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New York man arrested in death of missing college student

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Ex-boyfriend charged in student's murder
  • NEW: A suspect is arraigned in local court
  • College plans Sunday evening prayer service
  • Remains of woman found in wooded area near Syracuse, New York
  • Jenni-Lyn Watson, 20, was home on Thanksgiving break

(CNN) -- A man who had a relationship with college student Jenni-Lyn Watson was charged Saturday with second-degree murder after the discovery of a body believed to be hers, authorities in Syracuse, New York, said.

A massive manhunt for the dance major, who'd been missing since November 19, culminated with the discovery of what are believed to be her remains at 10:30 a.m. at Clay Central Park in North Syracuse, the Onondaga County Sheriff's Office said.

On Saturday, Steven Pieper was charged in her killing.

Pieper, 21, and Watson, 20, had dated on and off for 18 months, said District Attorney William Fitzpatrick at a Saturday press conference.

"Our indication is Ms. Watson desired this relationship to end in early October ... Apparently that message didn't get through to Mr. Pieper," Fitzpatrick said.

Authorities believe Watson was killed in her Liverpool residence on the morning of November 19. Her body was "dumped, frankly, like garbage" in a heavily wooded area a couple miles away, Fitzpatrick said.

Pieper has been interviewed twice, Fitzpatrick said. "He has denied involvement."

The suspect, who was taken into custody Saturday, was arraigned Saturday evening in Clay Town Court, CNN affiliate YNN reported.

A judge entered a not guilty plea on behalf of Pieper, who will have a preliminary hearing Friday, YNN said. He is currently being held without bail.

Fitzpatrick told CNN Syracuse affiliate WSTM that it appeared someone tried to conceal the body, but that it was not buried. It was behind a utility shed, he said.

An autopsy will be conducted Sunday.

Watson was last seen at her family's home. She was on Thanksgiving break from Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania. Liverpool is a suburb of Syracuse.

"This [disappearance] is extremely uncharacteristic for Jenni-Lynn," Sgt. Robert Marshall said earlier this week. Watson's parents reported her missing the night of November 19.

The college junior's purse and other personal items were found at the home, but a Verizon LG enV3 phone was missing.

One call was made on the phone from a heavily wooded area near other residences, said Marshall, who declined to provide details. Someone other than Watson made the call, Fitzpatrick said. The phone has not been recovered.

Pieper is alleged to have been at Watson's residence on the morning of her disappearance and is believed to be the last to have seen her, the sheriff's department said in a statement.

Detectives are looking for anyone who may have seen Pieper's black 2008 Volkswagen Jetta in the vicinity of Watson's home or near the area where the body was found. Fitzpatrick said authorities believe the Jetta carried Watson's body.

The district attorney said he spoke Saturday with Watson's parents.

"These people are extraordinary people," Fitzpatrick said. "They are now trusting that justice will be done."

Simultaneous vigils were held Wednesday for Watson. One of the church vigils was organized by the family; the other was held in a chapel at Mercyhurst College, a Catholic school.

About 200 people attended, including members of the football team, which has a NCAA Division II game this weekend.

"You felt overwhelming worry, but you still felt there was reason to hope," Mercyhurst spokeswoman Debbie Morton said.

Watson was a dance major and ballet dancer at Mercyhurst. "It is a highly disciplined area," Morton said of Watson's field of study.

Mercyhurst College will have a Sunday evening prayer service and will offer counseling beforehand.

"Our Mercyhurst family poured their hearts and souls into finding Jenni-Lyn in a genuine outpouring of humanity," college president Tom Gamble said in a statement. "Her death is devastating to our entire college community. We continue to pray for her family and extend our deepest sympathies."

CNN's Phil Gast contributed to this report.