A 17-year-old has been charged with first-degree murder in the death of University of Texas freshman Haruka Weiser, police said Friday.
The suspect, identified as Meechaiel Criner, had been taken to a youth homeless shelter by police Monday after he was found at the scene of a trash fire near campus, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo told reporters.
Weiser, a first-year theater and dance major, was last seen leaving the drama building Sunday night.
Her body was found around 10:30 a.m. Tuesday in a creek near the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center, on the university campus in Austin, not far from the school’s football stadium, officials said.
Investigators “don’t have a clue what the motive” was for the homicide, Acevedo said.
“No parent should ever have to bury a child, especially a beautiful young woman like Haruka, with such a beautiful spirit,” the police chief said.
The arrest came after Austin firefighters alerted police about the small fire, which involved a book bag that may have contained some of Weiser’s belongings, Austin Fire Department spokeswoman Michelle Tanzola said.
Firefighters remembered the trash fire after seeing surveillance video police released of a possible suspect a day later, officials said.
A woman who saw a young man start the fire also contacted police after seeing the video, telling investigators the youth resembled the person in the video, Acevedo said.
At the scene of the small trash fire Monday, firefighters found Criner allegedly in possession of a woman’s bicycle and a blue duffel bag that resembled one owned by the victim, Acevedo said.
Police later recovered items believed to belong to the victim at the fire scene.
The suspect was arrested at the shelter Thursday. He allegedly had items believed to belong to Weiser, police said.
“We are very certain that the subject we have in custody is the suspect responsible for the death of this beautiful young woman,” Acevedo said.
The police chief said additional charges may be filed, and he shared a message from the victim’s mother.
“She told me … please tell all your officers, please tell everyone at the University of Texas … everyone involved in this investigation, thank you,” he said. “But also please tell them to take care of themselves and go home and hug your children, not once but twice.”
At a news conference, university President Gregory L. Fenves said the school was “taking measures and (doing) everything we can to improve the safety of the campus,” including increased patrols and a safety and security assessment.
There had not been a homicide on campus since 1966, according to Acevedo.
Surveillance video of suspect
Authorities this week announced that they believed they had a suspect and asked for the public’s help in identifying him.
Troy Gay, assistant police chief at the Austin Police Department, showed surveillance video of the suspect walking with a bike.
Weiser’s death shook many on the Austin campus, with Fenves telling reporters that “our home has been violated.”
“Our hearts go out to the victim and her family,” he said, “and we will be investigating this very actively.”
A ‘beloved daughter, sister and friend’
In a statement this week, Weiser’s family thanked the university community for its support and asked for privacy.
In addition to dance, Weiser was declaring a second major in premed and had plans to visit family in Japan this summer. She was remembered as a “beloved daughter, sister and friend.”
“Although Haruka loved to perform on stage she never sought the spotlight in her daily life. Perhaps the last thing she would want is to be the poster child for any cause.
“And yet, as we struggle to understand why she was killed, if her death can somehow make it safer for a young woman to walk home, if it will prevent another assault or murder, then at least we could find some meaning behind an otherwise senseless and tragic death,” her family wrote.
Dance faculty members first met Weiser when she performed at the National High School Dance Festival more than two years ago. They recruited her to go to UT from her home in Oregon.
She was mourned there by Dance West, where she used to dance.
“With indescribable sadness, we mourn the tragic loss of one of our very own, Haruka Weiser. Please join us in honoring this bright and beautiful Dance West alum dancer/family member and friend who has touched the hearts of us all. Rest in Peace & Power,” Dance West posted on Facebook.