The bloody Waller Creek crime scene in the killing of University of Texas dance student Haruka Weiser might be connected to a messy storage room across the street at the 100,000-seat Royal-Memorial Stadium that could help answer some of the remaining questions in her death.
In the second day of testimony in the capital murder trial of Meechaiel Criner, a former UT student testified Thursday he had permission to use Room 132 in Belmont Hall to store equipment for the club rowing team. But when he entered on March 30, 2016, the door had been spray-painted blue and the lock broken.
Afraid he’d get into trouble, Jose Sandoval Jr. pulled out his camera phone and documented the damage — a decision that ultimately helped investigators build their case against Criner, the foster care runaway from Killeen who faces an automatic life sentence if convicted of Weiser’s killing. His lawyers have acknowledged Criner had been bouncing around different Austin locations at the time, but that he was not in the vicinity when Weiser was killed April 3. Criner, 20, has pleaded not guilty.
Weiser, an 18-year-old from Portland, Ore., was strangled and sexually assaulted four days after Sandoval’s discovery. A tow strap shown in court that investigators believe Criner applied around Weiser’s throat bears a resemblance to a strap shown in Sandoval’s photos draped around a pipe in the storage room. And a black hammer with one claw missing found near Weiser’s body appears to be similar to a hammer in Sandoval’s photos. The claw area of the hammer is obscured in the photos shown in court Thursday.
The photos made their way to athletics department employee Merrick MyCue, who testified he visited the storage room later on March 30 and encountered a 6-foot-tall man who seemed to be staying in the room and told him to leave. The interaction lasted about 30 seconds, and MyCue said the man asked for help packing his belongings, including several backpacks, a shopping cart with food and tools. MyCue declined to assist the man.
After seeing a news story about Criner’s arrest about a week later, MyCue said he reached out to UT police and said he recognized Criner as the man he found in the room. By that time, investigators had reviewed surveillance video that shows a man they believe to be Criner following Weiser down a path after she left the Winship Drama Building, and they also had been to two Austin locations where they say Criner had been staying after his eviction from the football stadium.
The day after Weiser’s death, firefighters were called to the abandoned Medical Arts Complex north of campus where they said they found Criner burning items. He was taken by police to a LifeWorks shelter, but Criner had to leave some of his items behind. Investigators went back to the building and found clothing that Weiser’s friends said she was wearing on the night she disappeared. During a separate inspection of Criner’s room at LifeWorks, detectives say they found Weiser’s laptop as well as a strand of her hair stuck to a T-shirt.
Other forensic evidence prosecutors say ties Criner to the attack was tossed out last month when state District Judge David Wahlberg determined an analyst with the Texas Department of Public Safety did not follow proper testing protocol. Jurors were informed Thursday that DNA evidence found at the crime scene had no evidentiary value.
The day’s proceedings began with testimony from Austin police Detective Ray Tynes, who said he cannot give a definite rundown of the events that preceded Weiser’s death. But if he had to guess, Tynes said, he thinks her assailant gained control of her with a ligature and forced her across the creek bed.
“I don’t think she was able to fight for her life,” Tynes said.