Scott D. Pierce: New documentary about Lauren McCluskey’s murder reflects badly on the U.

ESPN+/Hulu/ABC doc recounts the multiple mistakes that led to the killing.

The 2018 murder of Lauren McCluskey takes center stage on ESPN+, Hulu and ABC this week, and the University of Utah comes off looking bad. Again.

The U. has plenty of company, including the Utah Parole Board and several individuals whose behavior is nothing short of appalling.

The 90-minute documentary “LISTEN” both recaps and adds previously unknown details about how McCluskey, a student and athlete at the U., feared for her safety after she briefly dated Melvin Rowland. How she repeatedly sought help from both campus police and housing officials and was repeatedly ignored or rebuffed. How Rowland shot and killed her and later took his own life.

We learn how McCluskey met Rowland, and how their relationship quickly flew off the rails — he was controlling and scary, he lied to her about his name and age, and it turned out that he was a convicted sex offender.

The documentary outlines how the U.’s housing staff and police department failed. And it ends with a note about how the U.’s reforms failed.

In addition to interviews with Lauren’s parents and friends, “LISTEN” reporters/producers Nicole Noren and T.J. Quinn spoke with Rowland’s parole officer, a woman who dated him, and a former assistant Utah attorney general who prosecuted him for earlier sex crimes. (That former assistant A.G., Paul Amann, describes Rowland as “a one-man sex crime wave.”) Salt Lake Tribune reporter Courtney Tanner — who led the way on the investigation into what the U. did and didn’t do — appears several times to provide context.

The doc includes an interview with Miguel Deras, the former campus police officer, who hasn’t spoken publicly about this before. You can almost feel sorry for him as he says he wasn’t trained to deal with this sort of situation. Deras says no one from the department sought out Rowland for questioning “because we were not sure if it was him” who was sextorting McCluskey. Quinn inquires, “But why not ask him?” and there’s a 30-second pause — which seems like an eternity — before Deras answers. It’s brilliant of Quinn to wait, and brilliant to edit that pause into the program.

(Deras, by the way, shared nude photos of McCluskey with other U. officers. Several officers told investigators he also made “unprofessional comments.” Deras flat-out denies it in “LISTEN.”)

I’m not going to pre-empt Noren and Quinn’s reporting, but they also obtained chilling security camera footage of Rowland going in and out of McCluskey’s dorm the day he killed her, and footage of several interviews police conducted with witnesses. It’s one thing to see students open a locked door to let Rowland into the dorm — including one who fist-bumped him — but there’s an interview with another student who tells a story that will leave viewers gasping at his lack of action. (The students’ faces are blurred.)

What two of Rowland’s co-workers told investigators they knew days before the murder, and what they didn’t do with that knowledge, is beyond distressing. Rowland’s parole officer, Megan Thomson, says that, had she known what they knew, Rowland “would’ve gone back to prison” days before he killed McCluskey.

And recordings of Rowland’s parole hearings are similarly damning.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah President Ruth Watkins, right, and Police Chief Dale Brophy at a press conference regarding the killing of University of Utah student athlete Lauren McCluskey, in Salt Lake City, Thursday Oct. 25, 2018.

Deras shows considerably more courage than former U. president Ruth Watkins and, apparently, every other current and former U. official, who all refused to be interviewed for the documentary. That includes then-U. police chief Dale Brophy and Kayla Dallof, the then-campus police detective who went on vacation without helping McCluskey or alerting anyone else about her fears.

“LISTEN” does, however, recount the former university president’s moment of infamy. It’s still jaw-dropping to hear Watkins respond to a report that outlined myriad ways the university’s police and housing staff mishandled the case by saying, “This report does not offer us a reason to believe that this tragedy could have been prevented.”

Jill McCluskey says Watkins’ words made her “sick to my stomach.” Matt McCluskey says, “I think the statement defies logic. It defies facts. It was written by a lawyer.” Only when the case was settled in 2020 for $13.5 million did Watkins and the U. acknowledge and express “regrets that it did not handle Lauren’s case as it should have.”

FILE - In this June 27, 2019, file photo, Matthew and Jill McCluskey, parents of Lauren McCluskey, hug after speaking during a news conference in Salt Lake City. The parents of Lauren, a University of Utah student and track athlete who was fatally shot on campus, are fighting a claim by the college that their lawsuit should be dismissed because their daughter's killer wasn't a student. Campus police could have contacted the killer's parole officer or kept him off campus after Lauren and her friends reported his harassment and an extortion attempt, lawyers for Jill and Matthew McCluskey argued in a court filing Monday, Nov. 25. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

It’s both fascinating and distressing to learn that the U. was uncooperative with the filmmakers, fighting against releasing information and footage. And McCluskey’s parents say they were forced to sue. Jill McCluskey says that “by trying so hard to avoid a lawsuit, [the U.] actually caused a lawsuit.” Matt McCluskey adds, “It’s not a good strategy to try to keep secrets. It’s not the right thing to do. And it’s not very smart either.”

Be prepared — it’s hard to watch Jill and Matt McCluskey talk about when they learned their daughter had been killed. “I didn’t cry. I was totally shocked,” Matt McCluskey said. “It was like trauma. Like getting hit by a baseball bat.” It’s harder still when, later in the documentary, Matt starts to answer a question and can’t continue because he’s crying.

Blame is assigned to Utah’s justice system and, specifically, the Utah Board of Pardons. “LISTEN” is very bad for the University of Utah, but the blame for that falls entirely on past and present people and policies there.

“That’s where I went to school. I love the University of Utah,” Amann said. “But it failed Lauren McCluskey. I respect the McCluskeys and the hard work that they’re doing, to try to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again. They sent their daughter to where they thought she would have an ideal education, and she’s gone.”

Keep watching through the credits. There’s a postscript with a statement from the U. that “Lauren’s death forced the university to reckon with its dysfunctional police department, siloed campus operations and incomplete employee training and communication.”

(Courtesy images) Lauren McCluskey, left, and Zhifan Dong.

That’s immediately followed by this: “Three years after Lauren McCluskey’s death, University of Utah student Zhifan Dong was murdered … less than a month after she notified school housing officials that her ex-boyfriend — a fellow student — had assaulted her. He was charged with her murder.” The U. settled with Dong’s parents for $5 million.

“LISTEN” starts streaming Tuesday at 5 p.m. MDT on ESPN+ and Hulu. It will air Friday at 8 p.m. on “20/20″ on ABC/Channel 4.

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