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UT murder trial: Austin firefighter testifies that man in surveillance video is Meechaeil Criner

If Meechaeil Criner is found guilty, he faces life in prison.

AUSTIN — The trial for the man accused of murdering a University of Texas student resumed at 8:30 a.m. Friday, July 13.

Meechaiel Criner is charged with capital murder for the death of UT student Haruka Weiser in April 2016. Criner is also accused of sexually assaulting her and discarding her body in Waller Creek.

According to his attorneys, he has pleaded not guilty to the charge.

On Thursday, the jury heard a homicide detective who said Weiser was likely not able to fight for her life during the attack.

On Friday, the jury heard from two Austin firefighters and two Austin police officers who discussed finding Criner in a vacant building before Weiser's body was discovered and before he was put in custody. The jury also heard from Detective Tyne and Jennifer Aguirre, a crime scene specialist with APD.

Austin firefighter Aaron Wernsman took the stand and said on April 4, 2016, the fire station responded to a possible fire inside a medical arts building at UT around 8:10 a.m.

Wernsman said he found Criner inside the building with a small fire. Wernsman says a “warming fire” typically indicates someone is homeless. He said he believed Criner was homeless and wanted to be warm that night. Crews worked together to gather Criner's belongings and later transported him to a youth shelter.

Austin firefighter John Bass recalled seeing a very small, smoldering fire amongst other things in the vacant building. Bass said he saw a half-burnt, black shoe in or near the fire. Bass also noted seeing a notebook with math problems in it and three bikes, including a red, women’s bike.

Bass said he remembered that red bike because there was “something unique about it.” He said the handle bars were wrapped in clear packing tape, and added the plastic wrapping stuck out to him in the surveillance video because the handlebars on the bike looked shiny.

Firefighters took that bike to the station with them and left a note that said “bike belongs to: Meechaiel Criner.”

Prosecutors showed surveillance video that they said captured Criner riding a bike in the area on the night Weiser was murdered, April 3, 2016.

“I could feel from my toes to the top of my head,” said Wersman, after viewing the surveillance video. "I knew the individual on the video, and it was the individual I encountered at Medical Arts Building.”

“I immediately believed that was the same bicycle and the same individual,” Wernsman said two other firefighters agreed it was the same person, who they say is Criner.

APD Officer Nick Garcia also responded to the fire that night.

Garcia said he gave Criner a ride to a youth shelter called LifeWorks. He added that the owner of the building did not want to press charges so Criner was not handcuffed or arrested at that time.

Dashcam video showed Criner placing some of his bags filled with collected belongings on the hood of a patrol car. Among the bags, you can see a blue and red duffel bag, prosecutors say belonged to Weiser.

Weiser’s friends said she had a blue and red duffel bag the night she was killed. In surveillance video shown to the jury on Thursday, a security technician pointed out that the man with the bike, who prosecutor’s say is Criner, had a blue duffel bag. The man in the video was viewed with the bag almost two hours after they say they saw that same man follow a woman, believed to be Weiser, down a path.

Officer Marco Gonzalez responded as backup that morning. He said Criner told him he was the only one staying in the building and said Criner was taking a long time to gather his things.

Gonzalez said he frisked Criner’s bags and noticed a silver laptop in one of the bags.

“It strikes me as odd that someone who is homeless can afford to have something like that,” Gonzalez explained, saying this is why he was seen shaking his head in the dashcam video.

Prosecutors say that laptop belonged to Weiser.

Detective Tyne took the stand for the third day in a row. On Friday, Tyne also focused most of his testimony on the vacant building. He first showed pictures of two condoms near the storage room at the UT football stadium. This is the room prosecutors say Criner was using. Tyne said they took the pictures since Weiser had been sexually assaulted. Criner is suspected of sexually assaulting her.

Tyne said a wood pile outside a vacant building at Medical Arts led him to believe that was the building responders said Criner was staying at.

Tyne said he saw a trash can at the bottom of the staircase. This is the trashcan that responders say they left outside, filled with Criner’s leftover belongings from the building.

Tyne recalled walking down the stairs, looking for items in connection to the homicide. Tyne says he picked up a trash bag from the top and underneath he saw the toe of a black, boot-like shoe.

“The stitching is very unique,” Tyne said there was no question in his mind the shoe was a black Doc Marten. Witnesses said Weiser was last seen wearing all black clothes, including black Doc Marten boots.

Tyne said only half of the burned shoe was in the cardboard box.

Also in the trashcan, police found wet, sandy black pants and a black turtleneck. Tyne said the crime scene where Weiser’s body was found was near the creek and was sandy. Tyne said the sizes of the shirt and pants are consistent with the size of the victim.

“In my mind, this was an exact match,” Tyne said of a black jacket also found in the bin of belongings. He said that jacket was the same as the one he saw in surveillance video from the night Weiser was killed.

Tyne also said an orange bandana “immediately stood out to me.” The man in surveillance video was also seen wearing an orange bandana around his neck.

Tyne then turned the court’s attention to images of the burn pile that was inside the vacant building. He said there were twigs, similar to the ones he found outside, a portion of a burned shoe, and parts of a notebook with homework.

Tyne also noted shattered glass near the burn pile. He said they collected small electrical components from the pit. He showed a picture of shattered glass near what looked like a phone case. Tyne also noted what he said looked like a burned portion of a phone in a bag of food found with Criner’s belongings. Tyne said they never recovered Weiser’s phone and the evidence gave him the impression that it was intentionally destroyed.

Aguirre showed the jury some of the evidence collected at the vacant building. This included the orange bandana, a pair of sandy boxers, a bright green t-shirt, a cell phone screen protector, a notebook, and a sweater.

Earlier, a witness said the sweater looked like one Weiser owned. Aguirre said they found a receipt in the pocket of the sweater with Haruka Weiser’s name on it.

Aguirre said she pulled burned pieces of what she believes are electronics from the fire pit. She also pulled burned pieces of graph paper, with handwriting, that she said were similar to the ones found in the notebook. She also showed a picture of another notebook that she pulled. This notebook shows Meechaiel Criner’s name written on the top, right-hand corner of the page.

Aguirre showed a picture of the inside-out neon shirt, zoomed in to view a piece of hair found on the exterior. Aguirre said she collected the piece of hair.

The red bicycle collected from the fire department was the final piece of evidence shown to the jury on Friday. The note saying it belonged to Meechaiel Criner was still attached. The handlebars were still wrapped in what looked like clear tape.

On April 5, Weiser's body was found in Waller Creek near the UT campus. Criner was arrested on April 8 -- just four days after firefighters found him in the vacant building.

If Criner is found guilty, he faces life in prison.

Reporter Molly Oak is giving live updates on the trial. Follow her on Twitter here.

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