By Kirk Petersen
A 34-year-old teacher at a venerable Episcopal school for girls has been found dead, and a suspect has been charged with kidnapping and murder.
Liza Fletcher, who taught 4-year-old girls at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Memphis, Tennessee, was kidnapped while out for a pre-dawn run near the University of Memphis on Friday, September 2. Surveillance video showed her being forced into a black GMC Terrain, CNN reported.
Police located the vehicle the following day and arrested 38-year-old Cleotha Abston — who had been released from prison after serving a lengthy sentence for a previous kidnapping, according to WREG, a local television station. Abston initially was charged with kidnapping and other offenses, and first-degree murder charges were added on September 6 after Fletcher’s body was discovered about seven miles from the site of her abduction.
“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,” according to a post on the St. Mary’s Facebook page. “Liza embodied the song that we sing every week in Early Childhood chapel, ‘This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.'”
St. Mary’s was founded in 1847, and after the Civil War was run by the Sisters of St. Mary’s, an order of Episcopal nuns, according to the Tennessee Encyclopedia. Four nuns and two priests died while caring for yellow fever victims in an 1878 epidemic. They collectively became known as the Martyrs of Memphis, and their feast day is September 9 on the Episcopal calendar.
The school serves girls from age 2 through the 12th grade, and “is noted for the highest academic and moral standards and a tradition of service to the community,” the Tennessee Encyclopedia says. The school’s website says it maintains a strong Episcopal identity, with daily chapel services for girls in the higher grades. Annual tuition for full-time students ranges from about $18,000 to $24,000. A spokesperson for the school declined to speak with TLC.
Fletcher, who worshipped at a local Presbyterian church, was a granddaughter of Joseph Orgill, an Episcopalian and philanthropist who owned Orgill Inc., a huge, privately held hardware distributor. She was described in some news reports as “the heiress to the Orgill Inc. fortune,” but “the” heiress is misleading. Orgill died in 2018 and was survived by four children and nine grandchildren, according to the local Commercial Appeal newspaper.
“At times like this, words seem insufficient to express the range of emotions we are feeling,” said Bishop of West Tennessee Phoebe A. Roaf in a Facebook post. “However, we are not alone in our grief – Christ’s heart breaks along with ours. Even in the midst of tragedy, as people of faith we believe in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ.”