Firefighters told police about a fire involving a bag that may have contained victim's belongings, an official says
Haruka Weiser's body was found not far from the university's football stadium
Their paths crossed on Sunday night, police said.
University of Texas freshman Haruka Weiser wrapped up a class at the drama building about 9:30 p.m. She called a friend to say she was on her way, according to an Austin police affidavit.
She never made it.
Weiser’s body was found Tuesday morning on campus. Police circulated surveillance video of a suspect in the area and on Friday they announced the arrest of a 17-year-old boy.
The arrest affidavit provides chilling details about the video and evidence police say led them to Meechaiel Criner.
On video of the route Weiser usually took to her dorm, investigators spotted a man who arrived by bicycle trying to open the doors of a parked van, the affidavit said. It was about 10 minutes before the end of Weiser’s class.
The man looked around and then left on his bike. He returned to the van at 9:38 p.m., the affidavit said.
At the same time, the video showed the figure of a woman looking at a cellphone and walking toward the alumni center. After she passed the man, he is seen reaching into the back of his pants and pulling out “what appeared to be a shiny rigid object,” according to the affidavit.
The video shows him following the woman across a bridge. He is not seen on video again until 11:47 p.m. He was walking with a slight limp and holding a small duffel bag that matched the description of one Weiser, 18, had carried that night, the affidavit said.
A suspect is charged
On Friday, Criner was charged with first-degree murder and bond was set at $1 million. The case will be heard in adult court. It was unclear whether he had an attorney.
“We are very certain that the subject we have in custody is the suspect responsible for the death of this beautiful young woman,” Austin police Chief Art Acevedo said.
Police had made contact with Criner on Monday, when they took him to a youth homeless shelter after he was found at the scene of a trash fire near campus, Acevedo told reporters.
The remains of Weiser, a first-year theater and dance major, were found about 10:30 a.m. Tuesday in a creek near the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center, on the university campus in Austin, not far from the school’s football stadium, officials said. An autopsy noted trauma to the body and the death was termed a homicide.
Investigators “don’t have a clue what the motive” was for the homicide, Acevedo said.
“No parent should ever have to bury a child, especially a beautiful young woman like Haruka, with such a beautiful spirit,” the chief said.
On Thursday, investigators released a portion of the surveillance video in hopes of identifying a suspect.
A shoe and notebook in the ashes
A woman who saw a young man start a fire near campus contacted police after seeing the video, telling investigators the youth she saw resembled the person in the video, police said.
An Austin Fire Department captain called police to say that on Monday morning firefighters responded to a fire on Medical Arts Street, the affidavit said. On the video, a man was seen walking toward that location.
The small fire burned in an abandoned building, where firefighters found a young man setting items ablaze, the fire captain told investigators. Police were called when the young man said he was homeless. Firefighters took his bicycle – which matched the one on the surveillance video – for safekeeping.
The young man told police his name was Meechaiel Khalil Criner. The officers took his belongings – several bags and a backpack – and delivered him to the LifeWorks youth shelter, where he was assigned to room 9, the affidavit said.
An examination of the patrol car’s digital video revealed that Criner was wearing pants and shoes similar to the man seen on the surveillance video. A classmate of Weiser was shown a photo of one of the bags Criner was carrying, and he told police she had the same bag the night she disappeared.
At the abandoned building on Medical Arts Street, investigators found a small Dr. Martens shoe similar to the ones Weiser was described as wearing. In the ashes, they also found a singed notebook, the affidavit said. A black jacket found at the scene matched the one worn by the man in the surveillance video, as did the bicycle recovered from the fire station.
At 5:20 p.m. Thursday, Criner was picked up at the shelter on suspicison on tampering with evidence. After obtaining a search warrant, investigators found shoes like the ones worn by the man in the video. Along with other evidence recovered from the locker in room 9, they found a MacBook with a sticker mentioning the city of Portland the affidavit said. The victim’s family told police she had a Portland, Oregon, sticker on her Mac.
‘Go home and hug your children, not once but twice’
The police chief said that additional charges may be filed, and he shared a message from the victim’s mother.
“She told me … please tell all your officers, please tell everyone at the University of Texas … everyone involved in this investigation, thank you,” he said. “But also please tell them to take care of themselves and go home and hug your children, not once but twice.”
Weiser’s parents later reiterated that message in a statement released by the university: “We remain steadfast in our desire to honor Haruka’s memory through kindness and love, not violence. To the police officers, the UT community and all who have been impacted by this, we just ask that you hug your children, hug your parents TWICE, one from you and one from us.
At a news conference, university President Gregory L. Fenves said the school was “taking measures and (doing) everything we can to improve the safety of the campus,” including increased patrols and a safety and security assessment.
There had not been a homicide on campus since 1966, according to Acevedo.
Weiser’s death shook many on the Austin campus, with Fenves telling reporters that “our home has been violated.”
“Our hearts go out to the victim and her family,” he said, “and we will be investigating this very actively.”
A ‘beloved daughter, sister and friend’
In a statement this week, Weiser’s family thanked the university community for its support and asked for privacy.
In addition to dance, Weiser was declaring a major in premed and had plans to visit family in Japan this summer. She was remembered as a “beloved daughter, sister and friend.”
“Although Haruka loved to perform on stage she never sought the spotlight in her daily life. Perhaps the last thing she would want is to be the poster child for any cause.
“And yet, as we struggle to understand why she was killed, if her death can somehow make it safer for a young woman to walk home, if it will prevent another assault or murder, then at least we could find some meaning behind an otherwise senseless and tragic death,” her family wrote.
Dance faculty members first met Weiser when she performed at the National High School Dance Festival more than two years ago. They recruited her to go to UT from her home in Oregon.
She was mourned there by Dance West, where she used to dance.
“With indescribable sadness, we mourn the tragic loss of one of our very own, Haruka Weiser. Please join us in honoring this bright and beautiful Dance West alum dancer/family member and friend who has touched the hearts of us all. Rest in Peace & Power,” Dance West posted on Facebook.
CNN’s Greg Botelho, Devon Sayers and Sheena Jones contributed to this report.