Gehrke: It’s time for the University of Utah to accept its failures in Lauren McCluskey’s murder

The University of Utah owes a debt to the family of Lauren McCluskey it can never fully repay — and it has nothing to do with the $56 million lawsuit Lauren’s family filed last week over her killing.

It begins with acknowledgement, contrition, accountability and reform.

Those, unfortunately are things that have been in woefully short supply. Instead the school has been more focused on excuses and ham-handed public relations spin.

If it wasn’t obvious before, the complaint the family filed in federal court made painfully clear the university’s unmitigated failure to take seriously the pleas from a young woman in grave danger.

It’s not merely armchair quarterbacking. The document lays out how McCluskey, a close friend and Lauren’s mother repeatedly provided information that screamed for action and was met with indifference.

Robert Gehrke

Officers were told that McCluskey’s estranged boyfriend, Melvin Rowland, had been stalking and harassing her. After calling the police and feeling she wasn’t being taken seriously, Lauren and a friend went in person to the department.

They recounted that they had discovered Rowland was a convicted sex offender who had lied about his name and his age and that he had been peeping through her window, stalking and harassing her since she ended the relationship.

Lauren and her friend told police that Rowland had been trying to get access to a gun — which is against the law for a convicted felon, especially one on parole, to possess.

They gave information indicating that Rowland had been committing extortion by threatening to expose photographs of McCluskey if she didn’t give him money, which she did. That is also a crime.

They told police that he had impersonated a supervisor at the university police department. Another crime callously dismissed.

Officers ran Rowland’s name through the university’s student database — even though they were told he was not a student at the school — and came up with an entirely different person who they thought “seems like a good guy.”

It was Lauren’s friend who showed police a Google search indicating that he was a felon, which they later confirmed by checking his criminal history, but they never checked his parole status.

Throughout all of it, police ignored the escalating severity of Rowland’s actions.

“When you report four major crimes, blackmail, being in possession of a weapon as a convicted felon, impersonating an officer and stalking and you don’t even talk to the potential suspect, that’s a serious problem,” said Jim McConkie, the attorney for the McCluskey family.

Likewise, dorm advisers and university housing officials, according to the lawsuit, were also informed of Rowland’s escalating mistreatment of McCluskey. Lauren’s friends alerted one adviser of their concerns and that they feared for Lauren’s life.

The adviser alerted her superior and her superior and her superior, offering to intervene, but was told to respect McCluskey’s privacy. Weeks went by, there were more red flags, including Rowland having a gun on campus, and more meetings were held, but they failed to take any action beyond promising to monitor the situation.

We, of course, know the tragic end of this chain of events, when Rowland confronted McCluskey in a campus parking lot when she was on the phone with her mother, dragged her to a borrowed car and shot her seven times.

The university’s response since the outset seemed more focused on spinning a narrative than accountability.

My colleague Courtney Tanner reported last week how the university spent nearly $60,000 on a crisis public relations consultant — understandable given the gravity of the school’s failures, but the advice they got seems more focused on dodging responsibility or legal liability and saving face.

It is apparent, that at repeated junctures there were failures. That said the university also took some appropriate steps.

The university, as it should have, conducted a review of the events leading up to McCluskey’s killing, which recommended 30 changes — many of them including better training and mandatory reporting — and it’s to the school’s credit that it is implementing or has implemented many of them.

But U. President Ruth Watkins is flat wrong when she said that the review “does not offer us reason to believe this tragedy could have been prevented.”

When police failed repeatedly to help a young woman at risk, that is not a matter of one lazy cop. That is a systemic failure, starting at the top. Yet nobody, from University Police Chief Dale Brophy on down was fired, reprimanded or so much as scolded for failing a young woman who was practically pleading for help.

It is a complete abdication of responsibility and accountability — and at this point, that’s what the McCluskey family really wants. The $56 million they seek won’t bring their daughter back or fill the hole left by her loss.

They don’t even want the money. They say any proceeds will go to a foundation in Laura’s honor that will, in part, promote campus safety.

They are, in short, offering the U. a reasonable course of action: Apologize to the grieving family (which the McCluskeys say the school has never done); implement real changes at the police department, starting by firing Brophy; and invest whatever is necessary into a safety net and interventions to assure no young U. student finds herself in Lauren’s situation.

At a bare minimum, Lauren McCluskey’s memory deserves that. It is time for the university to — finally — do the right thing.