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UT Steps Up Security After Body of Student Found on Campus

Urging students to be more careful on campus, University of Texas at Austin officials are stepping up security after determining that a body found on campus this week belonged to a freshman dance student.

University of Texas at Austin student Haruka Weiser was found slain on campus in April 2016.

Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

*Correction appended

As the University of Texas at Austin community grapples with news that a freshman was killed this week while walking to her dorm, university officials are vowing to scrutinize the campus' safety.

University President Greg Fenves said he has asked the Texas Department of Public Safety to conduct a comprehensive security review, and university police and outside law enforcement agencies have stepped up patrols of the university grounds.

Austin police are still searching for the person who killed Haruka Weiser, 18, a dance and theater student from Portland, Oregon whose body was discovered on campus Tuesday.

“To our students: You expect and deserve to be safe,” Fenves said at a news conference at the UT Tower on Thursday.

Police and campus authorities have released few details of Weiser’s death, which is being investigated as a homicide. Authorities said they were being intentionally vague to protect the integrity of the investigation.

But they have repeatedly warned students to be careful on campus and be aware of their surroundings. Students should walk in groups, especially at night, officials said. And they should stay vigilant and think twice about focusing on their phones or wearing headphones.

The university police department has officers working 12-hour shifts to increase foot and bicycle patrols, and the state has lent 20 troopers, including officers on horses, to assist.

DPS will also review the security cameras, outdoor lighting, building security and other aspects that could affect student safety. Fenves said he is prepared to “take concrete steps to implement” any recommendations.

The steps have helped ease the worry of some students and parents, but many say they will remain spooked until someone is caught.

“It's been pretty uneasy,” said Elizabeth Garcia, a junior biology major. “Everyone is kind of freaking out because this happened on our campus.”

But she added that she thought Fenves and the university police are helping. In a statement, UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven agreed, applauding Fenves for his handling of the situation.

“He has acted quickly to ensure the safety of other students and faculty,” McRaven said. “Additionally, he is bringing together all the resources of UT and the broader law enforcement community to ensure the individual who committed this terrible act is brought to justice.”

The UT-Austin campus is in the middle of a large urban area, but is generally safe. According to federal crime statistics, Weiser’s death is the first homicide on campus this century.

But the manner of her death is chilling to students and other members of the campus community. Police said she left the university’s drama building around 9:30 p.m. Sunday, telling a friend she was heading to her dorm. She never arrived, and her roommates reported her missing around 11:30 the next morning.

The university receives many missing person reports, however — often students simply don’t tell their roommates where they are going and can be quickly located. But on Tuesday morning, the university conducted a thorough search and found Weiser’s body near a creek a short walk from the drama building.

On Thursday, Austin police released a surveillance video of a man they consider a suspect in Weiser’s slaying. He was seen near the football stadium’s north side walking as he straddled a red or pink woman’s bike. Police said he was videotaped in the area, which appears well lit in the video, for an hour or so. There’s hardly any foot traffic in the video, although an occasional car or bicyclist passes by.

“At this time, we do not know the identity of the suspect and we will definitely need the support of the community,” said Troy Gay, an assistant chief at the Austin Police Department.

Gay added: “We would like the students and the faculty to have a high degree of vigilance until our suspect is arrested.”

In the meantime, university officials said their campus is in mourning. The university held a “community gathering” in Weiser’s honor Thursday. And counseling services and other emotional support was being offered to students who knew or lived near her.

At the press conference, Fenves read aloud a letter from Weiser’s family. It expressed sadness and asked for privacy, but also expressed hope that her death would bring changes that make the university safer.

“If her death can somehow make it safer to walk home, if it will prevent another assault or murder, then at least we can find some sense behind an otherwise senseless murder or death,” Fenves read.

On Thursday evening, hundreds of students stood in the shadow of the Liberal Arts Building for a community gathering in Weiser's memory. Fenves, two administrators from the Theater and Dance Department and Student Body President Kevin Helgren addressed the crowd, asking students to reflect on the role Weiser played in the UT community.

"We lost a brilliant student," said former Student Body President Xavier Rotnofsky before inviting the crowd to observe a moment of silence. "She was one of us." 

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Haruka Weiser left UT-Austin's drama building on Monday evening before she was reported missing. Police said she left the building on Sunday night.

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