17-year-old faces murder charge in University of Texas homicide

(Courtesy: Facebook)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin police say they have arrested a homeless 17-year-old they believe is connected in the death of University of Texas at Austin student Haruka Weiser. The Austin Police Department says Meechaiel Khalil Criner was booked into the Travis County Jail around 2 a.m. Friday and charged with murder. His bond has been set at $1 million.

Police made the link to Criner after the Austin Fire Department alerted them to a trash fire they were called to on Monday, April 4 at 2900 Medical Arts Street, which is just off-campus. At the time on Monday, a woman called 911 to report the trash fire and told authorities she saw the person who started the fire. When firefighters arrived, they found Criner who had a woman’s bicycle in his possession as well as a small blue duffel bag that resembles the one that Haruka had. Because he was homeless, police took him to LifeWorks for treatment and shelter.

Texas High School article on Meechaiel Criner being bullied and harassed in school. (Courtesy: Tiger Times)
Texas High School article on Meechaiel Criner being bullied and harassed in school. (Courtesy: Tiger Times)

Once police released surveillance footage of the suspect on Thursday, firefighters who responded to the trash fire call on Monday realized the fire was connected to the homicide suspect. The woman who originally called 911 about the fire also connected the dots and “immediately called in the tip that the video resembled a man who started the fire,” says Austin Chief of Police Art Acevedo. Detectives went back to the scene of the fire and inside the ashes, they found a Doc Martin shoe belonging to Haruka and a burned notebook that had college level coursework inside. What appeared to be Haruka’s jacket was found near the burned items.

According to an arrest affidavit, surveillance video (which was not released to the public) from the College of Liberal Arts show a man on a woman’s bicycle trying to open the doors of a van that was parked in the bay area around 9:20 p.m. Sunday. The suspect continued to look around but then got on his bike and left the location but video shows him returning at 9:38 p.m. Police say as the suspect returned to the location on his bike, the figure of a woman dressed in all black and looking at her cellphone could be seen walking toward the Alumni Center. According to the affidavit, the woman continues walking towards the bridge, passing the suspect. Police say the video shows the suspect put his bike’s kickstand down and reached into the back of his pants with his left hand and pulled out what appeared to be a “shiny rigid object.” The suspect then followed the woman across the bridge and onto the sidewalk that extends behind the Alumni Center. The suspect is not seen again until 11:47 p.m. when he’s walking along 23rd Street on the north side of the football stadium.

Haruka, a first-year Theatre and Dance student from Portland, Ore. was last seen by her friends on the night of April 3. Her body was discovered two days later in Waller Creek near the campus’ Alumni Center.

Police arrested Criner without incident at LifeWorks. Inside Criner’s room at Lifeworks, police found a Mac Book with a Portland sticker on it that is believed to have belonged to Haruka.

“It’s important for people to realize this investigation is very active and nowhere near complete,” said Acevedo on Friday during a news conference. “We are very certain the subject we have in custody is the suspect responsible for the death of this beautiful young woman.” Police are not releasing how Haruka died but did say she was assaulted.

According to an article published in December 2014 by Texas High School in Texarkana, Criner said he was bullied his whole life and went through the foster care system as a child. In the story titled Voice of Hope, Criner said he was a victim of physical violence. He said one foster parent threw him to the ground and injured his back. The Department of Family and Protective Services confirms Criner was in the state’s foster care system and in August 2015 was enrolled at Killeen High School.

While Haruka’s family did not speak at the news conference, her mother did ask Acevedo to relay a message to the public: “Please tell all your officers, please tell everyone at the University of Texas, please tell everyone involved ‘Thank You.’ And please also tell them to take care of themselves and go home and hug your children, not once, but twice.”

UTPD’s Chief of Police David Carter wanted to remind the UT community of 70,000 that while a suspect is in custody, it doesn’t mean the safety concerns are over. “We believe this is a safe campus, but this tragedy is having us double up efforts on areas we can improve upon,” said Carter. During the news conference, Carter mentioned a concerted effort to patrol and deal with areas on campus, or near campus, that have a high homeless population.

Carter said there are three areas the university is looking to improve:

  1. Looking closely at the campus’ physical environment by working with DPS to assess security protocols.
  2. Actively check and recognize potential threats to the UT community. There are areas of concern, such as West Campus.
  3. Engagement from the community and sharing information with UTPD and APD

Extra patrols around campus will continue until further notice. “Our students expect to be safe and as we talked about measures and doing everything we can to increase safety on the campus, patrols will continue for now,” said UT President Greg Fenves.

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