Sometime on March 24, a Texas Child Protective Services caseworker called police in Killeen to alert them that a teen named Meechaiel Criner had vanished from a therapeutic foster home where he had been living.
The state agency responsible for caring for children in state custody has lengthy protocols for how staff is required to handle runaway cases, including alerting police, in hopes of quickly finding them.
But Criner wasn’t located before police say he carried out an unthinkable crime 10 days later: Randomly attacking 18-year-old freshman Haruka Weiser on the University of Texas campus, assaulting her and, according to law enforcement sources, strangling her before leaving her dead along Waller Creek.
Whether CPS caseworkers followed their guidelines in Criner’s case remains unclear — officials declined to comment — but it is now part of an internal review.
Yet the case sheds light on an issue that CPS caseworkers face with striking regularity: At least once a day, on average, a foster child runs away from a home or facility, leaving officials scrambling to find them before they are harmed, or as police say happened in Criner’s case, harm someone else.
Officials have told the American-Statesman that Criner was a chronic runaway during his years of CPS custody. The newspaper has identified at least three missing person or runaway reports to Texas law enforcement agencies about Criner in the past 14 months.
According to CPS statistics, 388 foster children were deemed runaways from Sept. 1, 2015, through Feb. 28, and 47 ran away more than once. Records show the average age of such runaways is 16, that 61 percent were female and that 39 percent were male.
Of the total, 235 were later found and returned to care, the agency reported.
This week, Killeen police wouldn’t release a report from the call they received about Criner three weeks ago. Investigators are still trying to piece together his trail from Killeen to Austin, including how and when he arrived in Travis County.
However, detectives have said he was living on Austin’s streets around April 3, when Weiser was killed.
Criner is in the Travis County Jail charged with murder in Weiser’s death. His bail is set at $1 million.
His court-appointed attorney, Ariel Payan, released a statement Wednesday, saying he has met and spoken to Criner.
“We are awaiting the state of Texas to provide discovery in his case,” he said. “Our investigation has just begun, and we are pursuing several investigative leads at this time.”
Within 24 hours of a foster child’s disappearance, caseworkers must notify the appropriate law enforcement agency in the jurisdiction where the child went missing, state policy says. They must also contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The caseworker then asks for a CPS special investigator to help find the child. That investigator — a CPS worker who assists with complex cases — collects recent photos of the child; talks to relatives, friends, caregivers, teachers and others in the child’s life; and obtains health diagnoses of the child, including information on medications.
Special investigators also team up with law enforcement to search the child’s home and search the child’s activity on cellphones, the Internet and social media.
The caseworker and investigator must work together, stay in touch with law enforcement and document all their efforts.
Agency spokesman Patrick Crimmins said it is conducting a review to assess its work in the case, but said he couldn’t provide any additional details.
The most recent missing persons report marked at least the third time state officials should have enacted that protocol involving Criner.
According to reports from police in Texarkana, where Criner lived for much of his life, his grandmother reported Criner as a runaway Feb. 1, 2015, a day after he left her home after an argument.
She first believed that he went to California, but Criner was found two days later with a relative in Houston.
Criner’s grandmother, Mary Wadley, reported him as a runaway again on Aug. 21, 2015, saying he had left her home five days earlier.
Criner was arrested on charges he shoplifted boots from a Wal-Mart in Seagoville, near Dallas, and released from jail on Aug. 18, 2015. He told police he was heading to Austin. A police report said he received deferred adjudication on that misdemeanor charge.
A harsh upbringing
At some point in the last year, Criner attended Ellison High School in Killeen, where at least one of his teachers said the student was in need of help for mental health issues.
“He is extremely mentally ill but he was undiagnosed because he was bouncing around the foster child system,” the teacher wrote in an email to the National Alliance on Mental Illness Texas, which the organization shared with the Statesman.
“He was abused as a child and abused within the Texas foster care system. I don’t know what help is available for Mick (Criner) but he needs help. I had extensive conversations with him on an almost daily basis and he wrote about his past in some assignments in my class. Everyone is going to want to hang Mick but he is mentally ill and he wasn’t being treated.”
The teacher declined to speak with the Statesman, citing district rules on speaking with the media.
Criner was born in Dallas and has spent multiple stints in Texas’ foster care system. Family members have also said he suffered from mental health issues and was on medication.
Although much of Criner’s past with CPS is secret, records that have been made publicly available paint a picture of a boy who endured neglect, deprivation and abuse at the hands of family members, resulting in his removal from his mother’s home when he was 3 years old, and then again from his grandmother’s care eight years later.
In 2001, Meechaiel’s 9-year-old sister, Arianna Criner, told police that their mother regularly left her small children, including 2-year-old Meechaiel, at home alone. “The children had no food and the house was without gas and water,” a CPS report said. Meechaiel’s mother, Vivian Criner, also smoked marijuana and drank excessively in front of her children, the report said.
“The children also stated their mother doesn’t provide them with clothing,” the report said. “They stated they would get one outfit for the entire school year. They stated she would rather buy alcohol and/or drugs with her money.”
The boy’s mother told caseworkers she saw nothing wrong with leaving her children alone, the report says.
In March 2002, Meechaiel was placed with Wadley.
In May 2009, CPS received a report that Wadley had hit 10-year-old Meechaiel in the face with a belt, leaving him with two black eyes. A CPS caseworker said Wadley admitted to spanking the boy and to accidentally hitting him in the face with a belt. Meechaiel’s “two eyes were observed to be swollen shut and also appeared red,” caseworker Raquel Martin wrote in a report.
After CPS confirmed the allegation, another caseworker, Paige Formby, said Wadley became belligerent when informed she wouldn’t be allowed to have unsupervised contact of Meechaiel or his siblings. “Ms. Wadley stated, ‘Jesus is going to send the devil on Racquel (investigator),’” the report says. “She further stated, ‘Ain’t no demons/devil gonna tear down my reputation.’”
In August 2009, Wadley was arrested on charges of injury to a child. State records don’t indicate how that charge was resolved.
A year later, Meechaiel’s maternal aunt, Ramere Koontz, was appointed the boy’s permanent managing conservator, according to court records.
On Wednesday, in an interview with the Statesman at the Texarkana business she operates, Tommie Jackson, Wadley’s sister, described Criner as a troubled but well-mannered child.
“If CPS knew the situation, knew the child had a problem, this child should not have been on the streets,” she said. “In my opinion, they’re as at fault as anybody else.”
Staff writer Phil Jankowski contributed to this report. Staff writer Sean Collins Walsh contributed with reporting from Texarkana.