Foster Care Teen Arrested in UT Student's Death

A 17-year-old arrested in connection with the death of University of Texas at Austin student Haruka Weiser is in the care of the Texas foster youth system, an official said Friday.

UT students Alfonso Galindo holds onto Erica Gomez during a community gathering in honor of Haruka Weiser on the University of Texas campus on April 7, 2016.
UT students Alfonso Galindo holds onto Erica Gomez during a community gathering in honor of Haruka Weiser on the University of Texas campus on April 7, 2016.  Shelby Tauber

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

Meechaiel Criner, the 17-year-old arrested in connection with the death of University of Texas at Austin student Haruka Weiser is in the care of the Texas foster youth system, an official said Friday.

Criner, who is currently in Austin police custody, is still in the care of the foster youth system, said Julie Moody, a spokeswoman for the agency that oversees foster care. She added that the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services is "working closely with law enforcement."  

Criner, who police believe is homeless and unaffiliated with the university, will be charged with murder, a first-degree felony, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said Friday at a news conference. Although Acevedo declined to comment on whether Criner had confessed, officers had a "high degree of certainty and confidence" that they "had the suspect responsible for her murder," he said. In Texas, a 17-year-old is considered an adult in the criminal justice system. 

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Child Protective Services keeps children's records confidential, but more information about Criner's foster care history could emerge in court, Moody said. Criner was on "run away status" but had been returned to Lifeworks in Austin earlier this week, according to a spokeswoman for the Department of Family Protective Services.

The foster care agency's problems have drawn heightened scrutiny in recent weeks. Officials are grappling with an ongoing spike in the number of children spending nights in CPS offices and psychiatric hospitals amid a shortage of family placements, a federal court ruling that found the Texas foster care system inhumaneand negative media coverage of recent child deaths.

A Texarkana high school newspaper published a 2014 profile in which a student named Meechaiel Criner described his experience in foster care. Criner attended Texas High School in Texarkana.

"They say CPS is supposed to be a good place, but it's not," the newspaper quoted Criner as saying. "At first, it didn't seem that bad. But as the days passed on, it turned out that foster care is almost — well, almost a prison." 

"It was a really harsh time in my life," he added.

According to Acevedo, police officers took Criner into custody at LifeWorks, a homeless shelter and advocacy agency in Austin, late Thursday afternoon. It was local officers who had originally taken Criner to LifeWorks on Monday evening, after he started a trash can fire on Medical Arts Street, a few blocks from where Weiser's body was found. After the police released the video of their suspect on Thursday, Austin firefighters and an unidentified woman from UT called in tips that Criner appeared to be the man on the video, based on his physical attributes and the clothing he was wearing. Criner also had a pink woman's bicycle, like the suspect in the video.

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University of Texas police officer David Carter, noting that Criner was homeless, acknowledged at a press conference that there are "areas of concern" in the student neighborhood immediately west of campus, but said he did not intend to "single out any group of people." 

"We’re in close proximity — we’re in a major metropolitan area with a somewhat significant homeless population, especially to the west of campus," Carter added.

"Being homeless is not a crime," Acevedo added.

Weiser, a freshman ballet student from Portland, Oregon, was found on campus Tuesday morning. Austin police officials said Weiser was likely killed late Sunday, while she was on her way to her dorm room. 

Austin police are working with police departments from the University of Texas and the UT System, as well as the Texas Rangers, to solve the case, which has ignited a conversation about safety across the UT campus. This week, the administration has issued several warnings to students, asking them to walk in groups, especially at night. The university has also increased the number of officers on patrol, and the state has sent 20 troopers to further assist.

UT administrators also announced they would be improving security measures in and around the College of Fine Arts, where Weiser’s body was found. UTPD has provided shuttle vans in the evening for students and staff leaving late-night rehearsals, and the College of Fine Arts announced it would reimburse any student who used a taxi, Uber or Lyft to travel from campus to their car after sundown.

Terri Langford contributed to this report.

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.

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