The parents of Lauren McCluskey say University of Utah administrators have never apologized for campus missteps that they believe contributed to their daughter’s murder — and since December, top officials there have stopped talking to them altogether.
Jill and Matt McCluskey still believe individuals need to be held accountable and disciplined, and they’re considering a lawsuit.
“The most egregious is a police officer who repeatedly failed to report or document the elevating details of Lauren’s case,” Jill McCluskey wrote in an email to The Salt Lake Tribune. She also pointed to “overarching issues” with leaders of the police department and the university.
The McCluskeys answered questions in writing from The Tribune on Friday, the same day a prerecorded interview with them aired on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Their daughter, Lauren McCluskey, a student-athlete, was fatally shot on campus Oct. 22 by a man she briefly dated.
The McCluskeys blame the University of Utah for failing to protect her; they blame the school’s police officers for not taking seriously her repeated reports of harassment and extortion. An independent review found that housing officials and campus police made mistakes in handling reports about and from McCluskey.
“One thing that she did tell me is that, she said, ‘It feels like I’m bothering them.’ She was calling so much," Jill McCluskey said on national television, referring to her daughter’s calls to campus police, which began Oct. 12. "And then I remember telling her, 'It’s their job to listen to you. You know, if you’re complaining.”
In her email to The Tribune, she added: “No one in the upper administration of the university has accepted responsibility for any mistakes or wrongdoings of any kind.” Only the athletics department, she said, has been “steadfast in their support of us.”
One frustration for the McCluskeys is that as the independent review was released — pointing out many shortcomings — U. President Ruth Watkins said at a news conference that there was no “reason to believe” the slaying wouldn’t have happened with more intervention from police. She also said no officers would be disciplined.
After that, officials at the school stopped communicating with the family, Jill McCluskey said in the email.
Chris Nelson, a spokesman for the university, said the school’s dean of students and deputy police chief called the McCluskeys last week before the school released audio recordings of Lauren and Jill McCluskey’s calls with campus dispatchers. “Nothing goes public that they’re not aware about,” Nelson said.
The McCluskeys said in the email that they don’t understand how investigators could report so many “missed opportunities” and the school could still say nothing would have changed the outcome.
The parents say the officer who Lauren McCluskey repeatedly called in the hours before her death — and who called her back and spoke to her that morning — committed “the most damaging and ultimately fatal” mistake of those made by the school and its police department. McCluskey told that officer that she believed Rowland was trying to lure her out of her dorm, but he never relayed her concerns to anyone else in the department.
They also point to the detective assigned to investigate, who didn’t open a formal case until Oct. 19 and then did not return to work until after McCluskey had been killed. The detective was “inexperienced and failed Lauren in how she allocated her time,” the parents said.
Those officers need to be held responsible, they said, also pointing to the leadership of the university and the police department. The review noted that the police department had not ensured its officers were trained in several areas, including how to recognize signs of potential escalating relationship violence.
“We are considering all options available to us at this time, and a lawsuit is one of those options,” Jill McCluskey said in the email.
Nelson said the school “does not comment on or publicize employee discipline,” and declined to comment on the other issues the McCluskeys detailed. Despite Watkins' comment in December that no officers will be disciplined, Nelson said it is possible that employees may be required to undergo training or may receive a corrective letter in their file as the university continues to investigate.
The University of Utah released a four-page response to the national interview, saying the McCluskeys “raised important questions and understandable concerns about campus safety” and that it is working to implement recommendations made in the review.
McCluskey, a 21-year-old track star, was killed outside her dorm by Melvin S. Rowland, a 37-year-old registered sex offender on parole, who died by suicide hours later.
She had first contacted the campus police department on Oct. 12 to report concerns about Rowland after she ended their relationship; she called again the next day to report she was getting messages threatening to distribute compromising photos of her with him.
She continued to contact campus officer and, worried they weren’t moving quickly enough, she twice reached out to Salt Lake City police, as well. But she was redirected to the U.’s department each time.
The independent review said, among other missteps, campus officers should have determined whether Rowland was on parole, which could have led to his arrest for violations of his terms of release before he fatally shot McCluskey.
“They should have investigated," Matt McCluskey told ABC reporter Amy Robach in the family’s first media interview since Lauren’s murder. “They would have very quickly found his parole status. And one call, and we wouldn’t be sitting here today.”
A separate review by state investigators found, because of variables such as the discretion of parole agents, that it’s “not possible to determine the outcome had [a parole agent] been contacted by the university police.” However, some of the information McCluskey and her friends told housing officials and officers about Rowland — his possession of a gun, his use of social media — were violations of his parole terms, as were her allegations of new crimes.
Asked if their daughter’s death was preventable, Jill McCluskey answered, without hesitation, “Yes.” And Matt McCluskey quickly added, “Absolutely.”
The school commissioned the independent review, completed in December, to look into shortcomings by police and other campus officials in the case.
Among the 30 report recommendations completed or in progress: the U.'s police department is working to hire more officers and a victim advocate; it is developing a working relationship with existing victim advocates elsewhere on campus; and it has begun training all police staff about interpersonal violence issues. It also has taught all of its officers how to check parole status.
“The university acknowledges serious mistakes and weaknesses were found and officials from across campus are working every day to correct those mistakes and to provide a safe environment for students, faculty, staff and visitors,” its response states.
In a longer version of the interview — scheduled to air on “Nightline” at 10:35 p.m. Friday on KTVX-Channel 4 — Matt McCluskey said campus police “seemed to show no curiosity about this person who had lied about his age, his name. ... He was a sex offender. And then they found out that he’s also a felon.”
Asked if they're angry, Jill McCluskey said she's “mostly sad.”
“The sadness is so complete, I don’t have room for anger,” Matt McCluskey added.
On “Nightline,” the McCluskeys will also talk about the Lauren McCluskey Foundation they’re forming, which will focus on three areas — campus security, “celebrating” Lauren’s life and supporting animal shelters. Jill McCluskey told The Tribune that her daughter loved animals and volunteered at the Humane Society to socialize cats.
“Lauren was above all kind and thoughtful,” she said. “She cared about other people. She was intelligent and hardworking.”
In the months since Lauren’s death, her parents have been outspoken in commentaries and letters about how they wished their daughter’s concerns had prompted more attention and been viewed by detectives as having the potential for escalating relationship violence.
On Friday, they wrote: “The campus police never took the case seriously, did not prioritize Lauren’s case despite clear indications of escalating danger to her well-being, and never expended any effort to investigate and ultimately verify the background of the convicted felon and sex offender, who could have been returned to prison immediately on the basis of obvious parole violation behavior. In addition, they made no effort to provide her with explicit protection despite numerous indications of concerns for her safety.”