FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — The lives of 18-year-old University of Texas student Haruka Weiser and the teenage suspect in her killing differed dramatically.
Weiser grew up in a tight-knit community in Oregon, where she attended an arts magnet school and danced with the Portland Ballet.
By contrast, Meechaiel Khalil Criner, the 17-year-old runaway arrested in her death, was intellectually disabled, abandoned by his mother as an infant and in Texas foster care, his uncle, Leo Criner, told The Associated Press on Saturday.
Authorities say Weiser and Criner’s lives intersected violently on UT’s Austin campus, leaving Weiser dead in a creek on school grounds Tuesday and Criner jailed two days later in Travis County on a $1 million bond.
She grew up near Beaverton, Oregon, in a four-acre co-housing community established in 1998 around the values of community, service and sustainability, where residents share tools like lawn mowers but also responsibilities like gardening, said Weiser’s neighbor, Helen Spector.
“She always had sunshine in her smile wherever she went,” Spector told the AP by phone Saturday while preparing soup for Weiser’s grieving parents and younger sister and brother.
Spector said Weiser loved ballet and hip-hop dancing and wanted to study medicine, emulating her father, a doctor in Oregon.
She attended Arts and Communications Magnet Academy in Beaverton, and also performed with the Beaverton Dance West Troupe, Portland Ballet and Oregon Symphony.
Weiser’s parents could not be reached for comment Saturday but said in a statement a day earlier that they “remain steadfast in our desire to honor Haruka’s memory through kindness and love. Not violence.”
Leo Criner said his nephew, Meechaiel, was bullied throughout his childhood in Texarkana, Texas, and has the mental capacity of a 10-year-old.
“I refuse to believe he just maliciously killed this young lady,” the uncle said in a phone interview from Texarkana, where he lives. “This kid don’t know nothing about killing. His mind don’t compute like that.”
Mary Wadley said authorities had told her that her grandson, Meechaiel, was caught shoplifting in McKinney, Texas, shortly before he was admitted into an emergency youth homeless shelter Monday in Austin, about 225 miles away.
McKinney police spokeswoman Sabrina Boston did not return messages seeking comment.
Wadley, who also lives in Texarkana, said she planned to travel to Austin on Monday.
Weiser was last seen leaving the UT campus drama building Sunday night. Waller Creek, where her body was found Tuesday, is along the route she took from her dorm to the drama building, police have said. The creek is near the alumni center and football stadium, an area that hums with activity day and night.
The killing shook a campus of about 50,000 students.
Police released surveillance video that showed a man they said was a suspect walking a women’s bicycle. Firefighters later recognized the man as Criner, whom they had spoken to in connection with a trash fire near the UT campus on Monday. An Austin resident who reported the fire also called police when she saw the surveillance video, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said Friday.
Criner wasn’t arrested for the fire but was instead taken to a Life Works shelter. Police found him there Thursday and took him into custody without incident. His arrest affidavit said his clothing matched that of the man on the surveillance video and that he was in possession of a women’s bike, as well as Weiser’s duffel bag and some of her other belongings, including her laptop.
The arrest affidavit said Weiser’s body had “obvious trauma.” An autopsy showed she had been assaulted, but police have refused to release further details about how she died.
The affidavit also said campus surveillance video not made public showed the suspect watching a female thought to be Weiser as she walked in the direction of her dorm with her head down, looking at her cellphone.
As she passed, the affidavit said, the suspect produced “what appeared to be a shiny rigid object” and followed her. The pair dropped from view as they reached the creek bank, though, and the suspect wasn’t seen on video again for two-plus hours.
Police have said a crime scene weapon hasn’t been recovered, however, and Acevedo wouldn’t speculate on motive.