Man charged with kidnapping and murder in Christian school teacher Eliza Fletcher’s death received early prison release during pandemic

The search for a kidnapped schoolteacher in Memphis is over after her body was found Monday evening, Memphis police officials announced Tuesday. 

Cleotha Abston, 38, whose first prison sentence was to run through 2024, was arrested Saturday on kidnapping charges and now faces murder charges in death of Eliza Fletcher, a local teacher at St. Mary’s Episcopal School in Memphis. 

In November of 2020, Abston was released four years early from a 24-year prison sentence stemming from an earlier kidnapping case of prominent Memphis attorney Kemper Durand, according to the Associated Press. 

In a victim impact statement, Durand said he was “lucky” to escape and would have likely been killed after Abston forced him into the trunk of a car at gunpoint in 2000. Also according to Durand’s statement, Abston had an extensive juvenile criminal history, including charges for theft, aggravated assault, aggravated assault with a weapon, and rape, according to the AP. 

Some prominent critics are saying Abston should never have been out in the first place.  

“This unspeakable crime was as heinous as it was preventable,” Tennessee Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said in a statement on Tuesday. “It is simply disgraceful that this individual did not serve his full sentence for his previous crimes. If he had, Eliza Fletcher would be alive today.” 

District Attorney Steve Mulroy noted that the DA’s office had opposed Abston’s parole, according to the AP. No explanation for his release has been given. 

Fletcher, whose family owns a multi-billion dollar hardware company, Orgill, Inc., has taught junior kindergarten at St. Mary’s for nearly seven years.  

“Liza has been teaching in the Early Childhood Center since 2015. She is a caring and passionate teacher who is always looking for creative ways to teach to all learners,” an official school Facebook post from last year reads. “Liza is constantly asking herself what her students need and how she can reach them. She knows each student individually and does whatever she can to excite them for learning. You will always find her celebrating big and small successes in the classroom.” 

Tuesday morning, the school shared a post about Fletcher following news of her death. 

“We are heartbroken at the loss of our beloved teacher, colleague, and friend Liza Fletcher. Our hearts are with the Fletcher, Orgill, and Wellford families,” the post states. “This morning our faculty and staff started the day in chapel. We lit candles to remember Liza who was a bright light in our community.”