Police have arrested a 17-year-old suspect in the slaying of a University of Texas dance student, law enforcement officials said Friday.
Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said at a news conference that Meechaiel Criner has been booked into the county jail on a first-degree murder charge in the slaying of Haruka Weiser, a first-year student from Portland, Oregon. Weiser, 18, was last seen Sunday night leaving the university’s drama building en route to her dorm, police said. Roommates reported her missing the next morning.
Weiser’s body was found on campus Tuesday in Waller Creek by the university’s alumni center, a short walk from the drama building.
Acevedo said Criner was arrested yesterday without incident.
“I don’t have a clue what the motive is,” he said. He said Criner is not a student at the university and that there is no known connection between him and UT. He described Criner as homeless.
Acevedo said Weiser’s death was the first homicide on the University of Texas main campus since August 1966, when a sniper killed more than a dozen people and wounded many others in a rampage from high up in a clock tower. The slaying this week shocked the community as a manhunt for a man on a bicycle — captured in surveillance video — went on throughout the week.
“We are very certain,” Acevedo said, that the suspect is “responsible for the death of this beautiful young woman.”
Acevedo said a key break in the case came when Austin firefighters realized an incident they responded to Monday, involving a trash fire, was related to surveillance video of the suspect that police shared Thursday. In the video, a man is seen near the UT football stadium late Sunday with what appears to be a woman’s bike. Acevedo cited another piece of evidence linking Criner to the homicide: “a small blue duffel bag” that resembled one belonging to Weiser.
Acevedo declined to release more details about the slaying, citing on ongoing investigation. “We would be remiss if we started talking about specifics,” he said.
A December 2014 issue of a student publication, the Tiger Times, of Texas High School in Texarkana, Texas, contains an article about Criner headlined “Voice of hope.” The article, on page 12 and accompanied by a photograph of Criner, says the teenager was the victim of schoolyard taunts at an early age because of a “thick, African-like” accent.
“I’ve been bullied almost my whole life,” Criner was quoted as saying. “In elementary school, I would come home crying almost every day. It was because of my accent, you see. People couldn’t understand me.”
Criner told the Tiger Times that he had spent several months in foster care and later lived with a grandmother. The article portrays Criner as a victim of violence and bullying who wants to work to help others.
“I like to stand up for people,” Criner was quoted as saying. “I like to help others. . . . What I want to leave behind is my name – I want them to know who Meechaiel Criner is.”
Efforts to locate Criner’s grandmother and other relatives were not immediately successful Friday. A spokesperson for the Texarkana Independent School District declined to comment.
UT, the flagship public university in the state, has about 51,000 students, including 39,000 undergraduates. Officials emphasized that the campus is safe but urged students and others to be vigilant.
The grief in Austin over Weiser’s slaying reflected not only the pain at the loss of a classmate but also the outrage and distress that a young student with a bright future would be attacked senselessly at night in a place assumed to be safe.
The University of Virginia experienced similar pain when 18-year-old sophomore Hannah Graham was murdered in 2014. Graham’s body was found after she vanished one night in Charlottesville. Jesse L. Matthew Jr. pleaded guilty in March to abducting and murdering Graham and a Virginia Tech student, Morgan Harrington, who was found dead outside Charlottesville in 2010.
UT President Gregory Fenves said Friday he wants the university to learn from Weiser’s death “and make this a better community and safer community for every member of it.”
In a statement to the campus community on Thursday, Fenves said Weiser’s death was “a tragic loss for the UT community.” He added:
Haruka was a beloved member of our dance community, liked and admired by her classmates and respected by professors for her intelligence and spirit. Dance faculty members first met Haruka more than two years ago when she performed at the National High School Dance Festival. They immediately began recruiting her to come to UT from her home in Portland, Oregon. Our community was made better by her decision to join the College of Fine Arts.
The University of Texas also posted two messages to the community from Weiser’s family. The first, before the arrest of a suspect in the case:
Haruka Juliana Tsunemine Weiser, our beloved daughter, sister and friend was taken from us too soon. We will forever miss her; the pain of our sudden and tragic loss is unfathomable. We are grateful for all the support, kindness and prayers that have been offered to us. Words cannot express the outpouring of love we have received.
And a second message, on Friday, after the arrest:
Today we learned that the Austin Police Department has arrested an individual in connection with the death of our daughter, Haruka. We are grateful for the effective investigation by the Austin Police Department, the University of Texas Police and all who assisted with this case. We are relieved to hear this news.
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Matthew Watkins and Madlin Mekelburg of Texas Tribune contributed to this report.
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Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the day Weiser was reported missing. The article has been updated.
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Video: The Austin Police Department released surveillance video showing the individual suspected of killing a first-year dance student at the University of Texas at Austin. The body was recovered on April 5 near the campus’s alumni center. (Austin Police Department)