was being driven around for some two hours, he could hear Cobbins pleading with Abston to release the man. The lawyer said he’d had little doubt that he would eventually have been killed and noted that, as a result of ‘jailhouse braggadocio’ – it had taken Abston more than a year to admit his guilt.
In 2001 he was convicted of aggravated kidnapping and aggravated robbery. He was sentenced to 24 years in prison but – despite a lengthy criminal history that started when he was 12 and included rape, aggravated assault with a weapon and theft – he was released early in November 2020. The previous year, he sounded like a reformed character on Facebook, writing: ‘The biggest lesson I’ve learned this year is to not force anything, conversation, friendships, relationships, attention, love, ANYTHING is forced is just not worth fighting for.’
And yet there is more than Ms Fletcher’s super-wealthy connections and Abston’s track record – of abducting rich people so he could rob them – that suggest this crime was premeditated. In fact, Mr Durand worked at the same law firm – the prestigious practice of Lewis Thomason – as Mrs Fletcher’s uncle, Michael Keeney, who has been the family spokesman since she disappeared.
‘This is a very significant clue and I’m sure that the FBI, the US Marshals and the TBI
‘[Tennessee Bureau of Investigation] is looking closely at this relationship,’ said Jennifer Coffindaffer. The crime expert, who first revealed the bizarre connection, says she doesn’t believe in coincidences.
She noted that investigators conducted a search warrant at Mrs Fletcher’s home and took away a computer, a car and other possessions including garden shears. It hardly smacks of a chance street encounter and Coffindaffer surmised that they are clearly looking for a possible connection with Abston.
On paper, such a link seems unlikely. Mrs Fletcher married husband Richard, who worked for a local boatyard, in 2014 after meeting at their local Presbyterian church where they were both leading members of the congregation.
Memphis Magazine, which covered the woodland-themed nuptials, described her as ‘a ‘natural’ girl — outdoorsy, athletic, and warm — and the plans for her wedding emanated from her personality and style’. She taught at a local Episcopal school and used to coach soccer.
A keen runner who had qualified to compete in the Boston Marathon, she was picked up on security camera at around 4.20am on Friday as she jogged around the University of Memphis campus near their home.
Her husband Richard first reported her disappearance at 7am, after she failed to come home after her regular 4am run. Law enforcement launched a four-day hunt that involved law enforcement combing several areas of woodland near her home.
On Sunday morning, police announced they had arrested 38-year-old Abston on the basis of security footage of Mrs Fletcher on her jogging route.
A surveillance camera captured a man quickly approach her at a street intersection and, as she struggled, force her into the passenger side of a black GMC Terrain SUV which had been filmed passing by and then waiting for her to run past. They sat in the car, which police believe had been cruising the area for nearly half an hour, for around four minutes before it drove off.
Police said they found a pair of Champion brand slides and her cellphone at the scene and that DNA inside matched that of Abston from his criminal records. Investigators also said his cell phone placed him in the area while other security footage from the previous day showed the suspect wearing the same shoes.
Although the vehicle’s license plate had been obscure in the footage, US Marshals found it on Saturday at a low income housing complex in southeast Memphis where his brother, Mario, lives.
Police say that when they tried to arrest Abston there, he attempted to drive away. He was already under investigation – and now faces additional charges – after a woman claimed that on September 1 he had stolen her wallet and used her cards at gas stations.
Witnesses said they had earlier seen him thoroughly cleaning the floor carpets of the vehicle and generally behaving oddly. Mario – who faces separate drug and gun possession charges – and a female witness both told investigators they’d seen Abston cleaning his clothes in a sink. Officers found a semi-automatic handgun, and a set of scales with bags of heroin and fentanyl in the apartment.
Despite police interviewing Abston, who works for a local cleaning company, he refused to help them find Mrs Fletcher who detectives believed had suffered ‘serious injury’ during the abduction. He was initially charged with kidnapping and tampering with evidence.
WORST FEARS REALIZED
However, on Monday afternoon, police found her body in long grass behind an abandoned house close to Mario Abston’s home – some seven miles from where she was abducted. Police found her running shorts in a trash bag a quarter of a mile away.
A bloodstain remained at the bottom of the stairs next to the patch of dirt where her body was, with flies still swarming the area and locals reporting a ‘stench of decay’.
At a short court hearing at which, wearing a green prison outfit, Abston – hardly a stranger to such arraignments – said little more than casually answer the judge’s questions before he was led away with his hands cuffed behind his back. He has said he is unable to afford his $500,000 bond or legal representation.
Meanwhile, those who loved ‘Liza’ Fletcher – including a family who had offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to her safe return – are left reeling from a devastating loss.
‘We are heartbroken and devastated by this senseless loss,’ the family said in a statement. ‘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.’
St Mary’s Episcopal School, where she taught, said it was ‘heartbroken’ at the death of ‘our beloved teacher, colleague, and friend’. It said on social media: ‘We lit candles to remember Liza who was a bright light in our community. 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.’
Steven J. Mulroy, the local District Attorney, has said the murder was an ‘isolated attack by a stranger’ but police say they are still investigating a motive and the possibility that others were involved. Could it just be a weird coincidence or could it be relevant that, 22 years apart, two crimes were committed against people connected to the same local law firm?