AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A first-year University of Texas dance student whose body was found near the heart of campus was the victim of a “horrifying and incomprehensible” killing that was the first on school grounds since the bell tower mass shooting nearly 50 years ago, university officials said.
Police say they are focusing their investigations on a suspect captured on surveillance video pushing his bicycle in the area late Sunday night, about 90 minutes after 18-year-old Haruka Weiser was last seen on the Austin campus.
UT President Greg Fenves said during a somber news conference Thursday that the “unthinkable brutality against Haruka is an attack on our entire family.” Students who spoke later in the day at a vigil that drew hundreds of people on the Austin campus said the killing will leave them unsettled during their nightly walks home.
Weiser, of Portland, Oregon, was last seen around 9:30 p.m. Sunday leaving UT’s drama building. “She never made it to her dormitory that night,” Assistant Austin Police Chief Troy Gay said.
Her roommates reported her missing shortly before noon the following day, and Weiser’s body was discovered Tuesday in a creek near the alumni center and football stadium, an area bustling with activity day and night.
The route to her dorm often took her along the creek where her body was recovered, and Gay said authorities “knew the direction that she traveled” based on what she texted to one of her friends.
Details of how Weiser died haven’t been released. An autopsy showed that she was assaulted, but Gay refused to elaborate, saying it was too early in the investigation.
Gay played surveillance video of the man he described as a suspect pushing a red or pink bicycle north of the stadium around 11 p.m. Sunday. Gay said there was no indication that the man in the video was a student or that he had sought to target Weiser specifically. He said authorities believe the man was in the area for at least a couple of hours, and that no weapon was recovered.
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 16 people and wounding scores of others.
In response to this week’s slaying, the university has expanded programs in which police escort students across campus to ensure their safety. School officials also are urging students to walk in groups and avoid walking at night or while distracted with cellphones or headphones.
“To our students, you expect and deserve to be safe,” Fenves said.
UT asked Austin police to lead the investigation with the help of the Texas Department of Public Safety, which has assigned 20 state troopers to campus per day, including some on horseback. DPS is also reviewing security on campus, including video monitoring, lighting and building security systems.
Gay said law enforcement is offering a $15,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.
Julane Stites, the artistic director at Dance West, a dance company in Beaverton, Oregon, which Weiser attended before leaving for Texas, said Weiser had “a dancer in her soul.” She said Weiser headed to the University of Texas with the largest scholarship any Dance West student had received.
“She adored ballet, but she was also an amazing modern dancer,” Stites said.
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 family, according to Fenves.
“She was so happy to be a student at UT and was looking forward to the opportunity to perform again as a dance major,” said Fenves, reading a statement from Weiser’s family. “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.”
Associated Press writer Kristena Hansen contributed to this report from Beaverton, Oregon.