A University of Texas student killed on campus last week appears to have been sexually assaulted and was the victim of strangulation, based on preliminary evidence gathered by detectives, according to several law enforcement officials familiar with the investigation.
Forensic examiners collected DNA samples from the body of Haruka Weiser, 18, and police were awaiting lab results Tuesday before possibly filing additional charges against 17-year-old Meechaiel Khalil Criner.
Criner remains in the Travis County Jail charged with murder. His bail has been set at $1 million, and a judge has appointed Austin lawyer Ariel Payan to represent him. Payan couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.
It is likely that investigators will submit DNA from the crime scene to law enforcement databases for any potential matches to other crimes across the state, officials told the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV.
The disclosure marks the first public release about how investigators think Weiser died. Police have said she appeared to have been randomly targeted. But as to her cause of death, authorities have previously said only that the theater and dance major from Portland, Ore., was assaulted, but wouldn’t elaborate.
The sources declined to be identified because of the ongoing investigation and because they aren’t authorized to speak publicly about the case.
The Travis County medical examiner’s office is conducting the autopsy on Weiser’s body, which was found in Waller Creek, but the final conclusions aren’t expected for several weeks.
The case has garnered national attention in the days since a University of Texas police officer found Weiser’s body behind the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center on the eastern edge of the campus of more than 50,000 students. The case — the first homicide on the main UT campus in a half-century — rattled the community.
Weiser was last heard from April 3 by a friend she called as she was leaving the Winship Drama Building at about 9:30 p.m.
Around that time, surveillance footage from UT cameras recorded a person believed to be Criner near the Liberal Arts Building, across from Winship off of 23rd Street. Video also captured a woman, believed to be Weiser, walking past him. He watched her and then put down the kick stand of his bike, the affidavit said.
He reached into the back of his pants, pulled out a “shiny rigid object,” the affidavit said, and followed Weiser behind the alumni center, which is adjacent to the west bank of Waller Creek.
Criner isn’t seen on video footage again until about two hours later walking east on 23rd Street with a slight limp, the affidavit said. The footage also showed him carrying a small duffel bag that he didn’t have when he was first caught on video, the affidavit said. Weiser was reported missing Monday; police found her body Tuesday in Waller Creek.
Police connected Criner to Weiser’s death shortly after they released the surveillance footage Thursday. The key tip came from the Austin Fire Department. Firefighters at the campus-area station said they encountered a teenager Monday who resembled the suspect in the video, right down to the clothing and the bicycle, Criner’s arrest affidavit said.
The firefighters found Criner at the scene of a fire that was reported at 8:21 a.m. Monday in an abandoned building just north of campus. Criner, who told firefighters he was homeless, was burning various items, the affidavit said. After extinguishing the fire, firefighters told Criner they would keep his bicycle while authorities took him to a LifeWorks shelter.
Some of the items Criner was burning were likely Weiser’s possessions, the affidavit said. They included a shoe and college coursework, the affidavit said. At the shelter, police found a laptop affixed with a Portland, Ore., sticker, like the one Weiser’s parents said was on her laptop, the affidavit said.
A judge has signed two search warrants related to the case, but those warrants have been sealed, according to a court order obtained Tuesday.