University of Utah student was being extorted before her shooting death, police say

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

Four days after she broke up with Melvin Rowland, Lauren McCluskey was getting texts and emails demanding $1,000 in exchange for keeping “compromising pictures” of them private.

She sent the money and called University of Utah police. But detectives did not open a formal investigation until Oct. 19, six days later. They did not call Rowland’s parole officer, who might have removed him from the streets. In fact, they never figured out Rowland was on parole.

Rowland shot and killed McCluskey on campus Monday night, police say, and officers found him dead hours later inside a Salt Lake City church from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. McCluskey was a 21-year-old senior and track athlete from Pullman, Wash.

University President Ruth Watkins said at a news conference Thursday that she will ask an outside investigator to review the police department’s protocols. It will be one of multiple inquiries into whether Utah law enforcement made mistakes in supervising Rowland and handling McCluskey’s complaints against him.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert had earlier Thursday called for an investigation into the Utah Department of Corrections and the Board of Pardons and Parole.

“We will make sure that we get answers to the questions we have and take whatever necessary corrective actions are required,” he said during his monthly news conference.

McCluskey’s parents have said Rowland lied to their daughter about his name, age and criminal history. She ended their relationship on Oct. 9, after dating him for a month.

At the university news conference, campus police Chief Dale Brophy described how police say Rowland met, dated, extorted, stalked and then killed McCluskey, while duping others into helping him get a gun and escape.

“If his lips were moving, he was lying,” Brophy said.

On Oct. 12, McCluskey reported to campus police that she was receiving suspicious texts and emails from people she thought were Rowland’s friends. One message said Rowland was dead and blamed her, though McCluskey was quickly able to tell from Rowland’s recent posts on social media that wasn’t true, Brophy said.

Such posts were a violation of Rowland’s parole terms, which prohibited him from using social media. His parole had been revoked previously in part for using online accounts to meet women.

McCluskey called police again the next day to say Rowland or his friends had extorted her with a threat to post the personal photos. Involvement in a new crime would have been another violation of Rowland’s parole.

Three days later, on Oct. 16, a parole officer spoke with Rowland. Parole agents could have searched his phone and computer without needing a warrant.

But university police had not contacted parole officials.

“If the parole agent has enough information to establish probable cause that the person violated parole, then the agent can request a warrant from the Board [of Pardons and Parole,]” added its administrative coordinator, Greg Johnson.

“The person would be returned to prison and the Board may revoke parole,” Johnson said in an email.

Brophy said Thursday that his officers did not believe they had “enough evidence at that time to share with other law enforcement officers.” Brophy had said Tuesday that officers had been looking for Rowland and were unable to find him.

The independent investigation, he said, will not focus on individual officers’ decisions, but on the department’s policies. “Their actions aren’t in question but the protocols,” Brophy said.

Watkins said: “Let me be clear: I have great faith that our university police department worked diligently on this incident.”

The outside investigator has not yet been selected.

“If there’s any opportunity for us to improve and make this campus safer, then I welcome it," Brophy said.

The day of the shooting

From Oct. 19 to Oct. 22, the day of McCluskey’s death, Rowland was spending time at various spots on campus, according to surveillance video that has since been reviewed.

“It appears he was looking for Lauren without her knowledge,” Brophy said.

The chief believes Rowland unsuccessfully tried to lure McCluskey out of her dorm on the morning of Oct. 22 using cellphone spoofing. At 10:39 a.m., she received a text from a person claiming to be the university’s assistant police chief; it said she needed to go to the police station.

From 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., Rowland waited for McCluskey with some of her friends in her residence hall.

At 8:20 p.m., Rowland confronted McCluskey in a parking lot as she was returning from a night class and talking on her phone with her mother, Jill McCluskey.

Brophy choked up as he described how Rowland dragged McCluskey to the car he had driven to campus, forced her into the back seat and shot her multiple times. When McCluskey’s father, Matt, called campus police to report that his daughter’s call with her mother had been interrupted, there was an officer in the dispatch center who had responded to the earlier extortion report. He knew where McCluskey lived and a search began there.

A police officer found her body in the car at 9:55 p.m. As a felon, Rowland was prohibited from having a gun. Brophy said Rowland had borrowed one from a friend, telling that person he had a girlfriend who wanted to learn to shoot. That person called police after the shooting, is cooperating and is unlikely to face charges, the chief said.

Rowland left campus 18 minutes after first approaching McCluskey, Brophy said, citing surveillance video. Rowland had called a woman he met on a dating site to ask for a ride. She didn’t know what had happened minutes earlier, Brophy said.

That woman took Rowland to dinner, then to the state Capitol and then to her home. Rowland took a shower there and the woman later dropped him off at a coffee shop. When the woman saw news alerts that police were seeking Rowland, she called police. Brophy said there will likely be no charges against the woman.

Salt Lake City police officers later spotted Rowland and were chasing him on foot when he ran inside the church and shot himself, Brophy said.

It now appears Rowland was cyberstalking and extorting McCluskey alone, Brophy said, without help from any friends.

Rowland had an extensive criminal history, moving in and out of prison after a handful of parole violations and was most recently released in April. He was convicted of attempted forcible sex abuse and enticing a minor over the internet in 2004, putting him on the sex offender registry.

Investigations underway

The Board of Pardons and Parole welcomes the investigation Herbert announced Thursday to “make sure the best possible decisions are being made,” administrative coordinator Johnson said.

Kaitlin Felsted, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, also said it’s important to review the process. The Department of Public Safety, she added, will conduct the state investigations with an emphasis on Rowland’s supervision history.

“We all see it as a chance to understand if there are any gaps,” Felsted said.

In another investigation, the Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing confirmed Thursday that it is also looking into “unlicensed activity” by Black Diamond Security Group, a company that had hired Rowland.

FOX13 reported this week that Rowland had worked as a bouncer at Maxwell’s East Coast Eatery in downtown Salt Lake City. Black Diamond, based in Magna, reportedly handled security for Maxwell’s.

The licensing division said Black Diamond is not licensed as a security company in Utah. The business faces a $1,000 fine and has been asked to cease and desist.

Black Diamond posted a statement on its website — after wiping all other information from the page — saying that when it hired Rowland he was using a fake name: Shawn Fields. It does not say if he provided documentation or if the company did a background check on that identity. In Utah, security guards cannot be licensed if they’ve been convicted of a felony.

Black Diamond said its “brief relationship” with Rowland ended a month ago. It noted that none of its employees are permitted to carry a weapon and maintained that it is “registered as an unarmed security company.”

Calls to both Black Diamond and Maxwell’s seeking comment were not returned.

‘Lauren’s legacy’

Watkins said Thursday she met with McCluskey’s parents and presented them with their daughter’s bachelor’s degree in communication.

“In my conversation with the McCluskey family,” Watkins said, “I made it very clear that Lauren’s legacy will never be forgotten and, more important, that we as a university intend to learn from this tragedy.”

Ute Athletic Director Mark Harlan on Thursday said the McCluskey family also will receive the heptathlete’s framed jersey, given to graduating athletes who compete throughout their years at the school.