Liza’s Last Run: Retracing The Tragic Final Hour Of The Heiress Whose Murder Rocked Memphis

Liza’s Last Run: Retracing The Tragic Final Hour Of The Heiress Whose Murder Rocked Memphis

MEMPHIS – Eliza Fletcher’s final run started off one week ago like so many before.

Before the 34-year-old pre-kindergarten teacher, marathon runner, and heiress to a wholesale hardware fortune stepped onto the sidewalk in front of her Memphis home in the predawn darkness of Friday, September 2, she’d pulled her hair back into a ponytail and grabbed her cellphone and a water bottle. It was 4 a.m., and most of the homes along Carr Avenue — a quiet street in the city’s Central Gardens neighborhood — were still dark. The only sounds were the rustle of leaves, gentle gusts of wind, and the low hum of distant traffic.

The woman known to friends as Liza — and as “Mrs. Fletcher” to the students she taught at the all-girls St. Mary’s Episcopal School — loved to run. Three years ago, she ran the St. Jude marathon, which doubles as a fundraising event for the local St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and placed 22nd among women.

Closing the American flag-emblazoned front door to the picturesque home she shared with her husband Richie and two sons, Fletcher, wearing purple Lululemon shorts and a pink athletic top, passed the porch swing and two shade trees in the front yard as she made her way to the sidewalk. She set off toward the University of Memphis campus, some four miles away.

The route would take her from her tree-lined and tidy street east toward the school, and it was at the intersection of Central Avenue and Zach H Curlin Street, near the university where, according to police, a 38-year-old career criminal kidnapped her.

The predawn darkness, combined with an abundance of trees and signage, offered her killer the opportunity to stalk her quickly and stealthily. Depending on which direction Eliza was running and whether or not she paused at the intersection, she may not have seen him approaching her until he pounced.

She was reported missing at around 7:45 a.m. when police received two calls, one from Richie and one from the University of Memphis.

Grainy surveillance video would show Fletcher being grabbed and shoved into a dark SUV, and the crime scene, with the water bottle, smashed cell phone, and, oddly, a pair of the suspect’s shoes, told more of the horrifying story.

Other pieces would come together over the ensuing days, as family and friends hoped and prayed Fletcher could somehow still be alive. Police arrested Cleotha Abston, who has since identified himself in court as Cleotha Henderson, the next day. His GMC Terrain had been on the surveillance video, the shoes at the scene bore his DNA, and witnesses saw him cleaning the SUV and his clothes shortly after Fletcher vanished.

Just what Fletcher endured in her final moments may never be known, and may be too awful for her loved ones to imagine. After Henderson’s arrest, and as a city on tenterhooks prayed for a miracle, the news only got grimmer. Police hauled away a dumpster near his brother’s home. The picture that emerged of Henderson, who had previously served time for kidnapping, and was described by a female neighbor as a “creepy pervert,” offered little in the way of hope.

Late Monday, police announced they had found a body decomposing in the summer heat on the front steps of a dilapidated, abandoned home in South Memphis, about eight miles from the crime scene, and near Henderson’s brother’s home. By Tuesday morning, they confirmed the city’s worst fears: It was Liza.

This is the abandoned house in South Memphis where Eliza Fletcher’s body was found. (Google Street Images)

Court documents reveal how police likely knew early on they were dealing with a murder and how they were able to quickly zero in on the suspect and the body. An affidavit alleges Henderson was captured on video cruising slowly past his quarry, then stopping to wait for her to pass. The same document describes what happened next as a “violent” struggle. Another police affidavit revealed that investigators found a trash bag containing Fletcher’s shorts less than half a mile away from where her body was found.

Henderson had been sentenced to a 24-year jail term for abducting a Memphis attorney in 2000. But he was free to cruise the desolate, early morning streets of Memphis on the day Fletcher was grabbed because he’d been let out of jail early in November 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic.

Just a few months before Henderson had been freed, Fletcher was living through her own changing circumstances brought on by the pandemic. In a video she posted to her YouTube channel, she’s seen at home during what appears to be a virtual learning session and addressing students off camera.

That video, of Fletcher holding up one finger and softly singing “This Little Light of Mine,” has since gone viral in the wake of her murder, a symbol of Fletcher’s warmth and dedication to her young students.

“We are heartbroken and devastated by this senseless loss,” her family said in a statement to the media. “Liza was such a joy to so many — her family, friends, colleagues, students, parents, members of her Second Presbyterian Church congregation, and everyone who knew her.”

Fletcher’s paternal grandfather was a federal judge and her mother’s father was Memphis philanthropist Joseph Orgill III, founder of Orgill Inc., a wholesale hardware company that does $3 billion in annual revenues. Her 2015 marriage to Richie was a lavish affair at the city’s picturesque Dixon Gallery and Gardens.

Despite her familial pedigree and wealth, the emerging legacy of Fletcher is of a dedicated teacher, devout Christian, and selfless mother. Her church family at Second Presbyterian in Memphis, for example, remembered her as a beloved congregant. The girls at St. Mary’s will in time, as they come to fully understand the brutality of what happened, remember how they often saw “Mrs. Fletcher” outside on the school grounds, overseeing the carpool line. And then there was Eliza the runner, the wife and mother who finished every run in life but her final one.

“She truly walked and modeled the Christian life and trusted in her unwavering faith,” reads Eliza’s obituary, posted online ahead of her funeral in Memphis on Saturday, September 10. “Liza was a light to all who knew her. Her contagious smile and laughter could brighten any room. Liza was pure of heart and innocent in ways that made her see the very best in everyone
she met.”

A day after Fletcher’s body was found, the beleaguered city was rocked by another monstrous crime when a 19-year-old man killed four and wounded three in an hours-long shooting rampage. Residents were told to stay inside their homes as police hunted the suspect, whose dead victims included his reported friend Dewayne Tunstall, 24; an unidentified man shot dead in his car; Corteria Wright, 17; and Allison Parker, a 38-year-old nurse who was carjacked and killed in front of her daughter. The suspect, who was captured late Wednesday night, is not being named by The Daily Wire as part of a policy to deprive mass shooters of the notoriety they crave.

“Memphis is tired right now.” 💔

Reporting the news is tough sometimes. But it’s worth it if we can help keep the Mid-South safe. Thank you for your strength @MemphoNewsLady

— Action News 5 (@WMCActionNews5) September 8, 2022

The commonality with Eliza’s presumed killer? Like Abston, the suspect behind the murder spree had been released from prison early. He’d been arrested for attempted first-degree murder and reckless endangerment in 2020. He pleaded guilty to lesser charges and was sentenced to three years in prison, but was freed on March 16 after serving just 11 months.

A bleary-eyed Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis summed up the angst of the city’s 650,000 residents at a news conference Wednesday night.

“This has been a horrific week for the city of Memphis,” Davis said.