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Eliza Fletcher: Everything we know about the kidnap and murder of the Memphis heiress

Cleotha Henderson is charged with the kidnap and murder of the Memphis heiress

Rachel Sharp
Thursday 30 March 2023 16:04 BST
Man charged over kidnapping of Memphis jogger Eliza Fletcher

Eliza Fletcher was just going about her usual routine.

The Memphis teacher, mother-of-two and business heiress got up on the morning of 2 September 2022 and went for a run.

She took her usual route close to the University of Memphis.

But she was never seen alive again.

Horrifying surveillance footage captured the 34-year-old being snatched and bundled into an SUV.

Three days later, her body was found dumped near an abandoned building – her running gear discarded close by.

Cleotha Henderson, a convicted kidnapper who was released from prison in 2020 after 19 years, is now charged with her kidnap and murder in a case that sent shockwaves through the local community and sparked a movement calling for women to be able to go out running alone without being in fear for their lives.

Henderson – who also goes by the name Cleotha Abston – is appearing in court on 30 March.

Here’s everything we know about the case:

The abduction

Fletcher, known to family and friends as Liza, was out on her regular morning jog at around 4.20am on 2 September 2022 when the abduction unfolded.

Surveillance footage captured the mother-of-two dressed in a pink jogging top and purple running shorts, running close to the University of Memphis campus.

The footage showed a black 2013 GMC Terrain SUV driving past her before pulling up.

Aman was then seen getting out of it, before he “ran aggressively” toward the jogger.

A violent struggle broke out and the man forced Fletcher into the passenger side of the vehicle.

Eliza Fletcher, also known as Liza, was last seen wearing a pink running top, purple running shorts and her blonde/brown hair in a bun on her head

The car then remained on the scene with the two inside for around four minutes before driving off, the footage shows.

Fletcher’s family reported her missing when she failed to return home from her run. The jogger’s cellphone and water bottle were discovered at the site of her abduction.

Investigators also found a pair of Champion slide shoes – believed to belong to Henderson – which were left behind in the struggle.

Photos of the suspect vehicle were released to the public to help track down the missing mother-of-two.

Surveillance footage captured the same SUV stalking the area where Fletcher was taken just 24 minutes before the kidnapping.

Body discovered

Law enforcement officers spent days combing the area near where Fletcher disappeared, including searching through dumpsters, ponds and parks.

Then, just after 5pm on 5 September 2022 – three days on from her disappearance – officers found the victim’s body close to an abandoned elementary school in South Memphis.

The grim discovery was made less than a mile from where a witness told police they had seen Henderson vigorously cleaning an SUV matching the vehicle seen in surveillance footage. It was also close to where authorities seized a dumpster and took bags out as evidence near Henderson’s brother’s house.

On the morning of 6 September 2022, police confirmed the body had been positively identified as belonging to the mother-of-two.

According to an affidavit, investigators from Memphis Police Department and federal and state partners had noticed vehicle tracks in tall grass leading to a vacant apartment.

A search and rescue officer smelled an “odour of decay” and spotted a set of footprints in the rear driveway of the premises. He then saw an “unresponsive female” lying on the ground, the documents state.

Officers released surveillance video of the GMC Terrain that they believe was used to abduct Ms Fletcher on Friday

She was pronounced dead on the scene.

Police found Fletcher’s pair of purple Lululemon running shorts discarded in a trash bag nearby. A shell casing was also recovered from the area.

Surveillance footage showed Henderson’s black GMC Terrain nearby between 5.48am and 5.52am, the affidavit states.

The autopsy later revealed that Fletcher suffered blunt-force trauma to her right leg and was shot in the back of her head from an “indeterminate” range.

“There are two semicircular defects to the skull consistent with a single gunshot to the head with the bullet travelling in a posterior to anterior (back to front) and right to left direction,” the report said, adding she also had jaw fractures.

The arrest and charges

Henderson was arrested on 3 September 2022 – just 24 hours on from the teacher’s abduction and two days before her body was found.

Investigators closed in on him when US Marshals spotted a vehicle matching the description of the suspect’s car in a parking lot close to Henderson’s home.

The SUV had the same damaged taillight and partial licence plate identification seen in the surveillance footage of the abduction, according to an affidavit.

When officers found Henderson nearby, he tried to flee the scene, but he was arrested and taken in for questioning.

Eliza Fletcher was snatched while jogging in the early hours of Friday morning

On 4 September 2022, Memphis Police announced that he had been charged with especially aggravated kidnapping and tampering with evidence.

The following afternoon, Memphis police charged Henderson with three additional charges: identity theft, theft of property under $1,000 and fraudulent use of a credit card.

According to the affidavit, Henderson was spotted cleaning the inside of his car and washing his clothes in the sink in the aftermath of the abduction.

A witness and the suspect’s brother said they saw him behaving oddly at his house and undergoing the clean later on 2 September 2022.

Even after the clean, authorities said they have recovered blood and other evidence inside the vehicle, leading them to believe Fletcher suffered a “serious injury”.

Cellphone location data also placed Henderson at the scene of the abduction and the Champion slides found at the scene were tied to him through both DNA evidence and surveillance footage, authorities said.

Henderson reportedly refused to tell investigators where Fletcher was or what happened to her.

When police found her body, Henderson was hit with new charges of first degree murder and first degree murder in perpetration of kidnapping.

He was initially held on $500,000 bond and made his first court appearance on 6 September 2022.

Henderson made a second appearance in the Shelby County Circuit Court on the morning of 7 September 2022 where a judge revoked his bond. It was during this appearance that he asked that he be addressed as Cleotha Henderson instead of Cleotha Abston.

After the court appearance, Shelby County Jail records showed he was listed as Cleotha Henderson.

The suspect’s brother Mario Abston was also arrested and charged following the police search of their home.

Mario Abston is charged with one count of possession with intent to distribute heroin, one count with intent to distribute fentanyl and felony possession of a firearm.

The suspect

Henderson, 38, has a long rap sheet prior to Fletcher’s kidnap and murder.

From the age of 11, he was in the juvenile system and was known to be part of the Lemoyne Gardens Ganstas (LMG) gang.

Between 1995 and May 2000, he was arrested 16 times including for the alleged rape a man when he was aged 14, theft, aggravated assault and unlawful posession of a weapon.

At the age of 16, he kidnapped a man at gunpoint. After being convicted, he was released from prison less than two years before Fletcher’s murder.

In an eerily similar situation to the kidnapping of Fletcher, Henderson – then aged 16 – bundled a Memphis attorney into his vehicle in an early morning attack.

On 24 May 2000, at around 2am, Henderson approached Kemper Durand in his vehicle, got out and forced the attorney into the trunk of his car.

Cleotha Henderson was arrested around 24 hours on from the teacher’s abduction

He then drove the victim around for several hours before taking him to an ATM where he robbed him. The victim was saved when he shouted for help from a passer-by, prompting his attacker to flee the scene.

Henderson was later arrested and pleaded guilty in 2001 to especially aggravated kidnapping.

He was sentenced to 24 years in prison and was released in November 2020, after serving 19 years.

An earlier release was denied after Mr Durand told authorities he believed Henderson had shown “absolutely no remorse for the crime”.

During his time behind bars, prison records show that Henderson was accused of 19 separate instances of indecent exposure.

One prison guard commented in records obtained by Action 5 News that the inmate simply “couldn’t help” it.

One year after his release – and one year before Fletcher’s abduction and murder – Henderson allegedly raped a woman in September 2021.

Alicia Franklin claims that she met Henderson on a dating app in 2021 and they made plans to go for dinner together. The suspect then held her at gunpoint, blindfolded her and threatened to kill her before walking her to his car.

He then allegedly forced her into the backseat of the car where he raped her.

Ms Franklin reported the assault to the police but Henderson was not arrested at the time because of a long delay in processing the rape kit.

Henderson’s DNA was in the system from his prior convictions but her alleged rapist’s DNA was not entered into the national law enforcement database until 5 September 2021 – three days after Fletcher’s abduction.

Henderson is now also charged over the 2021 rape.

He is also charged over a robbery which took place on 1 September 2021 – one day before Fletcher’s abduction.

Henderson has pleaded guilty to all charges.

The victim

Fletcher was well known in the local community as both a respected teacher and the heiress to a local business fortune.

The 34-year-old was the granddaughter of the late local businessman and philanthropist Joseph “Joe” Orgill III, who founded the Memphis hardware supply company Orgill.

The private, family-ran business is now worth $3.2bn and employs 5,500 people, with the Orgill family well-known in the local area.

The company website describes Orgill as the “world’s largest independently owned hardlines distributor, providing retailers across North America and in more than 60 countries throughout the world access to over 75,000 products and industry-leading retail services”.

Instead of working in the family business, however, Fletcher became a local kindergarten teacher.

She was married to Richard Fletcher III and they had two boys together.

The teacher’s family begged for help in finding her in an emotional press conference on Saturday

Her family offered $50,000 for her return and begged for help in finding her in an emotional press conference on 2 September 2022.

“We believe someone knows what happened and can help,” her uncle Mike Keeney said, as her husband wiped tears from his eyes.

“More than anything we want to see Liza returned home safely.”

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