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Episcopal school Kindergarten teacher's lifeless body found in empty duplex

Episcopal school Kindergarten teacher's lifeless body found in empty duplex
Arrested suspect already served time for 2000 kidnapping

By Mary Ann Mueller
VOL Special Correspondent
September 6, 2022

Evil has again raised its ugly head and touched an Episcopal community. This time it is at St. Mary's Episcopal School, an elite all-girl school in Memphis, Tennessee.

St. Mary's School is the oldest private school in Memphis, the oldest independent school in Tennessee and is claimed to be the oldest school for girls in the mid-South. Now one of St. Mary's teachers was snatched in the pre-dawn darkness as she did her routine early morning jog on Friday (Sept. 2).

By 7:45 AM, Eliza Fletcher's disappearance was reported to the Memphis Police Department by her husband, Richard Fletcher III, when she failed to return home from her run.

However, she would never return home again. Her lifeless body was found at 5:07 Labor Day afternoon in a vacant duplex in the 1600 block of Victor Street. Cleotha Abston has been arrested by the Memphis Police Department as the primary suspect in the crime. He was initially charged with aggravated kidnapping and tampering with evidence with the additional charges of identity theft, theft of property, and fraudulent use of a debit card. His bond has been set at $510,000.

Abston was arraigned Tuesday morning on the charges surrounding Eliza's kidnapping.

The alleged kidnapper never cooperated with police in their search for the missing teacher. They were able to find Eliza through solid police work and cooperation between agencies.

Following the discovery of Eliza's body, Abston has also been charged with first-degree murder and first-degree murder in perpetration of kidnapping, Memphis police said in a tweet Tuesday morning. He will again be arraigned Wednesday on the charges surrounding her murder.

In 2000, while still a 16-year-old teenager, Abston pleaded guilty in kidnapping Memphis-based attorney Kemper Durand at gunpoint. Abston served 20 years of a 24-year prison sentence for aggravated robbery, as well as especially aggravated kidnapping. He was released in November 2020.

A grainy surveillance video showed Eliza Fletcher's early morning abduction which ultimately led officials to Abston. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the FBI joined in the massive search for the abducted Kindergarten teacher. Other city, county, state, and federal law enforcement agencies which were also involved in the thorough search for St. Mary's teacher included the Memphis Homicide Unit, the US Marshall's Service, the Shelby County (Tennessee) Sheriff's Office, the Shelby County District Attorney General's Office, Homeland Security, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives, and the University of Memphis Police Department.

Richard and Eliza Fletcher, members of Memphis' Second Presbyterian Church, were a Memphis power couple. It didn't take long for the Presbyterian congregation to spring into prayer action when news hit Friday morning about her disappearance.

"Church family," the Friday Facebook post begins. "As you may have seen on many news outlets one of our members Eliza (Liza) Fletcher was reportedly abducted at 4:30 a.m. this morning while on a run. Join us in praying for Liza's safety, and that she will be fine soon. Please also pray for her family. The Sanctuary is open for prayer through this afternoon."

The Presbyterian church also held a prayer vigil on Saturday for Eliza's family, friends and the community members who gathered to pray for her safety and quick return. The Fletchers, who were married at Second Presbyterian Church, are active members of that congregation.

Second Presbyterian Church describes itself as a: "Christ-centered church in the heart of Memphis."

Eliza Wellford and Richard (Richie) Fletcher met during a church social at Second Presbyterian Church. They were married at that church in 2014 and have two small sons, who are now left motherless.

Eliza was an avid runner and had qualified for the Boston Marathon. Her husband, now widower, is the dealership manager for the Memphis Boat Center, which deals with the buying and selling of used boats.

Saturday's Presbyterian Prayer Vigil focused on Romans 8:26 as its guide in praying for Eliza's safe return.

"Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words." (Romans 8:26)

"This is Liza's church, and we believe, as Christians, when we gather together, two or more, that the Lord is in our midst, and we were able to comfort each other and we were able to lift her up in prayer," Murff Galbrath explained to the news media the reason for the prayer vigil.

Mrs. Galbrath is also a St. Mary's School parent. Her children are among the more than 800 students that go to the Episcopal school that Eliza teaches at.

The Fletcher family had offered $50,000 for information leading to the missing teacher's safe return to the family fold.

"We look forward to Eliza's safe return and hope that this prize will assist authorities arrest those who perpetrated this tragedy," the family said. The close-knit Fletcher family, include her parents Beasley and Adele Wellford, her brother Gill, her uncle Mike Keeney and her husband, who was seen wiping away tears during a televised press conference before the final fate of the teacher was known.

Now the extended Fletcher Family is seeking privacy to deal with the devastating news and reality of Eliza's death.

"Hutchison family, we ask that you please join us in praying for the safe return of Liza Wellford Fletcher '06," The Hutchinson School posted Friday as the prayer net widened. "She was abducted this morning near the University of Memphis while running. She is a beloved alumna, and we pray for her safety and for her family."

Eliza Fletcher was the 34-year-old granddaughter of the late Joseph Orgill III, of the Orgill Inc. hardware fame. Orgill Inc. is reportedly the world's largest independently owned hardware distributor. Eliza was considered an heiress to the vast Orgill Inc. fortune.

Both St. Mary's Episcopal School and the Orgill hardware dynasty were founded in 1847. Through the years both the school and the Orgill hardware business grew.

"St. Mary's is proud to offer an all-girls private school education for girls ages 2 through grade 12, and we are committed to providing an exceptional opportunity to all of our students," the St. Mary's website posts. "A St. Mary's education is an investment in your daughter's future which brings significant returns throughout your daughter's life."

A St. Mary's Episcopal School education can come with a hefty price tag starting out at $12,000 full tuition at St. Mary's Place, which is basically an expensive daycare with structured and educational play.

Junior Kindergarten, where Eliza Fletcher taught, can cost $17,575 for full tuition. Senior Kindergarten tuition is set at $18,300.

Early childhood education which starts at St. Mary's Place for 2-year-olds and ends with Senior Kindergarten for 5-year-olds can come with a full tuition tab of $63,150. Then the aged-out kindergraders transfer to the Lower School for the elementary phase of their elite Episcopal girls' school education.

Grade school (Lower School) tuition is pegged at $20,850; Middle School at $23,700; and high school (Upper School) at $24,475 per year.

Sending a 2-year-old female toddler to St. Mary's and keeping her there through high school graduation -- 16 years -- can cost her parents $319,600 in the currently posted full tuition rates.

NICHE.COM calls St. Mary's the "Second Best School in Tennessee," bested only by the University School of Nashville. St. Mary's received an A+ rating in academics, teachers, clubs & activities, and college prep. But B+ ratings for diversity and sports. St.Mary's is not coed, nor are there any transgender girls on the sports teams.

This is not the only vicious crime to involve an Episcopal entity. Even the church is not immune to the jaws of death sneaking in and striking unexpectedly.

Just two and a half months ago, in mid-June, St. Stephen's Episcopal Church near Birmingham, Alabama was dealing with the mass shooting deaths of three parishioners who died in a hail of bullets following a church potluck supper.

Then in the spring of 2012, Episcopal priest (Mary Marguerite Kohn) and her administrative aid (Brenda Brewington) were killed by a vagrant inside of St. Peter's Episcopal Church office in Ellicott City, Maryland.

Now the violence has moved from an Episcopal Church office to an Episcopal church parish hall to now an Episcopal church day school. All three incidents ended in death.

"In cooperation with local and state authorities, we are asking for your help and locating our beloved JK Teacher Liza Fletcher," St. Mary's initially posted on its Facebook Friday. "We join the Fletcher and Wellford families in praying for Liza's safe return."

"Please join us in praying for the safe return Liza Fletcher, JK teacher at St. Mary's Episcopal School," the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion posted on its Facebook, adding: "Be our light in the darkness O Lord, and in Your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night: for the love of Your only Son our Lord Jesus Christ."

The Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee also posted joining in the chorus of uplifted prayer: "Please join us in praying for Liza Fletcher's safe return to her family and the community that loves her."

Following the Labor Day discovery of Eliza Fletcher's body, St. Mary's posted an update to its Facebook: "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 school said that faculty and staff met in the chapel Tuesday and lit candles in memory of Eliza who they said was "a bright light in our community."

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which is very much a part of the search for Eliza Fletcher, posted on Facebook: "We are heartbroken by the outcome of this case but are proud of the work of the Memphis Police Department. We are glad to have assisted their efforts that led to the arrest of Cleotha Abston. Our deepest condolences to Eliza's family and all those who knew and loved her."

Tuesday morning, Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis held a news conference In front of The Donnelly J. Hill Public Safety Building which is near the Mississippi River.

"Today is a very sad day in the city of Memphis" the Chief of Police prefaced. "Well, the outcome of this investigation is not what we had hoped for, we are nonetheless pleased to remove this dangerous predator off the streets of Memphis."

It should be noted that the TN governor has suspended death penalty.

Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline

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