‘Our teammate and our sister’: School community, athletes come together to remember slain University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Members of the University of Utah track team gather during a vigil for teammate Lauren McCluskey on Wed. Oct 24, 2018. McCluskey was killed on campus on Monday.

Three track-and-field teammates stepped up to the podium together to share their memories of Lauren McCluskey as the sun set in front of them and hundreds of people gathered below them. Each had more tears than words.

When Eliza Hansen tried to talk about how McCluskey was a driven athlete, she choked up and went quiet. When Mesa Weidle mentioned how she was an “amazing, genuine and caring person,” she stopped and buried her face behind a bouquet of red chrysanthemums. When Raynee Helm-Wheelock attempted to finish Weidle’s thought about “our teammate and our sister,” she was able to complete just one sentence.

“We will always miss her, and we will always, always love her.”

The University of Utah held a vigil Wednesday night to memorialize McCluskey, a student and track athlete who was killed on campus this week. The crowd of students and faculty stood at the top of Presidents Circle, clinging to carnations and to each other.

All of the school’s athletic teams walked to the event together with the track members leading the way. They had packs of tissues tucked into the waistbands of their sweatpants. They carried candles that slowly shortened during the program, dripping white wax on their Nikes and the cement. They wore matching red shirts from the sports program’s opening weekend this year that said, “Leave your legacy.”

And they cried because now that message has come to mean something totally different.

“It is an immense and deep pain,” said Utah’s track-and-field coach Kyle Kepler.

McCluskey was genuine and sweet, Kepler said, outstanding and smart. She had a “relentless determination,” exceeded all of his expectations for a recruit and bested her own personal records every year as a jumper.

Every semester, too, he’d hang up a list in his office of the top 10 GPAs for his team. Every time, he said, her name remained up there.

“I didn’t have to replace it,” Kepler said with a smile and a nod toward McCluskey’s parents, Jill and Matt, who stood at the front of the vigil with the track team. They wiped away tears and hugged members of the team.

McCluskey, 21, was shot to death Monday evening outside the dorms on campus by a man her family said she had dated for a month. Police later found Melvin Rowland, 37, dead inside a Salt Lake City church from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

McCluskey’s parents said Rowland lied to their daughter about his name, age and criminal history. She ended their relationship on Oct. 9 and reported to university police that he began harassing her days later.

The U.’s police chief said his officers couldn’t find Rowland, a felon who was on parole, though the Department of Corrections has said officials knew where he was living. Parole officials have also said that university police did not tell them that McCluskey alleged Rowland was harassing her — a violation that could have potentially led to his arrest days before the shooting.

Many of those at the memorial Wednesday have struggled to come to terms with the violence that took place on campus and questioned whether they can be safe here.

“She did everything she could’ve,” said student Alice Neidiffer, 19.

The attack also came less than a year after another deadly shooting at the school. On Oct. 30, 2017, Austin Boutain fired five shots into a car killing 23-year-old ChenWei Guo, a computer science major from China. Boutain pleaded guilty in September.

Police found McCluskey’s body in the backseat of a car less than a mile from where that happened.

She had left a night class and was on her way home to her apartment on campus Monday night while talking to her mom on the phone when she was approached by Rowland. Jill McCluskey said in a statement Tuesday that she heard her daughter yell, “No, no, no!” A few minutes later, another woman picked up the phone and said Lauren McCluskey’s belongings were scattered on the ground.

McCluskey’s parents called police, and Rowland fled from the scene. He had an extensive criminal history, moving in and out of prison after a handful of parole violations. He was convicted of attempted forcible sex abuse and enticing a minor over the internet in 2004, putting him on the sex offender registry.

U. President Ruth Watkins called the attack on McCluskey "a senseless act” that defies understanding. She said McCluskey was looking forward to graduating in the spring and had spent her last summer interning at a retirement community.

“Lauren has really been the model for what a student athlete should be,” she said.

McCluskey, from Pullman, Wash., was a star athlete on the track team. In 2017, she was named to the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation’s all-academic team. She ranked tenth all-time at Utah in the pentathlon.

Shannon McNatt, a member of the gymnastics team, urged those in attendance to remember McCluskey by committing to do one positive thing in her name. Athletic Director Mark Harlan encouraged the school’s athletes to stick together and support each other as they mourn. Kepler offered his team motto as advice on how to move forward: “Step by step, one foot in front of the other.”

“We should not let Lauren’s death define her life. She was so much more than that,” McNatt said. “We celebrate together. We grieve together.”

Standing in the crowd were alumni of the U.’s track and cross country teams, members of Westminster’s track program and members of the UCLA women’s soccer team, who arrived in town in advance of Thursday night’s game vs. Utah. There were basketball players and the school’s volleyball coach and a member of the swim team, who held a candle in one hand and had her other arm wrapped up in ice.

Students at colleges across the state, too, wore red as a tribute to McCluskey. Some had her initials on wristbands and stickers.

Nick Ford, on the Ute football team’s offensive line, said the school’s athletes are close. They eat dinner together each night and talk about their sports. McCluskey’s death, he noted, has shaken them all. “No one expected it.”

He said he sat with McCluskey at the athletic mess hall a few times and they talked about their hometowns. He would tell McCluskey what he missed about Los Angeles and she would tell him about Pullman.

Carleigh Packard, a student-athlete trainer for the track team, worked with McCluskey and laughed when she reminisced about her showing up for practice every day at exactly 1:15 p.m., never once coming late.

“Every time I saw her, she was just so driven,” Packard said. “She did whatever it took.”

The vigil ended with comments from several church leaders, one asked the crowd to repeat, “Lauren, we will keep your legacy alive.” Another urged attendees to “not let this tragic event extinguish the light of Lauren.” McCluskey’s pastor, Troy Champ, who leads the Capital Church, said the university has been left reeling with questions and fears. But though this is “a dark valley,” he suggested, there will be good moments in remembering McCluskey, her smile and her passion and her zeal for life.

Hannah Vasquez, who attended the same church as McCluskey, said the two met two weeks ago. McCluskey, she said, was outgoing, walked right up to her in the sparsely-filled building and deadpanned: “Is this seat taken?” The two then laughed and talked about track and school and studying communication.

“It was a brief encounter, but I remember leaving church feeling so happy," Vasquez said.

Shortly after the memorial, the Ute women's volleyball team took the court at the Huntsman Center in the school's first athletic contest since McCluskey's death. Before the match between Utah and Washington State, players from both teams stood together in a long line in front of their benches, linking arms during a moment of silence. McCluskey's parents are WSU professors.

They left the vigil Wednesday night, walking past a shrine to their daughter that was beginning to form on the steps of the Park Building. An hour later, it was a heaping pile of handwritten notes and pictures and candles with the flames still burning bright. Each of the three track-and-field teammates that tried to talk about McCluskey but couldn’t get out the words dropped a flower on top.

-Tribune reporter Kurt Kragthorpe contributed to this story.

The U.’s victim-survivor advocates can be reached at 801-581-7776.