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Homeless teen faces murder charge in University of Texas student's death

Homeless teen faces murder charge in University of Texas student's death
Mourners observe a moment of silence during a vigil for University of Texas at Austin student Haruka Weiser on the campus Thursday. (Rodolfo Gonzalez / Associated Press)

Police said Friday that a homeless 17-year-old had been arrested and will be charged with murder in the death of a University of Texas dance major in the heart of the bustling campus, a killing that has unnerved one of the country's best-known schools.

Meechaiel Criner wasn't believed to be a university student and hadn't been living in Austin long. Police Chief Art Acevedo said Criner could face additional charges in the slaying of 18-year-old Oregon native Haruka Weiser.

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"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 news conference.

Weiser was last seen leaving the campus drama building Sunday night. Her body was found Tuesday in a creek near the alumni center and the university's football stadium, an area that hums with activity day and night.

The slaying shook the campus of about 50,000 students. University President Greg Fenves called it "horrifying and incomprehensible."

"It was unsettling," said 20-year-old Jasmine Chavez of Houston, who was in the university's central mall area Friday. "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 later recognized the man as Criner, whom they had spoken to in connection with a trash fire near 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 homeless shelter. Police found him there Thursday and took him into custody without incident. His arrest affidavit 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, including her laptop.

Weiser's autopsy showed she had been assaulted, but police have refused to release further details about how she died, except to say that the route she took from her dorm to the drama building often passed Waller Creek, where her body was found. Criner's affidavit said Weiser's body showed "obvious trauma."

It also said campus surveillance video not made public showed the suspect watching a female thought to be Weiser as she walked in the direction of her dorm with her head down, looking at her cellphone.

As she passed, the affidavit said, the suspect produced "what appeared to be a shiny rigid object" and followed her. The pair dropped from view as they reached the creek bank, though, and the suspect wasn't seen on video again for more than two hours.

Police said they hadn't recovered a crime scene weapon, however, and Acevedo wouldn't speculate on a motive. Criner was jailed in Travis County in lieu of $1-million bond. Judge Brenda Kennedy, who set the bond, signed the arrest warrant affidavit that states "there is sufficient probable cause to support the charge of murder."

Texas Department of Family and Protective Services spokeswoman Julie Moody said 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.

Police have not released much about Criner's background, though a person with the same name and birth date is listed in driver's license records as having lived in Texarkana, about 350 miles northeast of Austin.

A 2014 article in a Texarkana high school publication featured a Meecchaiel Criner who described being bullied and difficulties in foster care as a child, saying, "What I want to leave behind is my name — I want them to know who Meechaiel Criner is."

Fenves said increased police patrols on campus, which have included 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.

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"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 death was the first on-campus homicide since former Marine Charles Whitman climbed to the top the campus 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 major, premed, and to travel to Japan this summer to see relatives. In a statement Friday, the family that "we are relieved to hear" an arrest had been made.

"We remain steadfast in our desire to honor Haruka's memory through kindness and love. Not violence," the family said.

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