Man charged in abduction of billionaire’s granddaughter, Police say
By April Rubin
A Memphis kindergarten teacher remained missing Monday a day after the police charged a man in connection with her abduction during an early morning jog.
Eliza Fletcher, 34, who also goes by Liza and is the granddaughter of a billionaire, was last seen jogging near the University of Memphis campus at about 4:30 a.m. on Friday when she was forced into a dark-colored SUV, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said on Twitter.
Officers were dispatched at 7:45 a.m. after her husband, Richard Fletcher, reported that she had not returned home, according to court records.
Video surveillance showed that a person exited the SUV when Eliza Fletcher went by, ran toward her and forced her into the passenger’s side of the vehicle. “There appeared to be a struggle,” court records said.
The person detained, Cleotha Abston, 38, was charged with especially aggravated kidnapping and tampering with evidence, police said. Abston had been in the SUV used in the abduction, court records said.
Another man, his brother Mario Abston, 36, was also arrested but was not believed to be connected to the abduction, police said. He was charged with drug and weapon possession charges.
On Monday night, the Memphis Police Department said that a body had been found near Mario Abston’s apartment, where Cleotha Abston had been seen after the abduction, but that the identify and the cause of death were still under investigation. Police officials said they would make no further statements Monday night.
Court records show that Cleotha Abston was convicted in 2001 of “especially aggravated kidnapping” and aggravated robbery, also in Tennessee, and sentenced to 24 years in prison. He was released in November 2020.
A person who was biking in the area around 6:45 a.m. found Fletcher’s cellphone and gave it to her family, who turned it over to the police, court records said. The biker also found a pair of shoes, Champion slides, in the same area.
The shoes were linked by DNA testing to Cleotha Abston, and video evidence also showed him wearing the shoes, court records said. Authorities, relying on cellphone data, tracked Cleotha Abston’s phone to near where Fletcher was forced into the SUV.
Court records said he “declined to provide investigators with the location of the victim.”
“It is believed and supported by the facts and physical evidence that she suffered serious injury,” court records said. “Further, it is probable and apparent from witness statements that these injuries left evidence, e.g., blood, in the vehicle that the defendant cleaned.”
Shantel Anthony, whose connection to Abston is not clear, said she saw him cleaning the interior of the SUV with floor cleaner and that he was “behaving oddly,” court records said.
Cleotha Abston worked for a cleaning service, his employer confirmed to police. He drives the SUV that was captured in the surveillance footage, the employer also said.
Cleotha Abston was at the home of Mario Abston, who said his brother was acting “very strange.” Cleotha Abston washed his clothes in the sink at the house, according to court records.
Cleotha Abston is scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday. It was not immediately clear if he had a lawyer.
Fletcher’s grandfather, Joseph Orgill III, was a billionaire who ran Orgill Inc., a Memphis-based hardware distributor. He died in 2018.
Orgill is the nation’s largest independent distributor in its field of hardware and home improvement, according to Forbes. It is the 143rd-largest private company in the country, with 2021 revenue of $3.2 billion.
Fletcher is an heiress to the company’s fortune. Orgill did not respond to a request for comment Sunday.
In a video statement, family members said they had met with police and shared all the information they knew.
Fletcher is a mother of two and a junior kindergarten teacher at St. Mary’s Episcopal School in Memphis.
The Second Presbyterian Church, where her family worships, dedicated a hymn to Fletcher via Facebook live.
“We join our 2PC family, as well as many others in the city of Memphis and beyond in praying for Liza’s safety, and that she will be found soon,” the church wrote. “We also pray for her husband, Richie, and their two sons.”