University of Utah agrees Lauren McCluskey’s murder was ‘preventable,’ will pay her parents $13.5 million

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Matt and Jill McCluskey, parents of Lauren McCluskey, embrace during a news conference announcing a settlement of their lawsuit against the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020.

Acknowledging for the first time that the on-campus murder of track star Lauren McCluskey was “preventable,” the University of Utah agreed Thursday that it could have better protected her and failed — and it will pay out $13.5 million to her parents as part of a legal settlement.

The historic deal effectively ends two civil rights lawsuits filed against the school, one in state court and the other in federal court, which alleged the U. could have done more to keep McCluskey safe after she repeatedly went to campus police in the weeks before she was killed. The settlement announcement came on the two-year anniversary of her death.

At a news conference, U. President Ruth Watkins said she was “sincerely sorry” for the loss of McCluskey.

“The university acknowledges and deeply regrets that it did not handle Lauren’s case as it should have,” she read from a statement, “and that, at the time, its employees failed to fully understand and respond appropriately to Lauren’s situation.”

Watkins paused. “As a result,” she added, “we failed Lauren and her family.”

Her comments Thursday contrast with her insistence shortly after the murder that there wasn’t “any reason to believe this tragedy could have been prevented.” That earlier statement followed an independent review that pointed out several missteps made by officers, an overall failure by police to recognize the warning signs of escalating intimate partner violence and 30 fixes that could improve the school’s response in the future.

McCluskey, 21, was fatally shot outside her campus dorm by Melvin S. Rowland, a 37-year-old man whom she had briefly dated. She had ended their relationship after she discovered he had lied to her about his name, age and criminal history.

Now, Watkins said, “With our commitment to learning from our mistakes, we honor Lauren and ensure her legacy will be improved campus safety for all students.”

Jill and Matt McCluskey had asked for that admission of responsibility from the university since their daughter was killed on Oct. 22, 2018. It’s in writing in the settlement, too, with the U. agreeing “that the murder of Lauren McCluskey was a brutal, senseless, and preventable tragedy.”

The university will pay $10.5 million to the parents — coming from its insurance provider — with an additional $3 million going to the Lauren McCluskey Foundation, which they have set up to improve safety on campuses across the nation.

Matt McCluskey said at the news conference that all of the settlement funds will go to the foundation, adding, “We want to make sure the money is well spent and will save lives.”

The school will build an indoor track, too, to be named for McCluskey and to be used by the track and field team on which she competed for the U. With the new facility, Jill McCluskey said her daughter “will always have a presence on the campus.”

“This settlement is important for many reasons,” Jill McCluskey said, wearing a purple ribbon pinned to her jacket. “It addresses how Lauren died, but it also honors how she lived.”

On Thursday, she walked around the red paved track at the U. where her daughter once ran. She remembered McCluskey’s first track meet; the 8-year-old was entered in three events — and set records in all of them.

And McCluskey continued to do so, throughout high school and into college at the U.

“The track was a special place for Lauren,” Jill McCluskey said, stopping at the finish line for a moment before looping around again.

Previously, she said, the track athletes at the U. were driving 45 minutes in the winter to get to an indoor track for practice. The new facility will be built by 2030, and her hope is that it will be safer for the women on the team, too, instead of having them run outside at night.

Additionally, the new Center for Violence Prevention at the U. — which was created, in part, in response to McCluskey’s death — will now bear her name, as well.

Chris Linder, the current director, said there will be “open lines of communication with the family to be sure we’re including their hopes and thoughts in our work.” Staff at the center aim to address interpersonal violence before it starts, with a focus on addressing and stopping perpetrators.

Those interventions, she said, are key to changing the culture “where we’ve just accepted that this violence happens.”

The school said in the agreement that the center is part of “considerable progress in improving campus safety” since McCluskey’s killing. It has also invested in research, instituted new trainings, hired a chief safety officer and overhauled its police department, with the previous leaders of the force stepping down in the wake of national attention on the mishandling of McCluskey’s case. There are more lights on campus, as well as a ride service for students to call at night so they don’t have to walk across the grounds in the dark.

“Improving campus safety requires an ongoing commitment,” the agreement reads. “The McCluskeys and the University of Utah also wish to engage in a mutually constructive and supportive collaboration to improve safety on campuses across the country.”

One of the family’s attorneys, Brad Parker, added that McCluskeys' name will now “always be associated with the need to treat and respond to student concerns, especially the concerns of female students, with respect.”

Jill McCluskey said Thursday: “We hope that those efforts continue.” She and Matt McCluskey embraced in a hug at the end of the news conference, with both tearing up.

Later in the afternoon, hundreds joined them in a memorial walk on the U.'s track, including McCluskey’s friends and former coaches.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Matt and Jill McCluskey speak during a memorial walk on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, held at the track where their daughter Lauren McCluskey, a University of Utah student and track athlete used to compete. McCluskey was murdered by an ex-boyfriend who abducted her from her dorm room at the University of Utah.

Hurdles set up every few meters displayed posters with statistics about intimate partner violence. Of all violent crime, 15% involves intimate partners. One-third of women in Utah will experience physical violence by a loved one.

Sophie Ryan, who was one of McCluskey’s teammates, said it was surreal being on the track for the anniversary and seeing the signs reminding her of the tragedy.

“We all remember it so vividly," she said. "And this walk brings us back to two years ago.”

Several women on the team placed flowers under the maple tree planted next to the track for McCluskey. “It’s sad and hard, but it’s good to be here for her," said Caitie Faust, another teammate.

Matt McCluskey watched from beside the track as people hugged and cried. The anniversary, he said, was like any other day — and they’ve all been painful since his daughter died.

“Lauren wasn’t here yesterday, and she’s not here today," he said. "But shortly after she died, we said there’s nothing we can do about that now. What we can do is try to prevent it from happening again. That’s really all you can do.”

He took a jog Thursday morning past McCluskey’s dorm and remembered moving her in there for her freshman year. He used to visit, flying in from the family’s home in Pullman, Wash., and help her with her math homework. They’d go see a movie, and inevitably he’d end up fixing something in her apartment.

“I was envisioning that would continue," he said. "She’d go to a new city, and I’d visit and fix things.”

He shook his head as he stood in the cool autumn breeze on the track. “Nothing will close that terrible gap in our lives.”

The McCluskeys had first filed suit in June 2019, calling it a “last resort” at the time. They had wanted an apology, they said, but the U. had stopped talking to them.

In the days after McCluskey ended her relationship with Rowland, who was a registered sex offender on parole, she contacted campus police several times to report that he had begun harassing her and threatened to release compromising photos of her. He extorted her for $1,000, she told officers, to keep them private.

Many of those concerns were not taken seriously. A detective didn’t investigate anything until after McCluskey was killed. And a report from the Utah Department of Public Safety this year confirmed that the officer on her case, Miguel Deras, displayed McCluskey’s intimate pictures to at least three of his co-workers without a work-related purpose during the period before her death, while he was supposed to be looking into the case.

Neither Deras nor the detective ever discovered Rowland was on parole for felony sex abuse; some of McCluskey’s allegations could have been violations of his terms of release. And McCluskey twice called Salt Lake City’s police dispatch line looking for more help.

Deras also never acted on her concern, which she shared with him the morning of the day she was killed, that she had received an email from someone impersonating a police deputy chief in an apparent attempt to draw her out of her dorm. She believed it was from Rowland, but Deras didn’t relay her complaints to anyone else in the department.

Hours after shooting McCluskey, Rowland died by suicide.

McCluskey’s parents insisted in their original filing — asking for $56 million — that the university had many opportunities to step in and help their daughter. The U. initially fired back, in part, that its officers had no obligation to protect McCluskey because her killer wasn’t a school employee or student and had no connection to the university.

Prior to the settlement, the case was set to go to trial early next year.

Now that the lawsuit is over, Jill McCluskey said Thursday, the family hopes to move forward and continue telling McCluskey’s story. They continue to grieve, but she hopes “things will be better in the future" for other women, she said.

With that, there is no finish line.