The parents of University of Utah student athlete Lauren McCluskey, who was fatally shot on campus by a man she briefly dated, disputed the school’s Wednesday assertion that an investigation showed there’s no “reason to believe” the slaying could have been prevented — and they want individuals disciplined for failing to act.
In a critical letter released Thursday, Jill and Matthew McCluskey of Pullman, Wash., say the probability of their daughter’s death “would have been lessened” had the university taken her reports more seriously.
“There were numerous opportunities to protect her during the almost two weeks between the time when our daughter began expressing repeated, elevating, and persistent concerns about her situation and the time of her murder,” they wrote.
The university has said that no one will face discipline, which the McCluskeys challenged.
“This situation cries out for accountability beyond updating policies and training and addressing [campus police department] understaffing by hiring five new department personnel,” they wrote.
Lauren McCluskey, a 21-year-old track athlete, was killed Oct. 22 outside her campus dorm by Melvin S. Rowland, a registered sex offender on parole, who later died by suicide. She had called the campus police department several times starting on Oct. 12 to report concerns about Rowland after she broke up with him.
University police did not open a formal investigation until seven days later. And officers never checked on Rowland’s parole status, though some of McCluskey’s allegations — as well as a report to housing staff that he might have a gun — could have led to his arrest for violations of the terms of his release.
Jill and Matthew McCluskey wrote that each time their daughter tried calling campus police “it was like the first time,” writing, "Lauren was asked to frame her concerns anew, repeatedly respond to the same list of questions, and fill out the same forms.”
And in the weeklong gap between when she first called the department and a case was opened, McCluskey twice reached out to Salt Lake City police’s dispatch line looking for more help.
At a Wednesday news conference, though, U. President Ruth Watkins maintained that the report from an independent review “does not offer any reason to believe” that anything the university could have done would have prevented McCluskey’s murder. “Instead, the report offers weaknesses, identifies issues and provides us with a road map for strengthening security on our campus,” she said.
Watkins and Dean of Students Lori McDonald received a copy of the McCluskeys’ letter Thursday afternoon, said U. spokesman Chris Nelson, and shared it with the team that Watkins tasked with examining the university’s handling of the case. Nelson added: “The university is committed to implementing the recommendations made in the report,” which was released Wednesday.
Former Utah Department of Public Safety Commissioner John T. Nielsen, who led the investigation, said his team found several missed opportunities where university staff should have recognized that McCluskey’s case raised issues of interpersonal violence and responded differently, including an early attempt to intervene that was stalled by campus housing officials.
The report said the campus police force was not trained to recognize or respond to possible interpersonal violence; didn’t know how and wasn’t expected to check on a suspect’s parole status; leaned toward communicating with victims by email, phone or text rather than in person; and didn’t ensure important information was followed up on when assigned officers were off duty.
Additionally, it criticized the department for taking no action in McCluskey’s case in the days before she died because the assigned detective was not working or had other duties.
The McCluskeys’ response walks through several of those missteps and says the university won’t be serious in implementing the necessary fixes unless “the individuals who failed our daughter be held accountable for neglecting her numerous, persistent attempts to seek help, and be disciplined appropriately.”
Writing the letter, they said, was difficult for them; their daughter loved the University of Utah, but they believe that staff — through “systematic and individual failings” — failed to provide her with support or protection with “fatal consequences.”
Lauren McCluskey had dated Rowland, 37, for about a month and ended their relationship on Oct. 9 after she found out that he had lied to her about his age, name and criminal history.
Before that, on Sept. 30, two of McCluskey’s friends told staff at the school’s dorms that they were scared by Rowland’s control over her, how he talked about bringing guns to campus and often stayed in her room. The responding officials focused on whether housing rules were being broken rather than assessing her safety. And housing staff considered but did not file a report with a campus system designed to track and respond to such situations, did not bring in a victim advocate, and did not pass the information to university police.
The McCluskeys say that initial lack of communication was “a glaring problem” and a precursor to how Lauren was treated by the university’s police force.
She contacted campus dispatch for the first time on Oct. 12. She said she had been getting harassing messages from Rowland, or possibly his friends, including one that told her to kill herself and another that said Rowland was dead. Campus police said there wasn’t much they could do.
“The staff member taking the phone call sounded abrupt and not sympathetic,” the McCluskeys wrote. And the individual didn’t connect the call to one that Jill McCluskey had made a few days earlier “very upset and worried” that Rowland was going to hurt her daughter.
On Oct. 10, Jill McCluskey had wanted to request a campus security escort to help Lauren retrieve her vehicle from Rowland, who had borrowed it the day their relationship ended. The mother feared he was dangerous. The review team noted that university police did not learn until after McCluskey’s death that her mother had felt that Lauren was at risk because the security escort was not entered into the record management system.
“If the information had been linked, it is reasonable to assume that her case would have been given a higher priority and her murder might have been prevented,” the McCluskeys wrote.
On Oct. 13, Lauren called campus police again to say that she received emails and texts threatening to release “compromising pictures” of her if she didn’t send $1,000; she said she had sent the money. She contacted officers several times that day, sharing copies of messages.
An officer ran a criminal history check on Rowland and found that he was convicted of forcible sex abuse. “This should have raised concerns for Lauren’s safety,” the McCluskeys wrote.
The independent review also criticized the department for not recognizing that McCluskey was at risk based on the messages, which should have been viewed as “evidence of possible dangers” of domestic violence, not just extortion. “There were several indications that Lauren McCluskey was in trouble,” the report said.
But because of a “general lack of knowledge in the area of relationship violence,” the McCluskeys said, campus police saw the situation as a “low priority.”
A detective was assigned to the case, which was formally opened on Oct. 19, six days later and after Lauren had twice called Salt Lake City police “out of desperation,” the parents’ letter said; both times she was redirected to the “nonresponsive” campus police.
That detective was “placed in a position for which she lacked the expertise to recognize subtle indicators of domestic violence cases,” the report said, and she never connected McCluskey to the university’s two victim advocates in its wellness center. She was also scheduled for three days off after the case formally opened and didn’t talk to another detective about covering the case in her absence. And she never talked to McCluskey in person.
The McCluskeys said their daughter attempted to contact the detective on the day she died but didn’t hear back. She was able to get in touch with another officer in the department about an attempt by Rowland to lure her out of her dorm. That officer didn’t report the information to others on the force.
“This information was a major red flag, and this final inaction by the UUPD was fatal,” the McCluskeys wrote, suggesting the officers’ action were “inexplicable and indefensible.”
“Lauren’s reporting went nowhere. This is an unforgivable lapse of judgment and professional competency," they wrote.
The university and its police department, they said, had several opportunities to protect their daughter but failed to provide safety. They “exhibited scant follow-through and no urgency regarding information provided to them.” They minimized McCluskey’s concerns; they never checked Rowland’s parole history; in fact, none of the officers on the force knew how, the parents wrote. And all of the “responsibility for assessing Lauren’s level of personal danger was entirely placed on Lauren.”
The independent review recommended that the U.’s police department hire more officers and a victim advocate; develop a working relationship with existing victim advocates elsewhere on campus; train all police staff about interpersonal violence issues and adopt a lethality assessment already used by many other Utah law enforcement agencies in such cases. It also said all officers should be trained to check parole status.
Watkins pledged to put the recommendations in place, including asking the Utah Legislature for funding for five new police staff.
The McCluskeys said that’s not enough.
“The University of Utah must substantially improve its responsiveness to women who are in danger of relationship violence so that future tragedies will be prevented.”
— Tribune reporter Scott D. Pierce contributed to this article
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