AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – A 17-year-old homeless boy under the care of the state foster system was charged Friday in the murder of a University of Texas freshman whose body was discovered in a creek on the sprawling campus earlier this week.
Meechaiel Khalil Criner faces a first-degree murder charge in connection to the death of 18-year-old dance and theater major Haruka Weiser, who went missing Sunday night after leaving drama class.
“We are very certain that the subject we have in custody is the suspect responsible for the death of this young woman,” Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said at a Friday news conference.
According to an arrest affidavit, surveillance video shows Criner spotting the woman, reaching into his pants pocket to pull out a “shiny rigid object,” and then following her across a bridge near an active area of the Austin campus that is home to some 50,000 students.
He emerges a little over two hours later with “a slight limp” and carrying a new duffel bag.
Weiser’s roommates reported the Portland, Oregon woman missing Monday morning when she didn’t report to her classes. Her body was recovered Tuesday in a creek near the UT alumni center.
An autopsy performed the following day found obvious trauma to the victim’s body and the Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled the death a homicide, the arrest affidavit says.
Police spent the week combing through surveillance videos. On Thursday, they released footage of a black man seen walking a red or pink woman’s bike.
A critical tip from Austin firefighters, who responded Monday to a trash fire near the crime scene, led authorities to a man at a local homeless shelter Thursday evening. Firefighters recognized the man in the video as Criner, a suspect in the fire who wasn’t arrested at the time but instead taken to a shelter after identifying himself as homeless.
Criner was arrested at Austin’s LifeWorks Thursday. Police said he fit the general description of the suspect and had in his possession a woman’s bike and a blue duffel bag believed to be Weiser’s.
In the room that Criner shared with another male at the shelter, authorities found a Mac Book with a sticker on it that referenced the city of Portland, according to the affidavit. At the fire scene, authorities located a trash container containing several more items belonging to the victim.
“No parent should have to bury a child,” Acevedo told reporters Friday.
He said he has been telling worried parents that Austin is “the second-safest big city in the United States, it is an extremely safe city.”
“Having said that, young people please, as the parents of our beautiful victim said, let’s take some lessons that we can learn and always be vigilant no matter how safe the situation is.”
The chief said he spoke to Weiser’s parents, who he says encouraged people to hug their loved ones “not once, but twice.”
Weiser’s family said in a statement Friday that that are grateful to authorities and relieved to learn of an arrest.
“We remain steadfast in our desire to honor Haruka’s memory through kindness and love, not violence,” the statement, released by the university, said.
They called Weiser a “dedicated dancer and student” who had summer plans to travel to Japan and “was so happy to be a student at UT.”
Police are still unsure of the motive for Weisner’s murder. Criner was not a UT student and had not been in Austin very long, according to police.
University president Greg Fenves called Weiser’s murder “incomprehensible.” He said that increased patrols, which included Texas state troopers in cars, on bikes and on horseback, would continue on campus “for now.”
Police said Weiser’s slaying was the first murder on campus since 1966, when Charles Whitman gunned down 14 people and wounded dozens more while randomly firing shots atop the iconic UT tower.
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