‘I’m grateful I was able to get away’ — women who dated University of Utah student’s killer describe his manipulation

(Courtesy photo) Pictured is Melvin Rowland in a photo he shared with a woman he'd been on dates with.

He told them his name was Shawn, that he was 28 and had a degree in or was studying computer science.

He told Hannah Christensen that he had been living in Nepal the last three years. He told Vanessa Wilson that his family was from Cuba. Both were lies. And he never told either woman that he’d been to prison, his true age or that he’d been convicted of sex crimes.

When Christensen told him she did not want sex before marriage, he said he liked that stance because it meant she was all his. “He was really good at trying to say what he thought I wanted to hear,” she said, "but it never came off as genuine.”

Wilson added: “He was very persuasive.”

The man they knew as Shawn was Melvin Shawn Rowland. On Monday night, University of Utah police say, he shot and killed another woman he briefly dated, 21-year-old senior and track athlete Lauren McCluskey. He then fled campus and was later found dead inside a Salt Lake City church from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The university’s police chief has described how Rowland extorted and stalked McCluskey in the weeks and days before her death. She had broken up with him Oct. 9 after discovering he had lied to her about his name, age and criminal history, her family said. Police said she reported receiving disturbing messages on Oct. 12, 13 and 19; she sent $1,000 to an account after some messages contained threats to post compromising photos of her with Rowland.

Christensen and Wilson described in separate interviews their own experiences with his deceitful and possessive behavior — describing a similar pattern of harassment. Wilson dated him in July; Christensen had occasionally dated Rowland beginning in May. McCluskey had met him in early September, police said.

McCluskey’s death disproves the misconception that violence among dating partners is less severe than domestic violence within married households, said Jenn Oxborrow, executive director of the nonprofit Utah Domestic Violence Coalition.

“There’s this misconception that it can’t be that serious because their relationship isn’t that serious,” she said. “Dating violence situations can escalate to lethal violence very quickly, as soon as [an abuser] loses control. … It’s harder to control someone when you don’t live together, if you don’t have children together, and you don’t have the same bank accounts.”

The coalition urges dating partners to reach out if they are afraid, she said.

“What I hear from people all the time is that [the victims are] so ashamed, they’re so embarrassed, that they’re so humiliated,” Oxborrow said. “They were posting pictures, and telling their friends and their family that they met this person, they really liked this person, and that he turns out to be dangerous, abusive and controlling.”

‘The red flags really came out’

His lies began with his background. Rowland turned 37 in May of this year, had no bachelor’s degree and has been in and out of prison since he was first paroled in 2012, according to public records. He was convicted in 2004 of enticing a minor over the internet and attempted forcible sexual abuse; he later admitted he had raped the teen victim in the second case and two other women.

He didn’t describe any of that to Hannah Christensen when they met on the dating app Tinder in mid-May, about a month after his most recent release from prison. "Everything I found out about him and his real life has been this week,” she said.

Their first date was at a coffee shop. Christensen said Rowland arrived with no wallet. When she ordered an Italian soda, he asked her if she wanted to buy him something. She said no.

“I’ve dated guys who were moochers before,” Christensen said.

Christensen told Rowland about her no-sex policy over text shortly after their first meeting; she took his response as a sign of possessiveness.

Once, Christensen and Rowland saw each other at a local gym and scheduled a workout together. Rowland said he wanted to train Christensen. “At the time, it didn’t seem like that weird,” Christensen said. “Now, looking back everything just seems kind of creepy.”

In June, Christensen and a friend ran into him at Maxwell’s in downtown Salt Lake City, where he was working as a bouncer. “He was being really aggressive and said, ‘If anyone tries to dance with you, I’m going to beat them up,’” Christensen recalled.

When they next met, to walk through Memory Grove, “all the red flags really came out,” Christensen said.

The timeline of the biography Rowland told no longer added up, Christensen said. When she pointed out the inconsistencies, he would claim he didn’t say those things or say he forgot he told her some earlier detail. She later texted him to try to break things off, saying she said needed some space.

“That’s when he got really controlling,” Christensen said.

Rowland wrote her back, saying she needed to tell him where she was at all times. She replied that he wasn’t her boyfriend. She tried to deescalate the conversation, repeating that she needed space, she said.

Christensen saw Rowland again in late August when she happened to go to Gracie’s, another bar where he was working. She didn’t hear from him again until Sunday — the day before he killed McCluskey. He messaged her over another dating app saying he got a new phone and wanted her number so he could text her. Christensen didn’t reply.

After news of the slaying broke, Christensen recognized a mug shot of Rowland. “My heart just dropped,” she said. She also knew McCluskey; she had some classes with her in previous semesters at the U., where they were both senior communication majors, she said.

Christensen said she was previously in an abusive relationship. And she thinks that experience helped protect her from Rowland.

“Lauren did everything right and the system failed her,” Christensen said. “I’m grateful I was able to get away from him and hope my story can help other women to get out of toxic relationships.”

‘Very articulate and very persistent’

Vanessa Wilson was pushing a grocery cart through the aisles of the Salt Lake City Smith’s store near 900 East and 900 South in early July when she met Rowland.

She looked down at her list of things to buy. And when she looked up again Rowland was walking toward her. He looked confident and a bit aggressive, she said, and she gave him her number.

He told her that he was 28, which she distinctly remembered because she’s also 28. But the second time they talked, he told her he was 26. When she pointed it out, Wilson recalled, Rowland doubled down: “No, no, you’re wrong. I would never tell you that,” she recalled him saying.

“He convinced me that he didn’t lie about his age,” Wilson said. “He was very intelligent and very articulate and very persistent.”

The two texted often and went on a few dates, mostly to a coffee shop Rowland liked in downtown Salt Lake City. Every time, he tried to hold Wilson’s hand or touch her, and she told him that they needed to get to know each other more first.

Later in July, after the two had gone to a gym together, Wilson said Rowland asked if he could hug her. She said yes.

“But instead of hugging me, he grabbed me and forcibly kissed me,” she recounted. He lifted her off the ground, and she couldn’t get out of his tight grip until he set her back down.

At that point, Wilson said she got in her car and left. But he continued to text her. By the end of the month, she stopped responding. In August, she received a group message from several unknown numbers saying Rowland was dead and that he had left a letter for her.

It read: “I’m sorry to inform you but Shawn didn’t make it. He was rushed to the hospital. He died.”

“It tried to pull me into this situation where I was convinced this man had died and somehow involved me,” Wilson said. She thought it was suspicious and didn’t respond. She had tried to find him on social media to see if he was still alive, but she didn’t see any of his accounts.

He texted her four days later saying he miraculously survived and wanted to meet up. She ignored him. He continued texting her for weeks.

Police have said Rowland unsuccessfully used a similar spoof on McCluskey days before he killed her. She also reported receiving texts saying he had died. Campus police said this week they believe it was a ploy to manipulate and harass her.

Wilson said she was walking past a bar on Sept. 9 and saw a woman pull up in a car to get Rowland. After seeing McCluskey’s picture in the news this week, Wilson said she believes the driver was her.

“I felt immediately bad for not having said anything to her,” she said Friday.

She called police Thursday to tell them about her experiences with Rowland. Reflecting on it all now, Wilson said she wishes there were a network or website where women could post their experiences with bad dates to warn each other.

“I didn’t think to look him up on the sex offender registry,” she said. “Now I think I will in the future” with other men.

‘The true tragedy’

Domestic violence can affect anyone, even someone as smart, confident and personable as McCluskey, five of her friends reflected at a vigil Friday night.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A woman who identified herself as Lauren McCluskey's freshman "roomie" speaks at a celebration of McCluskey's life at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Friday, Oct. 26, 2018.

They affectionately described her as loving Jesus, Kanye West, merlot, long talks in her car and karaoke. One woman said she and others asked McCluskey in the days before her death if she felt safe.

McCluskey’s answer, the friend said, was always yes.

“For me, that’s the true tragedy of all this. That she felt so strong and so brave and nothing would happen. It’s times like these that as a community — even among friends and family — we need to understand that this can happen to anyone,” she said.

McCluskey thought the warning signs coming from Rowland were just a phase, another friend said. The women didn’t introduce themselves as they spoke at the vigil, previously planned by the prevention group It’s On Us to honor those who’ve been through domestic or dating violence, and declined to provide their names later, saying they were grieving.

Yet McCluskey wasn’t completely at ease. She did go to police for help. And another friend, who said she was McCluskey’s freshman-year roommate, that’s where all of this could have ended.

“I wish when we went together to campus police,” she said, “they would have believed us.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Photos of Lauren McCluskey were on display as the prevention group It's On Us Utah held a celebration of McCluskey's life at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Friday Oct. 26, 2018.

Reporter Paighten Harkins contributed to this report.