UT homicide: Questions surface about suspect’s alleged mental illness, meds

Jason Sickles
Officials classified Meechaiel Criner as a “hazard” when he was booked into the Travis County Jail for the murder of University of Texas freshman Haruka Weiser. (Austin Police Department)

The runaway, homeless teenager charged in the recent campus slaying of a University of Texas freshman was known to need an antipsychotic medication commonly prescribed to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression, according to his family and friends.

It’s unknown if Meechaiel Criner, 17, had been taking Seroquel as recommended on April 3 — the night Austin police allege he randomly targeted and killed Haruka Weiser near a walking trail on the usually bustling campus.

Meechaiel Criner complained in March about a lack of medical care for his mental illness, one of his teachers claims. (Austin Police Department)

Being aggressive, angry or violent and acting on dangerous impulses are among the serious side effects of Seroquel, cites the Food and Drug Administration.

Police have not revealed how Weiser, who was attending UT on a full dance scholarship, was killed. The school established a memorial fund to honor the 18-year-old.

The murder suspect’s grandmother and a former classmate revealed Criner’s use of Seroquel, a brand name for the drug quetiapine, in a story published by the Texarkana Gazette on Friday.

Criner, described by unidentified officials this week as a “chronic” runaway, was in the custody of Texas’ Child Protective Services before being reported to police as a runaway 10 days before Weiser was killed.

That report was made in Killeen, 70 miles north of Austin, where Criner was placed with a foster family after vanishing from his grandmother’s home near the Texas-Arkansas border last August. Killeen police refused to release to Yahoo News a March 24 report about Criner’s disappearance.

Haruka Weiser, a gifted ballerina, was walking from dance practice to her dorm room when she was slain, police said. (Facebook)

Julie Moody, a spokeswoman with Child Protective Services, told Yahoo News on Friday that she couldn’t reveal how long Criner was living in Killeen before Weiser’s death. But she acknowledged CPS is reviewing its handling of Criner’s case.

“The internal investigation on what CPS did right or wrong regarding Meechaiel’s care is ongoing, and no conclusion has been made at this time,” Moody wrote in an email. “This is a serious criminal investigation, and we are working very closely with Austin police.”

Criner was jailed and charged with murder on April 8. In an arrest affidavit, detectives said campus surveillance video showed a teen thought to be Criner watching a female thought to be Weiser as she walked toward her dorm the night she was killed. Police, who have released very few other details, also said Criner had Weiser’s laptop and duffel bag with him when arrested at an Austin shelter for homeless youths.

Greg Hansch, a licensed master social worker with the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Texas, said a teacher from Killeen emailed the advocacy group shortly after news of Criner’s capture broke.

“The student just arrested for murdering the UT student was one of my students until a few days ago,” the teacher wrote. “He is extremely mentally ill, but he was undiagnosed because he was bouncing around the foster child system.”

Hansch provided Yahoo News a portion of the email but said that the teacher — who referred to Criner as “Mick” — did not want to be publicly identified.

“Everyone is going to want to hang Mick, but he is mentally ill, and he wasn’t being treated,” the teacher said. “He was abused as a child and abused within the Texas foster care system. I don’t know what help is available for Mick, but he needs help. I had extensive conversations with him on an almost daily basis, and he wrote about his past in some assignments in my class.”

Moody said the unidentified Killeen teacher broke the law by not reporting the suspected medical neglect prior to Criner’s arrest.

“Regardless of whether a child is in the foster care system or not, if a teacher suspects abuse or neglect of one of their students, they must report it,” she said.

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Criner also spoke of past abuse and bullying in the December 2014 edition of his Texarkana high school newspaper, the Tiger Times.

“They say CPS is supposed to be a good place, but it’s not,” Criner said in a profile on him. “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.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recently vowed to overhaul his state’s Department of Family and Protective Services, CPS’s parent agency, following a series of serious missteps and a federal foster care lawsuit.

CPS declined to address Criner’s medical history, including his possible use of Seroquel.

“We are unable to discuss any medical care or treatment foster children receive,” Moody said.

But a former Texas High classmate quoted in the Texarkana Gazette story said she recalled Criner mentioning the antipsychotic drug.

“He had an episode in class,” Reagan Lynn told the newspaper. “When he came back, he told me it was because he hadn’t taken his meds the normal time or something, and he was extra tired that day. I was familiar with the medicine; that’s why I remember that it was called Seroquel.”

Hansch, the public policy director for NAMI of Texas, said his organization is investigating to see if social workers failed to prioritize Criner’s medical needs.

“Medications like Seroquel can be absolute game changers for a person living with those conditions,” Hansch said. “Our society is well served by striving to keep people on medications that they are stable on.”

Criner remains in the Travis County Jail. Bail is set at $1 million. His court appointed attorney has not returned repeated messages seeking comment.

Jail personnel classified Criner as a “hazard” when he was booked last week, according to records Yahoo News obtained through the Texas Public Information Act. Officials have not responded to emails seeking an explanation.

Jason Sickles is a national reporter for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter (@jasonsickles).