A 34-year-old Memphis, Tennessee kindergarten teacher who authorities say was kidnapped while on an early morning jog earlier in September was beaten and shot to death.
Eliza Fletcher, a wife and mother of two, sustained a gunshot wound to the back of her head from intermediate range and multiple fractures to her face, according to a newly released autopsy report obtained by Law&Crime.
“There are two semicircular defects to the skull consistent with a single gunshot to the head with the bullet traveling in a posterior to anterior (back to front) and right to left direction,” a forensic anthropologist with the West Tennessee Regional Center wrote in a summary of the report. “There are fractures to the maxillae consistent with a blunt impact to the central facial area. The hyoid and thyroid are unremarkable.”
As previously reported by Law&Crime, surveillance video appears to show Fletcher being forced into a dark-colored SUV while she was jogging in the 3800 block of Central Avenue, near the University of Memphis campus, at around 4 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 2. The footage reportedly showed a person exiting the parked SUV as Fletcher passed by, then running toward her, grabbing her, and forcing her into the passenger’s side door of the vehicle. Authorities reportedly said they found evidence of a struggle between Fletcher and her kidnapper.
Cleotha Abston, 38, (a.k.a., Cleotha Henderson) was taken into custody on Saturday, Sept. 3 and charged with multiple felonies, including one count each of especially aggravated kidnapping and unlawful carrying or possession of a weapon in connection with Fletcher’s disappearance.
After authorities discovered her body on Sept. 5, additional charges of first-degree murder and first-degree murder in perpetration of kidnapping were filed against Abston. Her body was located approximately seven miles from where she was taken in a “moderate to advanced state of decomposition,” per the autopsy report.
Fletcher’s cell phone and water bottle were found outside of a house owned by the University of Memphis after she disappeared, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported. DNA on a pair of slides found at the scene reportedly matched Abston’s, who was seen on other surveillance video wearing similar slides days earlier.
Additional surveillance footage obtained by investigators reportedly showed Abston cleaning a dark-colored GMC Terrain — a vehicle matching the description of the one used in Fletcher’s kidnapping — for more than an hour after Fletcher was taken.
Data obtained from Abston’s cellphone also reportedly placed him near the intersection where Fletcher was abducted at the approximate time of her disappearance and his brother reportedly told investigators that Abston was “acting very strange” when he returned home on Sept. 4.
Fletcher, a junior kindergarten teacher at St. Mary’s Episcopal School, was the granddaughter of Joseph Orgill III, a billionaire who ran Memphis-based hardware distributor Orgill Inc. In 2021, Forbes listed Orgill as number 143 among the largest private companies in the U.S.
After his arrest, Abston was charged in a separate kidnapping that allegedly took place on Sept. 21, 2021. He faces additional counts of aggravated rape, especially aggravated kidnapping, and unlawful carrying or possession of a weapon in that case.
Alicia Franklin, the alleged victim of the 2021 kidnapping, claimed that Abston forced her into a his car at gunpoint and raped her. She since filed a lawsuit against the City of Memphis over what she described as its negligent failure to investigate the attack.
“Cleotha Abston should and could have been arrested and indicted for the aggravated rape of Alicia Franklin many months earlier, most likely in the year 2021, based on all of the information set forth in the preceding paragraphs of this Complaint, and the abduction and murder of Eliza Fletcher would not have occurred,” the complaint states.
Abston had previously been convicted in the 2000 kidnapping of a prominent area attorney and forcing him to take money out of an ATM. That was when he was only 16 years old. He was released in 2020 after serving 20 years behind bars.
Read the autopsy report below.
Alberto Luperon and Marisa Sarnoff contributed to this report.
[Booking photo of Cleotha Abston (left) via Shelby County Jail, picture of Eliza Fletcher via Memphis Police Department.]
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