Mother of slain University of Utah student wants charges filed against the person who loaned the killer a gun

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

The mother of a University of Utah student killed on campus last month wants charges filed against the person who gave her daughter’s killer — a convicted felon — the gun he used.

Jill McCluskey tweeted Tuesday, “The person who lent Lauren’s killer the gun needs to be prosecuted. It is a great responsibility to own a gun."

But prosecutors said Utah’s gun laws set a high bar — evidence would have to prove a gun owner intended to aid in the commission of crime by lending a firearm, or that the owner knew it was illegal for a specific borrower to possess a gun.

Lauren McCluskey, 21, was killed Oct. 22 by Melvin S. Rowland, a convicted sex offender she had briefly dated. Jill McCluskey has said her daughter ended the relationship after learning Rowland had lied about his age and criminal history. Lauren McCluskey, a senior track athlete from Pullman, Wash., had reported harassment to campus police multiple times before her death.

Jill McCluskey told The Salt Lake Tribune that she tweeted her message because she wanted to put pressure on prosecutors. Campus police chief Dale Brophy said at an Oct. 25 news conference that Rowland was given the gun he used by a friend who didn’t know Rowland was a felon.

Brophy also said it’s unlikely that the friend will face charges, although Salt Lake County prosecutors will ultimately make that decision. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said charges will depend on what evidence investigators find as to whether the friend knew Rowland was a felon or intended to help him commit a crime.

“Just because he didn’t know that this was going to happen, if you have a gun you shouldn’t lend it to someone,” Jill McCluskey said.

Rowland was found dead by suicide hours after Lauren McCluskey was killed. As a felon, he was prohibited from possessing a gun.

Brophy said Rowland told the friend he needed the gun because he was teaching a woman how to shoot. The friend called police after he heard news of McCluskey’s slaying and Rowland’s death, the chief said.

“[Rowland]'s very manipulative. He was very good at what he did. ... We don’t believe at this time that [the friend] had any knowledge that Rowland was a convicted sex offender and on parole, and a convicted felon," Brophy said.

Brophy said when the friend called he was “just as horrified" as everyone else.

Jill McCluskey said she hasn’t heard of any developments in a possible criminal case against Rowland’s friend. She said she doesn’t think anyone should loan out guns, and it shouldn’t matter if a gun owner was lied to when a request to borrow a gun was made.

But to convict someone who provides a gun to a restricted person under Utah law, prosecutors must prove that the gun owner knew that the recipient was restricted from having firearms, said attorney Brandon Poll, who heads the criminal division of the Davis County attorney’s office and often prosecutes weapons cases. In Utah, restrictions target felons, people who have been involuntarily committed to mental institutions, undocumented immigrants, former military personnel who were dishonorably discharged, and some others.

“It’s not a crime if I give somebody a gun and they happen to be a restricted person, but I don’t know it,” Poll said. “If you loan a gun to somebody and they end up using it in a crime and it wasn’t foreseeable, I couldn’t think of any crime that I could charge you with."

In Utah, if someone wants to loan, sell or give a gun away, Poll said, “technically you don’t even have to inquire” as to whether the recipient is restricted.

To be held criminally responsible for a homicide, there would have to be a proof the gun owner’s involvement was intentional, said Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings.

“If you’re going to prosecute them in some way for assisting the killer, you have to look at that statute — did they intentionally aid the person?” Rawlings said. “What was in this guy’s mind when he gave him the gun? What did he know? What did he understand about the use or the purpose why this person wanted the gun?”

Gill said he plans to reach out to investigators to learn whether they plan to submit evidence to screen for charges, but could not make any determination without knowing more about the gun owner’s state of mind when the gun was loaned out.

“That is so fact-specific,” Gill said. “The reason I’m being hesitant is that we haven’t looked at anything.”

Three law enforcement experts independent of the university are investigating campus police policies and how the department responded to Lauren McCluskey’s reports of harassment. The State Bureau of Investigation has named a team to examine the supervision of Rowland by the Utah Department of Corrections and the Board of Pardons and Parole.