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Police identify body of abducted runner Eliza Fletcher

Memphis identified,Eliza Fletcher,Cleotha Abston,Body of missing jogger Eliza Fletcher

 Authorities announced Tuesday that a body found Monday has been identified as that of a kindergarten teacher who was abducted during an early morning run in Memphis last week.

Eliza Fletcher, 34, who also goes by "Lisa," was last seen around 4:20 a.m. Friday, jogging near the University of Memphis campus in a pink top and purple shorts. Surveillance footage captured the mother of two being forced into a black SUV, and as authorities conducted an extensive search over the Labor Day weekend, Memphis police said they feared she suffered "serious injury."

Investigators found Fletcher's body behind a vacant house where she was abducted. The discovery comes a day after the arrest of a suspect, Cleotha Abston, who will now face murder charges on top of the kidnapping charges, police said. The 38-year-old was released from prison in November 2020 after serving nearly 20 years for a 2000 kidnapping.

"While the outcome of this investigation is not what we had hoped for, we are pleased to have this dangerous predator off the streets of Memphis," said the city's police chief, Cyrillein "C.J." Davis said during a news conference. He called it "a very sad day in the city".

The suspect's brother was also arrested over the weekend but is not believed to be connected to the kidnapping, Memphis police said. Mario Abston, 36, faces drug and weapons charges.

Officials said it was too early to say whether others would be charged in Fletcher's abduction and death. They said they were still determining where and how he was killed, stressing that the investigation was ongoing.

"There's no reason to think this is anything other than an isolated attack by a stranger," Shelby County District Attorney Steve Milroy said.

In a statement released to local media on Tuesday, Fletcher's family said they were "heartbroken and devastated" by the senseless loss.

"Lisa was 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. "Now is the time to remember and celebrate how special she was and support those who cared so much for her."

According to court records filed in Shelby County, the search for Fletcher began Friday morning, when her husband told police she had not returned from a 4 a.m. run. Around 6:45 a.m., a bicyclist discovered the missing woman's cell phone along with a pair of Champion sandals on the road just outside the college campus.

Investigators tracked down surveillance footage from the area, which showed a black GMC Terrain driving past and then waiting for Fletcher to drive away, the affidavit said. A man got out of the car, ran at her "aggressively" and then forced her into the passenger side of the car. After pulling the woman in, the car remained in the parking lot for about four minutes and then drove away.

"During this kidnapping," court documents said, "there appeared to be a struggle."

DNA taken from the sandal linked Cleotha Abston to the abduction, and her cell phone records show Fletcher was around when she was forced into the SUV. The owner of the cleaning service confirmed that Abston worked for his company and drove a GMC Terrain.

A Memphis police sergeant found Abston Saturday evening at an apartment complex, with an SUV parked outside. Abston tried to flee but was stopped and taken into custody by a team of U.S. marshals, authorities said.

Blood was possibly left in the vehicle, court records said. A woman named Shantel Anthony, who was not related to Abston, told investigators she saw him at Mario Abston's home, where Fletcher was taken, at about 7:50 a.m. Friday. He was cleaning the inside of the SUV and "behaving strangely," according to court records.

Mario Abston said he saw his brother inside the house washing his clothes in a sink. He also described it as "very strange acting".

Cleotha Abston was charged Tuesday with first-degree murder and first-degree murder in the commission of kidnapping, as well as first-degree counts of "especially aggravated kidnapping and tampering with evidence," police said.

More than two decades ago, he faced another serious kidnapping charge. In that case, the Independent reported, the then 16-year-old and an accomplice kidnapped Memphis lawyer Kemper Durand.

The two forced Durand into the trunk of their car and drove around for hours before driving him to a gas station ATM to rob him. He managed to escape when he saw an armed Memphis Housing Authority guard and called for help, causing his attackers to flee.

"It is quite likely that I would have been killed if I had not escaped," Durand said in court documents filed in 2003.

Abston was sentenced to 24 years in prison in 2001 but was paroled early, according to the Tennessee Department of Corrections. He had been out for a little less than two years when, according to police, he confronted and assaulted Fletcher.

After his arrest in Friday's kidnapping, he refused to tell authorities where to look for Fletcher, court records said.

They discovered her body in long grass outside an abandoned house about a mile and a half from Mario Abston's apartment after noticing car tracks and the smell of decay. Nearby was a trash can containing purple Lululemon shorts. A forensic investigation identified the body as Fletcher's, officials said.

"Losing someone so young and so important is a tragedy in itself, but to have it happen like this with a senseless act of violence, it's unimaginable," Milroy said.

Fletcher was the granddaughter of the late Joseph Orgill III, who ran Orgill, a major distributor of hardware and home improvement supplies. She was an avid runner who taught at the all-girls St. Mary's Episcopal School, which described her as a "beloved" junior kindergarten teacher.

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