Utah student Lauren McCluskey’s killer told friends he was worried about going back to prison days before the shooting, newly released reports say

(Photo courtesy of the University of Utah) Lauren McCluskey is seen on August 30, 2017 in Salt Lake City.

After University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey reported to campus police that she believed the man she had been dating was extorting her, officers told her there wasn’t much they could do.

But Melvin S. Rowland, who she had warned them about, was beginning to panic.

Three days after McCluskey had talked to police Oct. 13 about the anonymous threat she received, Rowland confided in a friend about what he was doing. He explained how he asked a woman to send him $1,000 or he would release compromising pictures of her. He said he believed she told officers about it. And he feared being sent back to prison.

“I messed up,” Rowland told his friend. Then he pulled out his phone and looked up the law on sexual extortion. He fixated on how much time he could face.

From their side, though, campus officers hadn’t even begun investigating McCluskey’s concerns by then. They didn’t see any immediate risk, their reports showed.

But Rowland continued to unravel. And on Oct. 22 he repeatedly shot McCluskey, killing her outside her dorm before later turning the gun on himself.

The new details on his thinking come in a police report released Friday by the University of Utah. The 167-page document shows for the first time what campus officers found in their investigation after the murder.

In the following days, detectives interviewed several of Rowland’s friends and a coworker, who all said he was afraid of getting caught for blackmail. One said Rowland was considering whether he should resign from his job. Another said he was talking about leaving behind money for his son. He’d been in prison before, he told them, and didn’t want to go back.

Campus police didn’t learn about those conversations until Oct. 25. No one had ever reported what Rowland told them before the slaying.

The university also provided the police reports from Oct. 12 and 13 when McCluskey contacted campus officers and one from their investigation into the man who loaned Rowland the gun. The filings continue to show the gaps in how McCluskey’s case was handled, how little police knew and how those who had information about Rowland didn’t act.

With the release of the reports, the U.’s investigation into the case — which started seven months ago — is now closed.

Masks and lies

The remaining information the school shared focuses largely on Rowland, 37, a registered sex offender who was on parole after a conviction for forcible sex abuse.

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

Several of the interviews are with former girlfriends who said he was a master manipulator, had lied to them about his name and age, and made up stories about his background — serving in the military in Afghanistan, playing basketball for the university, studying coding. None of those were true. But they match much of what McCluskey, a 21-year-old track athlete, had reported about her experience.

One woman told officers she was at a Halloween party on campus on Oct. 19. Rowland approached her, she said, and was wearing a red and black mask from the movie “Deadpool.” He grabbed her hips and pulled her toward him. He said he wouldn’t let go until she kissed him. She did and then warned her friends to avoid him.

Police later found that mask in the car where they discovered McCluskey’s body. She had been shot at least seven times and hit in the chest, head and shoulder.

Rowland had borrowed the car from a friend and left a bag of ammunition on its roof when he fled.

Calls came in from students who heard gunshots and McCluskey’s parents, who were on the phone with their daughter when Rowland grabbed her.

What followed, as described in the report, was a massive response of officers from agencies across the Salt Lake Valley gathering at the U. and scrambling to find Rowland. They searched McCluskey’s dorm. They looked in buildings on campus. They reviewed surveillance tape.

Video showed him leaving the school on TRAX. But when officers got there, all they found was a single latex glove in a trash can. They pinged his cellphone number to try to get a better location. But he stayed undiscovered for hours.

Rowland got dinner with a woman who picked him up at a train stop. He showered at her place and got coffee, she told police after seeing his mugshot on the news. They’d met on a dating app and he told her his name was Apollo Santos.

“The female told me white the two were at her residence, she was getting campus alerts and Twitter feeds regarding the shooting," the officer wrote in his report. "The female told me [Rowland] keep looking over her shoulder and inquiring what she was looking at.”

Police ultimately tracked Rowland to a Salt Lake City church where he died by suicide as officers closed in.

Bragging about a gun

The reports from each responder show how officers grappled to understand who Rowland was.

They had thought he had left a halfway house. They were wrong. They didn’t learn he was on parole until after McCluskey was killed. They called his sister, but she said she didn’t know much about him either.

When they searched his apartment, they found a double pistol magazine pouch. On his computer, he had several email accounts that would “self-destruct” anything sent from them. They also tied him to several spoofed phone numbers.

At McCluskey’s dorm, they got search warrants for her phone and laptop, where they found emails she’d sent to Rowland and calendar markings confirming the dates she’d told police. It appeared Rowland had accessed her computer and was able to manipulate the web camera.

And, it appears, he borrowed a coworker’s Venmo account to extort her so she wouldn’t trace it to him.

Officers also talked to McCluskey’s roommates and others in the building. Most said Rowland appeared normal. But one man, who often let Rowland inside the secure dorms to wait for McCluskey, said one time Rowland showed him a gun he was carrying.

He bragged about having it and let the student hold it, he told police. He charmed his way in by making friends with those in the building. He waited inside almost the entire day before he killed McCluskey. And he hid his face under he hood before he grabbed her.

Overall, much of what officers describe discovering about Rowland’s actions before the murder — including being on dating apps, having a gun as a felon — could have been violations of his terms of release for parole. They hadn’t talked to his parole agent, though, until McCluskey was found dead.

One person charged

Rowland borrowed that gun from a friend, the police report states, in exchange for $400. As a felon, he couldn’t lawfully buy one.

Nathan Daniel Vogel told officers that he and Rowland had worked together as security guards. Rowland, he said, knew Vogel was short on cash. Vogel said he felt coerced into giving Rowland the gun.

“He manipulated me using the guilt trip to use my weapon,” he said, noting that Rowland told him he was going to use it to teach his girlfriend how to shoot.

He initially left the gun for Rowland at a hotel to pick up. A maid found it, along with some marijuana, and security there called Vogel to pick the weapon up. Rowland “talked him into” giving him a second chance.

The night he was supposed to return it, Vogel added, was the night he shot McCluskey. He texted him repeatedly; Rowland said he was stuck in Moab and wouldn’t be able to get it back in time. Vogel feels now it was “premeditated,” he told police.

Now Vogel, 21, is facing federal charges. He — along with Sarah Emily Lady, 24, of Mapleton — allegedly deceived a licensed Salt Lake City dealer during the purchase of the .40-caliber pistol in September. Lady completed the background check because Vogel was worried he wouldn’t pass.

Beyond that, no one else has been charged in connection with McCluskey’s case.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah President Ruth V. Watkins speaks at a news conference presenting the findings of a review of the Lauren McCluskey case, in Salt Lake City on Wednesday Dec. 19, 2018. John T. Nielsen at right.

An independent review of the school’s handling of McCluskey’s concerns was finished in December and criticized the university and its police department for their response in the case — particularly for brushing aside McCluskey’s reports from the beginning.

Police there, the reviewers said, never viewed the case as having the potential for escalating relationship violence. 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.

The detective who was assigned to investigate has since left the department, though it’s not clear if she resigned or was fired. She opened a file on Oct. 19 but completed no work on the case because she was off and did not return until after McCluskey was killed.

McCluskey had tried to call the detective that morning, but she didn’t hear back. She emailed her several screenshots of messages from Rowland trying to lure her out of her dorm, which the detective didn’t open until after McCluskey was killed.

In a filing the detective wrote that is part of the report released Friday, she said she didn’t learn that McCluskey had called Salt Lake City’s department until Nov. 1. She also said a fellow officer did not forward her information he had on the case.

The independent review said she was not trained to recognize signs of domestic violence that should have been obvious. At the end of the report, it says the case has since been turned over to another detective who has decided to close it.