AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – A homeless 17-year-old has been arrested and will be charged with murder Friday in the killing of a University of Texas dance major whose body was recovered in the heart of the bustling campus – unnerving one of the country’s best-known schools.
Investigators said Meechaiel Criner wasn’t a university student and wasn’t believed to have been in Austin long. Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said Criner could face additional charges in the slaying of 18-year-old Oregon-native Haruka Weiser.
“We are very certain that the subject we have in custody … is responsible for the death of this beautiful young woman,” Acevedo said at a campus news conference.
Weiser – described by a former dance teacher as having a “dancer’s soul” – was last seen leaving the campus drama building Sunday night. Her body was found Tuesday in a creek near the alumni center and UT’s iconic football stadium, an area that hums with activity day and night.
The slaying shook a campus that’s home to about 50,000 students. University President Greg Fenves called Weiser’s slaying “horrifying and incomprehensible” and described it as an attack on the entire school community.
“It was unsettling,” said 20-year-old Jasmine Chavez, who was on UT’s central mall area Friday but hails from Houston. “I feel better now that they’ve caught the guy.”
Police released surveillance video that showed a man they said was a suspect walking a women’s bicycle. Firefighters recognized the man on the video as Criner, whom they had spoken to in connection with a trash fire near the UT campus on Monday. An Austin resident who reported the fire also called police when she saw the surveillance video, Acevedo said.
Criner wasn’t arrested for the fire but was instead taken to a shelter. Police found him there Thursday and took him into custody without incident. Acevedo said his clothing matched that of the man on the surveillance video and that he was in possession of a women’s bike, as well as Weiser’s duffel bag and some of her other belongings.
Acevedo wouldn’t speculate on motive and said authorities are still working to determine Criner’s criminal record. Texas Department of Family Protective Services spokeswoman Julie Moody said Friday that Criner “had been in Child Protective Services care” but that she couldn’t elaborate on where, for how long or provide any further details, citing privacy rules and the ongoing criminal investigation.
The Austin Police Department released a photo of Criner being led into their headquarters, but it was unclear if he had retained an attorney.
Weiser’s autopsy showed she had been assaulted, but police have refused to release further details about her death, except to say that the route she took from her dorm to the drama building often passed Waller Creek, where her body was found.
Fenves said increased police patrols on campus, which have included Texas state troopers in cars, on bikes and on horseback, would continue for the time being. The Department of Public Safety also is conducting a security review on campus, including checking video monitoring, lighting and building security systems
Fenves said the arrest “brings a tremendous sense of relief to our students, our faculty, our staff and the entire University of Texas community.”
“We will honor Haruka’s life and what she stood for,” Fenves said. “We will take this as an occasion to do as Haruka’s parents asked us to do, learn from this and make this a better community and a safer community for everyone.”
The university said that Weiser’s was the first on-campus homicide since former Marine Charles Whitman climbed to the top of UT’s bell tower on Aug. 1, 1966, and opened fire, killing 14 people and wounding scores of others. Authorities later determined Whitman also killed his wife and mother in the hours before he went to the tower. A 17th death would be attributed to Whitman in 2001 when a Fort Worth man died of injuries from the shooting.
Weiser’s family said she had planned to take on a second, pre-med major soon and to travel to Japan this summer to see relatives.
“She was so happy to be a student at UT and was looking forward to the opportunity to perform again as a dance major,” they said in a statement. “We know Haruka would not wish for us to be stuck in sadness but to keep living life to the fullest. That is what we will try to do in coming days.”