‘I’m worried that he’s dangerous:’ University of Utah releases audio of calls to campus police from Lauren McCluskey and her parents

Jill McCluskey frantically called campus dispatchers. Her daughter, a student at the University of Utah, was going to pick up her Jeep from a man she had just broken up with — and the mother feared he might hurt her.

“I’m worried that he’s dangerous,” Jill McCluskey said from Pullman, Wash. “I don’t want her to go there by herself and have something bad happen to her.”

The three-minute phone call on Oct. 10 was the first time the University of Utah police department heard concerns about the man Lauren McCluskey had briefly dated — and who would kill her 12 days later. He was a sex offender and had lied about his age, Jill McCluskey said.

At the end of the call, she breaks down in tears. “She started dating this guy there who’s a bad person,” she said, choking up. “She found out he’s a bad person and broke up with him.”

The dispatcher spoke with Jill and Lauren seven times that day. None of those calls would be heard by campus police officers until after Lauren McCluskey’s slaying — a gap that independent reviewers say was one of the first missteps by the department as it failed to recognize escalating threats to her safety.

The recording is one of 15 the University of Utah released on Thursday, including Jill McCluskey’s calls, repeated calls Lauren McCluskey made to the department, and one her father made after she was attacked on Oct. 22. In all, the calls include about an hour of audio with personal phone numbers and addresses redacted.

McCluskey, a 21-year-old track athlete and U. student, was fatally shot outside of her campus dorm by Melvin S. Rowland, a 37-year-old registered sex offender on parole. He died hours later by suicide.

The school waited three months to release the 911 tapes, citing an ongoing investigation it will not specify and the independent review, which concluded at the end of December. The university and its police department have been criticized — including by McCluskey’s parents — for how they handled her concerns.

She had first contacted the campus police department on Oct. 12; she called again the next day to report she was getting messages threatening to distribute compromising photos of her with Rowland. Worried that officers there weren’t moving quickly enough, she twice reached out to Salt Lake City police, as well.

A campus detective did not formally open a case until a week after she first called. No one in the department ever learned Rowland was on parole. And, according to the investigation, there was a failure by officers to understand that her case raised issues of possible interpersonal violence.

McCluskey’s parents, Jill and Matt McCluskey, have disputed the university’s assertion that the independent review showed there’s no “reason to believe” the slaying could have been prevented — and say the several calls from their daughter should have prompted more attention.

“The recordings of my calls on Oct. 10 make it clear that I informed the campus police that Lauren was in danger 12 days before her murder,” Jill McCluskey said Thursday. “I pointed out that the man she briefly dated was a sex offender and liar who was trying to lure her to an isolated location.”

Her daughter, she added, “tried repeatedly to get help,” and several conversations she had with an officer on his cellphone were not recorded and not included in the released 911 tapes.

She tweeted Thursday that the calls are “painful to hear,” but she hopes “they will have a positive impact on safety for women on college campuses going forward.”

U. Chief of Police Dale Brophy said Thursday that, among other reforms, his department has worked to correct the gap between officers and calls to dispatchers. Now, when someone on campus asks for an escort, their name and date of birth will be put into the system that officers search, instead of just a dispatch list.

“We’re going to be logging those in the system and then linking those to the record management system,” Brophy said. “We want something done now.”

Oct. 10 calls: ‘He was lying.’

Lauren McCluskey had broken off her month-long relationship with Rowland the day before, but allowed him to borrow her car the next day to run errands. She expected him to bring her car back to her campus apartment at 5 p.m., but Jill feared the situation was unsafe.

“He was lying to her,” she told the dispatcher two hours before the scheduled dropoff. “And he’s actually a sexual offender and lied about his age and things like that.”

The dispatcher tried to reassure Jill that a security guard could help. “That will be totally easy for us to do,” she said.

She hung up and called Lauren, who at first declined an escort. She said Rowland or his friend would be dropping off the car outside her dorm.

“Do you feel comfortable with him doing that?” the dispatcher asked.

“Yeah, I think it’s OK,” Lauren responded.

The dispatcher suggested having Rowland instead leave the car at the police department, where Lauren could wait inside. “I don’t want to misinterpret based on what your mom was saying, but she was definitely worried.”

Lauren declined and said she’d call back if she had concerns. And the dispatcher called Jill with the update. But she promised to have a guard walk around the dorms around 5 p.m. just to be careful.

“She’s dealing with a bad person who lied to her,” Jill said.

“That’s unfortunately a pretty common occurrence on campus,” the dispatcher said.

Lauren ended up calling dispatch again, saying the plan had changed and that Rowland or one of his friends would leave the car at Rice-Eccles Stadium. She asked for a ride there before 5 p.m.

Jill called dispatch to confirm that. She said Lauren hesitated at first because Rowland or his friends said she was “being judgmental” about his criminal history. “I feel like he has a little bit of control over her,” Jill said.

By the end of the conversations, Jill thanked the dispatcher “for looking out” for her daughter. “Thank you so much. You guys are wonderful.”

She has since said she felt lured into a false sense of security by that early response.

What could have happened: Had those calls been put into a single system coordinated with police, officers would have known about Jill McCluskey’s concerns when they started looking into the case two days later. Brophy said all dispatchers will be trained on how to create bridges between the two systems this week.

Oct. 12 calls: ‘They’re trying to lure me’

Two days later, Lauren McCluskey called dispatch just before 4:30 p.m.

“I called a little — a few days ago, about a situation, and I wanted to kind of give an update and ask about some things,” she began. She explained that beginning the night before, she had received texts she believed were from Rowland and his friends.

“I think they’re trying to lure me somewhere,” McCluskey said.

The dispatcher told McCluskey she would have an officer call her.

At 4:57 p.m., the dispatcher told an officer that the texts were “nothing sinister. There are no threats,” but she added that McCluskey believed something bad “may have been implied.”

According to an officer’s later report, McCluskey told him she had found recent social media posts by Rowland. That seemed to prove that some of the texts — which had said Rowland was dead — weren’t true. The officer wrote that he told her there wasn’t much the department could do.

What could have happened: This was the point when campus police officers began to work on the case — but this officer did not know all the information Jill and Lauren McCluskey had shared with dispatchers, and he did not know that campus housing officials had a report that Rowland had a gun. He did not check Rowland’s criminal history; the department never determined that Rowland was on parole. If he had, he could have reached out to Rowland’s parole agent. Possessing a gun and using social media were prohibited under the terms of his release and could have led to his arrest for parole violations.

Oct. 13 calls: ‘I’m … being blackmailed for money.’

McCluskey called dispatch again just before 9 a.m. the next day, and reported she had received more messages that she believed were from Rowland or his friends. They demanded money in exchange for not releasing compromising pictures of McCluskey and Rowland.

“I’m dealing with a situation from… being blackmailed for money,” McCluskey said, sounding as though she is searching for words to explain what is happening.

“It’s a photo of me and my ex,” she explained a moment later. “He’s threatening to send it out to everyone and he’s asking for a thousand dollars.”

She had received the first extortion message by email at 6 or 7 that morning, she said. A text message with a similar blackmail threat arrived about 8 a.m.

The dispatcher asked a few more details, asked for McCluskey’s contact information and said an officer would call shortly.

A different officer called her, then met her at the campus public safety building. She filled out a witness statement and told him she had already sent $1,000 to the account as demanded.

He asked dispatchers to check Rowland’s criminal history and learned of his past convictions for enticing a minor over the internet and attempted forcible sex abuse, but due in part to a lack of training, they did not realize that Rowland was on parole. The report was assigned to a detective, who did not immediately follow up because of other work.

McCluskey called Salt Lake City police later that day, worried that the campus department was moving too slowly. “Hi, I’ve been blackmailed, um, for money,” she told them. “I was just concerned because I wasn’t sure how long they were going to take to file an arrest.”

When the dispatcher realized McCluskey lived on campus, she referred her back to university police. When McCluskey talked to dispatch at the school at 5:48 p.m., she asked: “Do you know when an arrest will be made?

“I called 911 because I was just concerned and wasn’t sure. Help speed things up.”

The dispatcher there transferred her to an officer. That call was not recorded.

What could have happened: Jill and Matt McCluskey have said they believe the university police department did not act with enough urgency on their daughter’s case. The school has said its force is understaffed and needs more officers. Domestic violence experts have said that, regardless of staffing, officers should have viewed the extortion threat as a risk factor for escalating interpersonal violence.

Oct. 19 calls: ‘I haven’t gotten an update’

McCluskey tried calling campus police on Oct. 15 but did not immediately reach an officer. An officer twice called her back; he did not reach her. Still concerned about inaction by campus officers, McCluskey reached out to Salt Lake City police on Oct. 19.

“Last Saturday I reported, and I haven’t gotten an update,” she said.

The city dispatcher told her to call the U. detective assigned to her case. After she did, the detective called her back and said she would not be at work until Oct. 23. She suggested McCluskey call campus dispatch if she got another message.

The detective opened a formal case on Oct. 19, but would not do any further work on it until after McCluskey had been killed. The U. did not provide a recording of their conversation because outbound calls from officers are not recorded.

The next day, McCluskey emailed the detective screenshots of Rowland’s criminal history. The detective did not see them until after McCluskey’s slaying.

What could have happened: Early in the extortion investigation, the reviewers said, the detective should have determined whether Rowland was on parole. They also said the department needs to ensure important cases are followed up on when assigned officers are off duty. Additionally, officers need to be trained to recognize when cases involve possible domestic violence, and to connect students with victim advocates.

Oct. 22 calls: ‘I think she was mugged’

At 10:39 a.m. on the day she died, Lauren McCluskey emailed campus police to report she had received a text from someone claiming to be a University of Utah deputy chief. She suspected it was from Rowland. She was afraid he might be trying to lure her outside of her room to hurt her.

She tried calling the detective but didn’t get an answer. Shortly after, an officer called her back on his cellphone. That call wasn’t recorded or released by the U. because it was outbound.

That officer told her to ignore the text but did not tell anyone else on the force about McCluskey’s call or concerns.

At 8:20 p.m., as McCluskey was walking back to her dorm after class, Rowland confronted her in a parking lot. She was on the phone with her mom, who heard her yell, “No, no, no.”

Matt McCluskey called campus dispatch. He relayed what his wife had heard and asked officers to respond. “Someone might have been grabbing her or something,” he said.

In the background, Jill McCluskey was crying and having difficulty answering questions. “Just concentrate, Jill,” Matt told her. “We’ve got to concentrate on helping.”

Matt told the dispatcher that campus police were already working on his daughter’s case. Then someone started talking from Lauren’s phone, which had gone quiet but was found by a passerby.

“Hi, I found a backpack and I see a phone,” a woman said.

“Can you stay there? I think she was mugged,” Matt responded.

The dispatcher told the woman to call him so he could get a location, and Matt hung up.

Officers searched the parking lot and found McCluskey’s body in the back seat of a car. Police located Rowland early in the morning on Oct. 23, just before he fatally shot himself inside a downtown Salt Lake City church.

What could have happened: Jill and Matt McCluskey say their daughter’s repeated reporting “went nowhere.” They called it an “unforgivable lapse of judgement and professional competency.” They have asked for someone to be disciplined.

U. President Ruth Watkins has declined to fire anyone, but has pledged to follow the recommendations of the independent reviewers.

“All 30 recommendations are being worked on as we speak,” Brophy said. “It’s a number one priority for the university.”

His officers will be trained to recognize interpersonal violence, he said, and to conduct lethality assessments by the spring. The department has applied for national accreditation. And it is in the process of hiring a victim advocate; the job has been posted and is expected to be filled by the end of February.

Brophy also intends to hire two detectives, a part-time evidence technician, an administrative lieutenant and a community relations officer. He said he is looking for people trained to respond to domestic violence.

His department also has worked to improve communication with campus housing officials. And his detectives meet once a week to talk about their cases. There will be an on-call detective available at any time, too, who is updated on all pending files so nothing falls through a hole when someone is off.

“Everyone is extremely sensitive to all of these types of crimes that would occur on our campus,” Brophy said.

His officers also will be trained to check offender status and contact victims in person. He said the security guards serve as escorts 1,250 times a year, and he wants to make sure the department follows through on any student’s concerns.

— Tribune reporters Nate Carlisle and Sean P. Means contributed to this report.