University of Texas student Haruka Weiser’s family and friends didn’t like the shortcut she sometimes took to Prather Hall Dormitory along Waller Creek.
Her father took one look at the dimly lit area and advised the oldest of his three children to find a better route. Her roommate told Weiser to avoid the “creepy” strip of land behind the university’s alumni center.
But Weiser, an 18-year-old from Portland, Ore., who enjoyed vacationing outdoors with her family, liked the calmness in those 10-minute walks from the Winship Drama Building.
“She thought it was pleasant,” said her roommate, Sylvia Feghali.
Prosecutors said Weiser was not carrying her pepper spray when, at 9:38 p.m. on April 3, 2016, she encountered Meechaiel Criner, the foster care runaway who is accused of killing her and committing the first homicide on campus since the 1966 UT Tower shooting.
Criner, wearing a dark blue suit with a light blue shirt, entered a Travis County courtroom Wednesday for the opening day of the evidence portion of his trial and pleaded not guilty. He was elsewhere in Austin when Weiser, a theatre and dance major, was strangled and sexually assaulted, his lawyer said.
But lead prosecutor Guillermo Gonzalez said the evidence against the 20-year-old Criner is solid, pointing to many items his team believes belonged to Weiser that were discovered by detectives in two Austin locations where Criner had been staying. Among them were black Doc Martens boots, black tights and a black turtleneck — the outfit friends said Weiser wore at a recital for an upcoming dance production on the night she was killed. They were discovered in an abandoned building near campus where firefighters found Criner burning items the morning after Weiser disappeared. Her silver laptop and blue duffel bag were later found in Criner’s room at LifeWorks, prosecutors said. So was a yellow Killeen High School T-shirt that contained a hair that forensic analysts linked to Weiser, prosecutors said.
Criner, originally from Texarkana, had been living in Killeen with a foster family before leaving unannounced for Austin about a week before the attack.
Investigators believe Weiser was beaten with a hammer, sexually assaulted and strangled with a nylon tow strap so her air and blood circulation were cut off. She was found with bad injuries to her face, nose and eyes. Her body was nestled between two boulders under tree limbs.
There’s more evidence that proves Criner was the attacker, Gonzalez said.
Surveillance video taken from a nearby campus building showed a man wearing eyeglasses stopping the bike he was riding and following Weiser down the path. About two hours later, the video showed the man return, this time without glasses, Gonzalez said. Investigators say they found glasses about 20 feet from Weiser’s body and they match the unusual prescription worn by Criner.
A black motorcycle jacket and an orange bandana the man on the video was wearing are consistent with items detectives found in Criner’s room at LifeWorks, Gonzalez said.
The hardback book “All the Light We Cannot See” that Weiser’s parents had given her as a gift also was found in Criner’s room, Gonzalez said. Its pages were stained with coffee that someone had accidentally spilled on the Weiser family’s Mexican vacation the month before.
Weiser’s killing led to a Texas Department of Public Safety review of campus safety and security and several changes at the university. DPS’ recommendations included more cops, better lighting and the removal of dense vegetation to improve visibility in walking areas along Waller Creek.
On Wednesday, a 12-person jury chosen from roughly 150 candidates heard first from Weiser’s father, Dr. Thomas Weiser. The 53-year-old physician said his daughter wanted to attend UT after two faculty members approached her with a scholarship offer at a dance competition in Florida in her junior year of high school.
“She had the combination of talent and the way she worked so hard at it,” he said.
Feghali, one of several of Haruka’s friends who testified Wednesday, said Haruka had called her about 9 p.m. on the night she died because she had forgotten her keys to their dorm room. The keys were on a ring with a bottle of pepper spray.
“She would have been carrying her keys with her pepper spray in her hand,” Feghali said.