Robert Gehrke: Latest outrage in Lauren McCluskey murder demands answers and accountability

Robert Gehrke

We thought it couldn’t get any worse.

I mean, after University of Utah police ignored Lauren McCluskey and her concerned friends and family pleading for help and protection leading up to her killing in 2018, one would think we had witnessed the absolute limits of incompetence and callousness.

Then this happened: When McCluskey reported that she was being threatened with the release of intimate images if she didn’t pay $1,000 in cash, the officer assigned to the case did the unthinkable and exploited her a second time, according to a fellow officer.

Apparently, Officer Miguel Deras kept the photos — supposedly gathered as evidence — on his phone and showed them to a colleague, saying that he gets to look at them any time he wants.

A second officer who heard the exchange corroborated that account.

It’s an outrageous betrayal of trust, showing not only indifference to McCluskey’s fear and concern but disregard for her as a human.

The bombshell accusation was never uncovered during the university’s supposedly thorough investigation. It took The Salt Lake Tribune reporter Courtney Tanner to bring it to their attention and a year of wrangling over a public records request before the university begrudgingly acknowledged this much: Deras had shown the photo to a fellow officer and done so in a context that had nothing to do with the investigation he was supposed to be conducting.

The university disputed the account of one officer, saying there was not evidence he had bragged about the images.

After Tanner brought the incident to their attention the campus police retrained officers on the proper way to handle evidence.

Deras, now part of the Logan police force, did not respond to Tanner’s repeated efforts to get his version of events.

His attorney told KSL that Deras had the photos on his phone because McCluskey had emailed them to him and he had only shown them to a supervisor who was being briefed on the case. That’s not what Tanner’s source told her and it is not what the university has said either.

Were it not for the scrutiny of McCluskey’s murder, Tanner’s tenacious reporting and a cop willing to talk, none of this would have come to light. It would have just been another piece of the “boys in blue will be boys” pattern of disdain and degradation of women that permeated the campus police culture.

Tanner’s prior reporting painted a picture of a force that skeptically interrogated women who reported sexual assaults, neglected domestic violence cases, responded inadequately to reports of stalking, and doctored report logs to downplay domestic violence and sexual assault cases.

It’s hard to imagine that female students at the U., like my daughter, can feel valued and safe in the wake of this latest allegation.

It’s even harder to imagine the additional pain this has caused Lauren's parents, Jill and Matt McCluskey, who are suing the university and on Tuesday began mediation talks aimed at resolving their lawsuit.

The McCluskeys aren’t looking for a payday. What they want is funding for an initiative to improve campus security. And they want an apology from the school that failed their daughter, the simplest degree of acknowledgment that, thus far, U. President Ruth Watkins has denied them.

As I have written before, they deserve at least that level of contrition.

Legislators, outraged by The Tribune report, are already lining up bills for the upcoming session.

Rep. Karen Kwan and Rep. Andrew Stoddard, both Democrats, are drafting legislation making it a crime to download evidence onto a personal device or to share any photographic evidence with anyone not involved in an investigation.

And Sen. Deidre Henderson, a Republican and co-chairwoman of the Legislature’s education committee, promised to investigate the U.’s victim response and privacy protocols.

Some, like state Auditor John Dougall, have called for Watkins’ replacement, particularly if the U. police are not disbanded and responsibility transferred to Salt Lake City police or the Utah Highway Patrol.

And both steps may ultimately be necessary.

But the new police chief, Rodney Chatman, has finally taken a positive step. Instead of brushing this troubling incident aside, he expressed (unspecified) concerns about inadequacies in the initial investigative report — a report the university initially denied existed and still refuses to release — and initiated a new external investigation by the Utah Department of Public Safety.

“If my police department is to regain credibility in the eyes of the community it serves,” Chatman said, “this new review must be completed swiftly and with respect for both the students we serve and for Lauren McCluskey and her family."

This is the correct approach and hopefully will yield the answers we deserve and, if warranted, the kind of accountability that has been so elusive throughout this shameful saga.