Slaying of Runner Eliza Fletcher Sparks Conspiracy Theories on Social Media
After the announcement that runner Eliza Fletcher had been found dead, authorities in Memphis sought to quiet the social media rumors that had sprung up during the four-day search. At a Tuesday press conference, Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy took pains to say Fletcher’s family had been “fully cooperative” with law enforcement during the search, almost as soon as he’d offered them his condolences. “In contrast to whatever baseless speculation you might have seen, we have no reason to think this was anything other than an isolated attack by a stranger,” he said.
The seemingly random abduction and, as was later revealed, death of Fletcher, a 34-year-old kindergarten teacher, captured national attention. Almost as quickly, the horrifying incident prompted an online debate over women’s safety, victim-blaming, and wild theories about who could be responsible.
Around 4:00 a.m. on Friday, Fletcher left for her morning jog. She was a serious runner who had previously qualified for the Boston Marathon, and regularly followed a route near the University of Memphis, according to a safety alert from campus police. At about 4:30, security cameras showed a black GMC Terrain pass Fletcher, stop, and wait for her to catch up. A man then got out of the SUV, “ran aggressively” toward her, and, after a struggle, forced her into the passenger side of the vehicle. The driver sat in the car for four minutes with Fletcher inside before driving off. At 7:00, her husband called the police, saying she hadn’t come back. On Sunday, police announced charges against 38-year-old Cleotha Abston, who they allege was the man driving the SUV. Still, Fletcher remained missing. On Monday evening, officers found a body near Abston’s brother’s apartment. Tuesday morning, authorities announced it was her.
Fletcher was a member of a prominent Memphis family. Her grandfather, the late Joseph Orgill III, ran a hardware company worth billions. Her 2014 wedding to Richard Fletcher was written up in Memphis Magazine, which described the bride as “outdoorsy, athletic, and warm.” The couple have two young children together. On Saturday, Fletcher’s uncle Mike Keeney addressed the press on behalf of her parents, her brother, and her husband, thanking law enforcement for working to find Fletcher. He said the family had spoken with police and told them everything they knew. He asked the public for their help in locating Fletcher. In the video address, Fletcher’s husband stood beside Keeney, wiping away tears.
While authorities spent the holiday weekend searching for Fletcher, social media erupted into its typical cesspool of gossip, judgment, and conspiracy theories. People went after Fletcher for jogging too early, for being outside by herself, for wearing the wrong clothes. “Don’t dress like that exposing yourself, be a little bit more modest so as not to attract that kind of energy,” one person tweeted. Fletcher was last seen that humid August morning jogging in purple shorts and a pink sports bra, her hair in a tight bun.
To push back against victim-blaming, TikTok users have begun posting about their early morning runs in Fletcher’s honor. A woman named Lucy Loveless, who described herself as a friend of Fletcher’s, made a video of herself on a darkened New York street before sunrise Monday morning, while Fletcher was still considered a missing person. “She was running, she was training, she was doing what I’m about to do,” Loveless said in the video. “She’s an amazing runner. [It] brings her comfort, brings her purpose, she’s good at it, and it was taken from her.” She acknowledged her friend’s kidnapping had sparked a wider conversation about women running. She showed viewers the personal alarm she carries with a siren and light on it, plus mace, plus an Apple ID tag inside her bra that her husband tracks. “I’m furious, and I’m heartbroken, and I’m speechless a lot,” she said, before dedicating her 13-mile run to Fletcher.
Other social media users began sharing their own theories about who killed Fletcher and why. Some wildly speculated that her husband was responsible, motivated to steal her inheritance; others said she seemed like the victim of an extortion plot gone sideways. Some users even posted their theories on Fletcher’s personal Facebook page, where, in addition to a love of running, Fletcher expressed a penchant for true crime. In late 2020, she posted a request for crime podcast recommendations and shared her admiration for the weekly series Crime Junkie as well as Tom Brown’s Body, a Texas Monthly series about the unsolved murder of a high school student.
Meanwhile, authorities have not suggested they are considering any suspects beyond Abston, although they acknowledged the investigation is ongoing. It was a pair of shoes that ultimately put police on Abston’s trail. According to an affidavit, later in the morning of Fletcher’s abduction, a passing cyclist found Fletcher’s cell phone in the area — along with a pair of Champion slide sandals. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation was able to get a DNA profile off the slides that matched with Abston’s in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, which includes DNA of previously convicted offenders. Shelby County court records show Abston served 20 years in prison after pleading guilty in 2001 to kidnapping an attorney by closing him in the trunk of the attorney’s own car and then demanding he take money out of an ATM. Surveillance footage further showed Abston wearing the slides the day before, and cell phone data placed him in the area of Fletcher’s abduction around the time she was taken.
On Saturday, police located the GMC Terrain and arrested Abston, who attempted to flee, nearby. He “declined to provide investigators with the location of the victim,” court records said. On Sunday, police announced Abston had been charged with — once again — especially aggravated kidnapping and tampering with evidence. On Tuesday, authorities said he has additionally been charged with first degree murder and first degree murder committed in the perpetration of a kidnapping. Unrelated to Fletcher’s killing, he was also charged with identity theft, property theft, and credit card fraud. A lawyer for Abston could not immediately be reached for comment. His arraignment was originally scheduled for Tuesday but was continued. He has a hearing scheduled for Wednesday.
Abston’s brother, Mario, and another witness told police that after the time of Fletcher’s abduction, they saw Abston cleaning the interior of the GMC with floor cleaner and washing his clothes in the sink at Mario’s home, “acting very strange.” Mario was also arrested on drugs and weapons charges, but police said they did not believe he was involved in Fletcher’s abduction. Abston works for a cleaning service, his employer confirmed to police.
A little after 5:00 p.m. on Monday, police located a body behind a vacant duplex near Mario’s apartment. On Tuesday morning, Memphis Police announced the body was Fletcher’s. At a press conference, Memphis Police Chief C.J. Davis expressed condolences to Fletcher’s loved ones while praising the efforts of law enforcement. “While the outcome of this investigation is not what we hoped for, we are nonetheless pleased to remove this dangerous predator off the streets of Memphis,” she said. Authorities did not release the manner of death or the location where they believed Fletcher was killed.
Fletcher’s family also released a written statement following the press conference. “We are heartbroken and devastated by this senseless loss,” the statement said in part, before politely asking the public to leave them alone. “We hope that everyone, including media representatives, understand the need for the family to grieve in privacy without outside intrusion during this painful time.”