What we know about Memphis heiress Eliza Fletcher who was found dead

US News

Eliza Fletcher, 34, was out on her usual morning run near the University of Memphis when she disappeared.

Her family put up a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of anyone responsible for her disappearance after police said she had been kidnapped

Her body was discovered three days later.

Cleotha Abston, 38, has been charged with kidnapping and murder.

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But who was Eliza Fletcher, how did her family make their billions, and what do we know about how she died?

Memphis police officers search an area where a body had been found in South Memphis, Tenn., near Victor Street and East Person Ave., Monday, Sept. 5, 2022. Police in Tennessee said Tuesday, Sept. 6, they had found the body of a Memphis woman abducted during a pre-dawn run, confirming fears that Eliza Fletcher was killed after she was forced into an SUV on Friday morning. Cleotha Abston has been charged with kidnapping and murder in the case. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian via AP)
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Memphis police officers conducting a search following Fletcher’s disappearance

Who was Ms Fletcher?

She worked as a junior kindergarten teacher at St Mary’s Episcopal School.

The 34-year-old was married to Richard Fletcher III and they had two boys.

Her grandfather, the late Joseph Orgill III, was a Memphis hardware businessman and philanthropist.

How did the family business become so successful?

Despite coming from a wealthy background, Ms Fletcher decided to pursue a career in teaching and not with her family’s firm.

Her late grandfather was a billionaire who oversaw huge growth in a Memphis hardware supply company, known as Orgill.

The company is said to be worth more than $3bn (£2.6bn) and employs around 5,500 people.

Initially established in 1847, it went through a string of name and ownership changes before Joe Orgill III became company president in the late 1960s.

The company expanded through the acquisition of other businesses and now describes itself as the “world’s largest independent hardlines distributor with annual sales of $3 billion”.

According to the company website, it serves more than 11,000 retail stores, centres and dealers throughout the US and Canada.

It also supplies its services to outlets in 50 other countries.

Orgill says it is “celebrating 175 years” and has its headquarters in Collierville, Tennessee.

‘Liza touched the hearts of many’

Following her disappearance, her family released a video asking for help in finding her.

In the statement, they also offered a $50,000 reward for information in the case.

“We believe someone knows what happened and can help,” her uncle Mike Keeney said.

After the discovery of her body, her family said they were “heartbroken and devastated” by their “senseless loss”.

“Liza has touched the hearts of many people,” they said, describing her as “such a joy to so many”.

“Now it’s time to remember and celebrate how special she was and to support those who cared so much for her,” the family statement said.

In a Facebook post, St. Mary’s Episcopal School, where Fletcher taught kindergarten, said faculty and staff started Tuesday in chapel and lit candles to remember her as “a bright light in our community”.

‘Odour of decay’ and discovery of purple running shorts

Memphis Police Director Cerelyn “CJ” Davis said it was too early in the investigation to determine how and where Fletcher was killed.

Davis said the body was found behind a vacant duplex. A police affidavit said officers noticed vehicle tracks next to the duplex’s driveway, and they “smelled an odour of decay”.

Purple running shorts whose appearance was consistent with those Fletcher was wearing were found in a discarded bin bag nearby, according to the affidavit.

Who is suspect Cleotha Abston?

Cleotha Abston on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022. Pic: Shelby County Sheriff's Office/AP
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Cleotha Abston on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022. Pic: Shelby County Sheriff’s Office/AP

Abston, 38, is now facing charges of first degree murder and first degree murder in perpetration of kidnapping.

He was arrested by US Marshals on Saturday 3 September after his DNA was found on a pair of sandals near where Fletcher was last seen.

Police also linked the vehicle they believe was used in the kidnapping to a person at a property where Abston was staying.

Abston was previously sentenced to 24 years in jail for another kidnapping. He was just 16 when he abducted a Memphis lawyer, Kemper Durand, in 2000.

Mr Durand was able to escape after a number of hours, and Abston was jailed after pleading guilty to especially aggravated kidnapping and aggravated robbery.

Abston reportedly forced Mr Durand into the trunk of his own car at gunpoint. After several hours, Abston took Mr Durand out and forced him to drive to a gas station to withdraw money from an ATM.

Mr Durand died in 2013 but he had said in a statement to the court that he was “extremely lucky” to have been able to get away from Abston, adding: “It is quite likely that I would have been killed had I not escaped.”

According to Mr Durand’s statement, Abston had also been charged with a number of offences before his kidnapping, including aggravated assault with a weapon, and rape, some of which went back to when he was just 12.

Abston did not serve his full sentence, and was released after 20 years.

Some prominent Tennessee Republicans were quick to argue that had Abston served his full sentence, Fletcher would still be alive.

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