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Missing Memphis mother found dead: What we know about Eliza Fletcher's murder

Here's a look at the timeline and what we know so far about the abduction and murder of the woman who went missing while jogging near the University of Memphis.
Credit: WATN

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The abduction and murder of Memphis mother and teacher Eliza Fletcher has shaken the Mid-South, and garnered national attention. It has forever changed the lives of families, friends, and the community.

Here’s a look at what we know about the crime so far.

The abduction

Memphis Police said the mother and St. Mary’s Episcopal School junior kindergarten teacher was jogging about 4 a.m. Friday, Sept. 2, 2022, near Central Ave. and Zach H. Curlin St. in the University of Memphis area.

The University of Memphis Police called MPD to assist around 7 a.m. Friday after receiving a missing person report for Fletcher, known as Liza. According to an affidavit for the suspect – Cleotha Henderson, aka Cleotha Abston – surveillance video showed a black GMC Terrain passing Fletcher, then waiting for her to run by.

Investigators said video showed a man get out and struggle with Fletcher before forcing her into the SUV. Police said the SUV then sat in the parking lot with Fletcher inside for about four minutes before the driver took off.

University of Memphis police issued a Safety Alert to students and staff about the kidnapping, and Memphis Police issued a City Watch Alert for the missing jogger.

Credit: Memphis Police Department

The Investigation

According to the police affidavit, investigators said video showed the GMC Terrain used in the kidnapping had noticeable damage to the back-passenger taillight area. They also said footage taken 24 minutes before the abduction was clear enough to provide them with a partial view of the license plate.

Friday morning, investigators said a pair of sandals, along with Fletcher’s cell phone and water bottle, were found by a bicyclist in front of a home owned by the university in the 3800 block of Central Ave. They said the person who found the items gave them to Fletcher's family, who turned them into police, according to the affidavit.

The sandals were sent to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) and investigators said DNA found on the shoes matched the DNA of the suspect - Henederson - from their "CODIS" database. According to the affidavit, Henderson was then developed as a person of interest, and investigators found surveillance footage of Henderson at a Malco theater on Germantown Parkway wearing the same sandals a day before the kidnapping.

Suspect’s arrest

According to the police affidavit, a witness told investigators they saw Henderson just a few hours after the abduction on Friday, around 7:50 a.m., at the Longview Gardens Apartments in the 1700 block of South Orleans Street, reported to be his brother's apartment. The witness told investigators Henderson was cleaning the interior of the GMC Terrain, and they saw him through the apartment window washing his clothes in the sink.

The affidavit said investigators connected Henderson to the GMC through his home residence and witnesses who saw him regularly drive the SUV. Police also said they were able to get a cell phone number for Henderson, which they said records and analysis were able to show was in the area near Central Ave. at the time of Fletcher’s abduction.

On Saturday morning, Sept. 3, 2022, U.S. Marshals located the GMC Terrain in the area of Waterstone Way in southeast Memphis. According to the affidavit, they were able to confirm a match based on the license plate and the damage to the rear taillight.

They said a man matching Henderson's description was standing in the doorway of the residence where the car was parked. Investigators said when officers approached Henderson he tried to run but was detained inside the SUV.

Sunday, Sept. 4, the 38-year-old was charged with especially aggravated kidnapping and tampering with evidence as the search for Fletcher continued. According to the police affidavit, Henderson declined to provide investigators with the location of the victim.

Credit: Shelby County Jail
Memphis police have arrested 38-year-old Cleotha Henderson, aka Abston, in connection with the abduction and murder of Eliza Fletcher.

Suspect’s history

After his arrest, we learned Henderson was previously convicted in 2000 of especially aggravated kidnapping and aggravated robbery in Shelby County, according to the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC). 

In that case, when he was just 16-years-old, Henderson forced prominent Memphis attorney Kemper Durand into the trunk of his own car at gunpoint. After several hours, Henderson took Durand out and forced him to drive to a Mapco gas station to withdraw money from an ATM. At the station, an armed Memphis Housing Authority guard walked in and Durand yelled for help. Henderson ran away but was found and arrested. He pleaded guilty in 2001 to especially aggravated kidnapping and aggravated robbery, according to court records. He received a 24-year sentence and was released in November 2020. Durand died in 2013.

Monday, Sept. 5, court records revealed new charges filed against Henderson. He was charged with identity theft, theft of property $1,000 or less, and fraudulent use/illegal possession of credit/debit card $1,000 or less for a theft the day before the kidnapping.

According to the affidavit for those newer charges, a woman (not Fletcher) reported her wallet was stolen Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022, while she was at work at the Malco in the 1000 block of Germantown Pkwy. Investigators said video showed an employee of the cleaning service, identified as Cleotha Henderson (aka Abston), taking the wallet. (This is the same video where investigators said he was wearing the sandals left behind at the scene of the abduction.) According to the affidavit, the victim got texts about her cards being used, and police determined they had been used at two gas stations for more than $910.

Jail records show Henderson is also facing charges from a Sept. 21, 2021, case he was indicted for Thursday. Those charges include aggravated rape, especially aggravated kidnapping, unlawful carrying or possession of a weapon, and theft of property $1,000 or less.

RELATED: Suspect charged in Fletcher murder also charged for 2021 rape, kidnapping

Fletcher’s body found

As we learned new information on the suspect, the search continued for Fletcher. Family and friends held out hope she would be found alive.

The FBI, TBI, and multiple other federal investigation agencies joined Memphis Police to search several wooded and residential areas in the city, especially in South Memphis. 

Monday evening, searchers were checking out a South Memphis area near a vacant home in the 1600 block of Victor not far from where Henderson had been seen cleaning the GMC Terrain. 

According to the affidavit, searchers noticed high grass near a home on Victor near Person Ave. Police said they noticed vehicle tracks in the driveway and "the odor of decay." Then while searching around the home about 5 p.m., they found the body of a woman. 

According to the affidavit for the murder charges, investigators found a garbage bag with shorts matching those Fletcher was last seen wearing. Investigators also said surveillance video showed the GMC Terrain in that area in the couple hours after the abduction.

ABC24 crews were at the scene when a transport van with the medical examiner's office left around 11:28 p.m. Monday.

Tuesday morning about 8:40 a.m., Memphis Police canceled the City Watch Alert for Fletcher, then tweeted out minutes later confirming the body found at that location was indeed Fletcher.

Suspect in court

Cleotha Henderson (aka Abston), the man charged with the murder of Memphis mother Eliza Fletcher, has made several appearances in court so far.

A Shelby County Judge said he found no conflict of interest with public defender's office representing Henderson. The public defender had asked for a review out of an abundance of caution, because it had previously represented Henderson in a 2000 kidnapping case. They said the previous attorney would not be involved in the current case.

The judge reiterated no bond would be set for Henderson so far.

Henderson first appeared in court on kidnapping and tampering with evidence charges in Fletcher’s disappearance. A first-degree murder charge was added Tuesday, Sept. 6, after investigators identified Fletcher’s body in South Memphis.

In court Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, the judge said Henderson was the suspect’s “true and legal” name,” despite earlier records showing him as Cleotha Abston, and he would now be referred to as Henderson in the official court record. The judge revoked a previous bond of $510,000, and Henderson was held without bond.

He is due back in court on Oct. 5.

RELATED: Public defender's office will continue to represent man charged with Eliza Fletcher's murder

Credit: Bradley Broders
Cleotha Henderson, aka Abston

News conference with Memphis and Mid-South officials

A news conference was held morning following Abston’s first appearance in court. Memphis Police Chief CJ Davis, FBI, ATF, US Marshals, and new Shelby County District Attorney General Steve Mulroy all spoke.

Chief Davis called it a sad day for Memphis and said, "while the outcome is not what we hoped for, we are happy to get this perpetrator off the streets." Davis said it is too early for them to say where or how Fletcher died. She said MPD followed hundreds of tips, and the investigation is ongoing.

Mulroy said they believe this is a "random attack by a stranger." He said the family has asked for media to respect their privacy and allow them to grieve.

Statement from Fletcher's family

Eliza Fletcher's family released this statement Tuesday morning: “We are heartbroken and devastated by this senseless loss. Liza was a such a joy to so many - her family, friends, colleagues, students, parents, members of her Second Presbyterian Church congregation, and everyone who knew her. 

Now it’s time to remember and celebrate how special she was and to support those who cared so much for her. We appreciate all the expressions of love and concern we have received. We are grateful beyond measure to local, state and federal law enforcement for their tireless efforts to find Liza and to bring justice to the person responsible for this horrible crime. 

We hope that everyone, including media representatives, understand the need for the family to grieve in privacy without outside intrusion during this painful time.” 

Funeral for Eliza Fletcher

Funeral services for Fletcher are set for Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022, at 10 a.m. at Second Presbyterian Church at 4055 Poplar Avenue.

The family requests that memorials be made to the Liza Wellford Fletcher Memorial Fund at St. Mary’s Episcopal School, Christ Methodist Day School, and Second Presbyterian Church.

Runs and vigils held for Fletcher

As loved ones prepared to lay the Memphis mother and teacher to rest, many challenged themselves to “Finish Liza’s Run”, following the 8.2 mile running path that she was taking when she was abducted.

They gathered about 4 a.m. Friday morning in Memphis in the area where she was abducted to honor the mother. The participants of the run said their goal is to stand up for women and their right to feel safe at any and every time of the day, even when they are out for a morning run like Fletcher was. 

Cities around the country also hosted runs and vigils for Fletcher as well.

Fletcher's autopsy released

An autopsy report released Sept. 29 by the West Tennessee Regional Forensic Center to ABC24 revealed that Eliza Fletcher died of a gunshot wound to the head.

According to the autopsy, the 34-year-old mother of two suffered blunt-force trauma to each of her legs, and was shot in the back of the head from an "indeterminate" range. 

The autopsy also said that while no projectile was found, a shell casing was found nearby.

RELATED: Autopsy reveals cause of death in Eliza Fletcher murder case

RELATED: Shelby County D.A.: Eliza Fletcher's murder believed to be 'random attack by stranger'

RELATED: Cleotha Abston charged with First Degree Murder after Eliza Fletcher's body identified

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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