Women speak out about safety while running after death of Memphis jogger

Eliza Fletcher was abducted while out for an early morning run, authorities say.

September 6, 2022, 8:05 PM

The dangers women face while simply going outside for a run are in the spotlight again after the death of Eliza "Liza" Fletcher, a teacher and mother of two who was abducted while on an early morning run in her hometown of Memphis, police said.

The 34-year-old was last seen jogging near the University of Memphis campus on Friday morning around 4:20 a.m. local time. She was approached by a man and forced into a dark-colored GMC Terrain, which then took off, according to the Memphis Police Department.

Fletcher's husband, Richard Fletcher, reported her missing about three hours later, telling investigators that she never returned home from her regular 4 a.m. run, according to an affidavit of the complaint made public Sunday by the Shelby County Sheriff's Office.

VIDEO: Investigation into mom abducted on her morning run

Fletcher's remains were found on Monday afternoon in a South Memphis residential neighborhood several miles from where she was abducted, police said.

The suspect in Fletcher's kidnapping, Cleotha Abston, is scheduled to return to court on Wednesday to be arraigned on additional charges of first-degree murder, premeditated murder and first-degree perpetration of kidnapping. He is being held at the Shelby County Jail in Memphis on $500,000 bail.

Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy said Fletcher's family members have been fully cooperative with law enforcement throughout the ordeal and slammed "baseless speculation" that said otherwise.

"We have no reason to think this is anything other than an isolated attack by a stranger," he said.

Fletcher's death while out for a run quickly drew comparisons to the deaths of at least six women who in recent years were also each killed while running in their city or neighborhood streets: Sydney Sutherland, 25, whose body was discovered two days after she disappeared after going for a run in Jackson County, Arkansas; Mollie Tibbetts, who was found stabbed to death after going for a run near her Iowa home; Wendy Martinez, who was stabbed to death while jogging in a busy, well-lit area of Washington, D.C.; Karina Vetrano, who was found dead after going on an evening jog near her New York home; Vanessa Marcotte, who was killed as she was out jogging in broad daylight in Massachusetts; and Ally Brueger, who was shot in the back while running in Michigan.

Vanessa Marcotte was found dead in Princeton, Mass., Aug. 7, 2016. | Karina Vetrano is seen here in this undated file photo.
Princeton Police | karinavetrano/Instagram

In 2018, another athlete, a 22-year-old collegiate golf player, was killed while she was golfing alone on a course in Ames, Iowa.

After Fletcher's death, women took to Twitter to share their frustrations about the dangers they face while exercising outdoors, using the hashtag #ElizaFletcher.

"WE ARE SICK & TIRED OF HAVING TO WATCH OUT FOR MEN JUST BECAUSE WE BREATHE. Carry keys to stab someone, carry tasers, stun guns, mace, bear spray, loud alarms. Knowing self-defense, becoming a gun owner, never going anywhere alone. HOW ABOUT MEN DO BETTER," wrote one Twitter user.

"Women runners worry most about 2 things before a run-whether they'll be abducted/assaulted/murdered or if they'll be subjected to cat calls and being sexualized. Men worry about whether they should poop before or after their run. We are not the same," wrote another.

Fletcher was a marathon runner who finished the 2019 St. Jude Marathon in Memphis with a time of 3:27:26, placing her in the top two dozen female finishers, race results show.

Fletcher's family said in a statement that they "heartbroken and devastated" by the loss of Fletcher, whom they described as a "joy to so many."

"Now it's time to remember and celebrate how special she was and to support those who cared so much for her," the statement read. "We appreciate all the expressions of love and concern we have received. We are grateful beyond measure to local, state and federal law enforcement for their tireless efforts to find Liza and to bring justice to the person responsible for this horrible crime."

Fellow female runners shared on Twitter that Fletcher should not be blamed for the attack, noting that women should be safe anytime and anywhere they run.

"It does not matter what time it was, if she was alone or what she was wearing. We should be safe to run when, where and how we want," wrote one commenter on Twitter.

"I've run late at night. I've run in in the early morning hours when it's still dark and the world sleeps. I've run in the middle of the day. If you know runners, this is normal. Please don't tell women when it's ok to go for a run. Peace to her family," wrote another commenter.

"As a mom of three, I understand why she would run at 430 in the morning. She likely only did something for herself... like running... when her kids were asleep so that she could give as much of her time to them as possible," wrote another.

A self-defense expert's advice for women

A 2017 survey by Runner's World magazine found more than half of women who run said they are concerned that they could be physically assaulted or receive unwanted physical contact during a run.

In addition to the fear they face, women also face pressure from society to do something ("Don't wear headphones!" "Change your route!" "Never run at night!"), as though the behaviors of perpetrators are their fault.

It is impossible to prevent every attack and women should not feel the pressure to do so, Jennifer Cassetta, a self-defense expert, public speaker and health coach, told ABC News in 2018, after the deaths that year of Martinez, in Washington, D.C., and Tibbetts, in Iowa.

Wendy Karina Martinez is seen here in this undated digitally altered image.
Martinez family via AP
Mollie Tibbetts, a University of Iowa student, went missing after going out for a jog on July 18, 2018.
Poweshiek County Sheriff's Office

What women can do is empower themselves so they feel stronger and more confident out in the world, according to Cassetta.

"For me, teaching is about giving as many choices as possible in these horrible situations," said Cassetta, who noted that even taking one self-defense class can make a huge difference. "There are so many examples of women fighting back and getting away. It does work. Not all the time, but it can."

Here are Cassetta's three top tips for women.

1. Know the weapons you have on your body and how to use them

Run or walk powerfully with your shoulders back and head up, making eye contact with every person in your path, Cassetta recommends.

If you are attacked, dropping down to a squat or a lunge will drop your center of gravity and make you harder to the throw to the ground, according to Cassetta.

To fight back, Cassetta says to "acquire and fire."

"The eyes, throat and groin are most effective targets because they are all soft targets where you can do the most amount of damage with the least amount of effort," she said. "Scratch or gouge the eyes, give a punch to the throat to disrupt breathing and give a punch or a knee or an elbow to the groin."

2. Be aware of your surroundings

Women should be "alert but calm" when they're out and about, scanning for red flags and not getting too deep into thought, Cassetta says.

"When we're being alert, our intuition is our inner GPS, it gives us signals and sends us messages," she said. "If we're too caught up in our to-do list or what we're stressed about, we can't hear it."

When it comes to hearing, Cassetta also says don't forgo headphones, but do have the volume low enough so that you can hear the sounds around you.

Also, let other people know of your surroundings too. Designate a friend or family member as your "safety buddy," the person you text to let know when and where you are running and when you will return.

3. Arm yourself

The types of "non-lethal weapons" Cassetta recommends women arm themselves with include pepper spray, a personal alarm, and a sharp object worn as a piece of jewelry, what she calls "weapon jewelry."

"They make you that much more aware because you're holding onto it and aware of it," she said. "But you need to make sure you know how to use them. If you have pepper spray, make sure you know how to use it and have it accessible."