Crime

Criner trial Day 3 focuses on fire that led police to him

AUSTIN (KXAN) — In the third full day of the capital murder trial for Meechaiel Criner, jurors heard from firefighters with the Austin Fire Department who responded to a small "light box" fire on April 4, 2016 at a building on Medical Arts Street where Criner, 20, was ultimately found and was believed to be staying. 

A light box is an alarm with half the resources dispatched than in the case of a box alarm. During this particular call, crews said the source appeared to be a warming fire from inside the building -- a suspected homeless person they believed had started a small fire in order to keep warm.

On the scene, Austin firefighters made contact with Criner, who was the only one in the building. Because he was a homeless minor — 17 at the time — and he could no longer stay there, crews worked to help Criner get housing services at a youth shelter, where he was later taken.

In addition to that assistance, firefighters offered to hold Criner's bicycle at their fire station until he could come back to retrieve it after he was set up with housing.

Criner is accused of strangling and killing 18-year-old University of Texas at Austin student Haruka Weiser as she walked back to her dorm on April 3, 2016.

Her body was found April 5, 2016, just a day after firefighters found Criner. 

Surveillance video showed a man around Waller Creek the night of Weiser's death. According to a warrant, Criner was seen riding a bike around the area near Winship Hall around 9:20 p.m.

He then disappears, showing up on surveillance video again at 9:38 p.m. as a girl dressed in all black can be seen walking past in the direction of the Alumni Center.

"I immediately believed that was the same bicycle and the same individual," said Aaron Wernsman, a fire specialist at AFD, who testified Friday morning. Wernsman said as soon as he saw the surveillance footage on local news, he called his captain concerned about the possibility that the homicide suspect was also the homeless minor from the fire.

He also testified about what particular items were found at the scene of the Medical Arts fire, including what he believed was a math book and a boot. 

On the evening of April 3, 2016, Weiser called her friend as she was leaving a drama building around 9:30 p.m. to tell her that she was coming home. She was never seen alive again. The next day, April 4, she did not show up for class, so a missing person report was filed with UTPD. Her roommate told police she was carrying a duffel bag with her laptop, phone, jacket and study materials.

Weiser's body was found April 5 around 9:45 a.m. in Waller Creek near the campus' Alumni Center. A medical examiner ruled her cause of death as a homicide.

Police arrested Criner on April 8.

In all Friday, the state called six witnesses to testify — two Austin firefighters, two Austin police officers, one APD detective and an APD crime scene analyst. 

Criner has pleaded not guilty to the capital murder charges. If convicted, because he was 17 years old at the time of the homicide, the extent of his punishment would be life in prison. He is not eligible for the death penalty.

Court resumes Monday no later than 8:45 a.m. 


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