Man who killed Utah student Lauren McCluskey had a history of sex assault that was downplayed in the criminal justice system

(Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office via Associated Press) This undated photo Melvin Rowland, who authorities say shot and killed University of Utah student and track athlete Lauren McCluskey on campus Monday.

In 2004, Melvin S. Rowland admitted in court that he had attempted to sexually assault a teenage girl. At a parole hearing eight years later, he said he had forced her to have sex, and that he had done the same to two other women. Four years after that, as he moved in and out of prison, he talked about hurting a parole agent.

At his next parole hearing a few weeks later, his lawyer questioned whether Rowland was violent.

“I don’t have his full file in front of me,” the lawyer, JP Brummer, said in the 2016 hearing. “I don’t know if there are any incidents of violence in the past. I don’t believe so.

“And if that is the case,” Brummer continued, “if he has never actually perpetrated any violence on an individual, then I believe that [threat against a parole officer] can be taken with a grain of salt, as an empty threat. My recommendation would be that he be given another chance at parole.”

There was no discussion of whether the rapes he had described counted as violence. Rowland was later granted a parole date and released.

On Monday night, Rowland shot and killed 21-year-old University of Utah student and heptathlete Lauren McCluskey, the campus police chief has said. Rowland, 37, died by suicide hours later at Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church in Salt Lake City.

Court records and audio from five parole hearings held for Rowland over the years show how his admitted violence toward women was minimized within Utah’s criminal justice system. During the six years Rowland was moving in and out of prison, officials’ focus was more often on the parole rules he had broken than the risk his violations posed, and he was released after each transgression.

McCluskey had complained to University of Utah police on Oct. 12 and 13 that Rowland was harassing her — and a new crime would have been a further violation of his parole rules. But parole officials — who last spoke with Rowland on Oct. 16 — say university police did not tell them of McCluskey’s allegations.

(courtesy University of Utah) Lauren McCluskey is seen on August 30, 2017 in Salt Lake City.

Cutting a deal

The system’s contradictory responses to Rowland began with his 2004 convictions. Rowland served more time in prison for trying to arrange sex with a fake girl — an officer posing as a child — than for the real one he said he raped.

In September 2003, Rowland was charged in state court in Salt Lake City with a count of enticing a minor over the internet. He was in an online chat room and agreed to meet for sex with a person he thought was a 13-year-old girl. He was actually communicating with an investigator from the Utah attorney general’s office.

During the investigation, detectives learned Rowland, then age 21, had two days earlier chatted with a 17-year-old girl, then met her at her parent’s house. Rowland later admitted he forced her to have intercourse. He was initially charged with a first-degree felony, which is punishable by up to life in prison.

But in a plea agreement with prosecutors, according to court records, the attempted forcible sexual abuse charge was reduced to a third-degree felony, which is punishable by no more than five years in prison.

He was sentenced to serve up to 15 years for the enticement conviction; a judge ordered the two terms to run concurrently.

Paul Amann, the attorney general’s prosecutor on both cases, said in an email Wednesday to The Salt Lake Tribune that the sexual abuse case was hampered by multiple factors. Among them: The judge hearing the cases refused to let Amann use each as evidence in the other.

(Associated Press photo) Paul G. Amann, a former assistant attorney general, leaves a courtroom in Salt Lake City's Matheson Courthouse in February 2018.

Another reason, and the primary one behind the deal: While the 17-year-old had testified at an earlier hearing, she did not want to testify at trial, Amann said.

Amann pointed out that the convictions meant Rowland had to spend the rest of his life on the sex offender registry.

“This case,” Amann wrote, should disabuse people “of the fallacy that enticement of a minor is somehow an inchoate offense, or merely a precursor to a crime. Those who seek to prey on children over the Internet are criminals.”

In and out of prison

Rowland missed some early chances at parole because he failed to complete sex-offender treatment. He completed it in April 2012 and received a parole hearing in June of that year.

When the hearing officer asked whether Rowland had raped anyone else, Rowland replied: “I’d say, similar to [the 17-year-old in his case], I’d say two.”

There were no follow-up questions about those two victims.

Rowland was paroled the next month but returned to prison that September, after an agent discovered he had created a Facebook account and viewed pornography. Both were forbidden by his parole terms.

The parole board released Rowland again a year later, but he returned to prison Feb. 17, 2016, after his agent discovered Rowland had been using social media to meet women for sex.

When he returned to prison, according to an episode relayed during his next parole hearing, Rowland said he didn’t want to be paroled again.

Brummer, Rowland’s lawyer, read a report during the hearing that said Rowland had threatened “if an agent were to come conduct a field visit, he might become violent.” Brummer then made his argument that Rowland didn’t mean that and that he had no violent history.

Eric Barker, a supervisor for Utah Adult Probation and Parole, was in the hearing to answer questions about why Rowland had been sent back to prison and what should happen next.

“In reviewing his history,” said Barker in that 2016 hearing, “I just kind of looked, I don’t see any assault charges or anything that I’m seeing. We wouldn’t be opposed to him seeking another parole.”

Adult Probation and Parole is a division of the Utah Department of Corrections. A spokeswoman for the department, Kaitlin Felsted, on Wednesday clarified Barker meant there had been no instances of violence since Rowland’s conviction. Everyone in the hearing was aware he had admitted to rape, she said.

Brummer, in an email Wednesday, said he, too, had been referring to Rowland’s interactions with parole agents when he said his client had not been violent.

“Obviously, Mr. Rowland’s 2004 offense was a violent crime,” Brummer wrote.

Of McCluskey’s death, Brummer also said he is “deeply saddened by this tragedy.”

In that 2016 parole proceeding, the hearing officer, Pegeen Stewart, placed Rowland’s conduct in the context of safety. She referred to him demonstrating “predatory behaviors” in pursuing sex with women over the internet. She was concerned that not even Rowland seemed to know how many women he met online then in person.

“So we don’t know who you hooked up with before you came back to prison,” Stewart said, “and that is a public safety issue.”

The Utah Board of Pardons and Parole decided Rowland should serve the remainder of his prison sentence — until May 2019. But it told Rowland it would reconsider if he again completed sex offender treatment. Rowland did, and he was paroled again on April 17 of this year.

Amann said that while the differing prison sentences might be striking, he’s more concerned with the parole board releasing Rowland after multiple violations and saying he would harm a parole agent.

“That was foolhardy and shows that there are genuine deficits at the [parole board] which should be addressed immediately,” Amann said in an email.

A spokesman for the parole board, Greg Johnson, said in an email that incarceration guidelines are set by a state sentencing commission. Those guidelines said Rowland should spend 43 months in prison, but the parole board opted to initially keep him until July 2012.

Johnson also explained that there are guidelines that say Rowland should have stayed in prison for no more than 120 days on his parole violations, but, in the case of the 2016 violation, the board opted to keep him far longer.

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