University of Utah police officer showed off explicit photos of Lauren McCluskey to his co-worker

UPDATE: Logan police announced an internal affairs investigation into Officer Miguel Deras in reaction to this article.

Lauren McCluskey explained to the officer at the University of Utah that she was being extorted over explicit photos she had taken of herself. Someone — she wasn’t certain who at that moment — had accessed her files and was threatening to release them if she didn’t hand over $1,000.

Scared by the demand, she paid the money and then sent copies of the messages and the pictures to the campus police department as evidence.

When Miguel Deras, one of the officers assigned to her case, received them, he saved the photos on his personal phone. And days before McCluskey was killed by the man who was blackmailing her, Deras showed off at least one of the images to a male co-worker and bragged about getting to look at them whenever he wanted, according to two fellow officers.

The university has only now confirmed that display occurred — a year and a half after McCluskey first brought her concerns to the department — as part of a continued push by The Salt Lake Tribune to obtain public records on how the case was handled. The U. spoke to the officer who was shown the pictures by Deras and verified the action with him. The Tribune also substantiated it with another officer, who overheard Deras talking to that co-worker.

Neither officer reported the incident at the time, and Deras was never disciplined for it.

In fact, the university says it didn’t know about the inappropriate behavior and abuse of evidence until after Deras left the department in September 2019, though it occurred before McCluskey’s murder on Oct. 22, 2018. The only reason officials looked into it, said U. police Lt. Jason Hinojosa, was because The Tribune’s records request first brought it to their attention.

“He was long gone before we had any inkling that that incident with the photo being shown had occurred,” acknowledged Hinojosa.

It is the latest to be disclosed of a string of missteps made by officers in McCluskey’s case, which has drawn national attention and resulted in a damning independent review and a later lawsuit filed by her parents.

This poor judgment was significant, said Maj. Scott Stephenson, who oversees all police training in the state under the Utah Department of Public Safety. He fears it could further alienate victims from speaking up.

“It’s very alarming to me,” Stephenson said, and possibly grounds for action against Deras’ police certification.

Deras, who now works for Logan police, did not respond to several requests for comment.

A flawed search

For its part, the university claims it doesn’t have any physical evidence of Deras’ conduct.

In July 2019, the U. conducted a download of Deras’ cellphone to collect any data related to the McCluskey case, but most of what came back was corrupted, said U. spokesman Chris Nelson. Part of that is because Deras got a new phone after McCluskey’s death. It appears some files may not have been transferred to the new device, Nelson said.

Certainly that’s concerning, he acknowledged. The download process the U. used in its investigation, though, raises more questions.

The university does not have its own technology to perform a data download on a phone — which is most often done to look for child pornography in criminal cases — so it went to West Valley City’s police department to use the equipment there.

The chief of U. police at that time, Dale Brophy, had worked there before moving to the university and had hired several officers from the department.

At the time of the phone download, Brophy had recently brought onto the U.’s force an information technology specialist from West Valley City. That individual helped set up the data collection. That conversation was done by phone, not email, and there are no records of it, according to the U.

“My understanding is that there were existing relationships between the two law enforcement agencies and that it could be done quickly via this channel,” Nelson said.

The U. now acknowledges it should have instead gone to the Utah Department of Public Safety to conduct the download, to avoid any conflicts of interest, Nelson added.

There are no set rules that require that, but going to DPS is considered standard procedure for investigating an officer. The state’s technologies are available for all agencies to use, said DPS spokesman Joe Dougherty. And there’s an office close to the U., too, inside The Gateway mall — a shorter drive than West Valley City.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Police cars sit in the parking lot of the University of Utah police department on Wed., June 5, 2019.

In response to questions, West Valley City deferred to the U. and did not say how many times in the past it has similarly helped another agency.

Deras said he was asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement about the download and it was done late one night, according to the officer interviewed by The Tribune about Deras’ conduct. In October 2018, Deras “had boasted about it [having the photos]," the officer said. The U. disputes that happened.

But the officer said that after the July 2019 download, as Deras was awaiting the results, Deras spoke to him during a shift about the agreement and said he was concerned about would be found on his phone.

The Tribune has verified the officer’s employment at the U. but agreed to not identify him, because he still works in law enforcement elsewhere in the state and fears retaliation. He left the U. later that summer without reporting what he heard from Deras.

The phone download took 12 hours, though typically it only takes one or two.

Deras’ old cellphone was no longer available, Nelson said, but the U. hoped to still get some information he had uploaded to the cloud for storage, so it took longer than usual.

Despite the effort, the university says the download resulted in no records of any text messages or calls. The university had wanted to see how often Deras and McCluskey had been in contact before she was killed, Nelson said, and it was not able to determine that, either.

The phone download did net 183,433 “artifacts.” Most of those were pictures and videos of Deras in his personal life — but they were all dated after McCluskey’s death. The U. has reviewed many but not all of those. Nelson says it does not appear any are related to the case. The rest of the data is unreadable.

Deciding against discipline

The officer who described Deras sharing photos of McCluskey with him told the U. investigators in September 2019 that he was sitting next to Deras during a briefing in between shifts. Deras leaned over to him and started flipping through the images on his phone, that officer said.

“We did identify one person who could confirm,” Hinojosa said. “He came forward after the investigation was begun.”

The U. said it has not disciplined the officer shown the photos because he did not ask to see them.

Hinojosa said the campus department has also decided not to report the incident to the state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) council, which oversees certifying officers and is responsible for discipline within law enforcement.

“It’s not among the requirements to report to POST,” he said.

However, Maj. Stephenson, who runs POST, believes Deras’ actions could have broken the law and should have been reported when the U. discovered the misconduct last year after talking to the co-worker. “I’m sure it’s a policy violation,” he said. “It’s very concerning.”

Stephenson noted that sharing or displaying a compromising photo of someone without the person’s consent could be prosecuted under the state’s revenge porn law. The first offense can result in a misdemeanor charge. Because the statute requires proof that a victim was harmed, McCluskey’s death could complicate a prosecution, Stephenson said. But she was alive when Deras displayed the photo, the U.'s investigation found.

Additionally, Greg Skordas, an attorney who has represented officers and specializes in POST cases, said he believes the conduct confirmed by the university’s investigation violates requirements officers agree to in training.

He said such a display could fall under the “conduct unbecoming” rule, which is a catchall for lapses by officers. In this case, it’s abusing sensitive evidence. “Those pictures should have been very confidential, very private,” Skordas said.

An officer violating that expectation could either be suspended or have his certification withdrawn, Skordas said. The time lapse since October 2018, Stephenson and Skordas said, and Deras’ move to the Logan department would not prohibit discipline.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) About 100 University of Utah students walked out of class on Monday, Oct. 21, 2019, in a show of solidarity to call attention for increased campus safety and protest the school's response after Lauren McCluskey was murdered on campus in 2018.

Stephenson said he also worries about what Deras’ actions could mean for other victims coming forward. Already at the U., several students and staff have shared their stories of being ignored or mistreated when reporting crimes to the campus department, including cases of rape, stalking, sexual harassment and dating violence that occurred before McCluskey’s death.

“All the steps we’ve made with victims,” Stephenson said, "we could take steps back now.”

After the U. discovered Deras showed off the photo, Hinojosa said, all campus officers were specifically trained on how to handle evidence and the best practices for how victims should share photos related to their case (preferably on a USB drive rather than transmitting any images via email).

“The department is committed to the respectful treatment of all of its complainants,” Hinojosa said. “This incident was not reflective of current policy or the culture the department has worked to improve for more than a year.”

‘Supposed to be helping and protecting’

McCluskey’s parents believe there need to be more changes at the U. so that what happened to their daughter doesn’t happen to another woman on campus.

Matt McCluskey, her father, said it took courage for McCluskey to report the extortion, and her trust was betrayed. “This latest revelation makes me wonder when we’ll hit bottom,” he added.

Jill McCluskey, McCluskey’s mom, added: “The people who were supposed to be helping and protecting Lauren were actually exploiting her. I wish that Deras had used his time to arrest the man who was committing crimes against Lauren.”

McCluskey, a 21-year-old track athlete at the U., first reported to campus police on Oct. 12. She had just ended her relationship with a man she’d been seeing, Melvin Rowland, after finding out he’d lied about his name, age and criminal history as a sexual offender.

Shortly after, she started receiving suspicious messages from what she initially thought were his friends. It escalated when she got a text that threatened to release the compromising photos she’d taken. At that point, Deras was assigned to her case. An independent review found that on subsequent days, Deras, an assigned detective and the U. did little to look into McCluskey’s case or take her concerns seriously.

On the morning of Oct. 22, McCluskey called Deras to report that Rowland was trying to lure her out of her dorm. Deras never passed that information along to anyone else in the department. Hours later, McCluskey was shot and killed by Rowland. And Rowland later died by suicide.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Matt McCluskey and his wife Jill hug during a news conference Thursday, June 27, 2019, following the filing of a lawsuit against the University of Utah for $56 million, alleging campus police could have done more to prevent the murder of their daughter Lauren.