What could the University of Utah and its police have done for slain student Lauren McCluskey? Experts offer some ideas.

(Photo courtesy of Jill McCluskey) In this undated photo, Lauren McCluskey makes the University of Utah "U" sign with her hands.

University of Utah police saw Lauren McCluskey’s extortion complaint as one that could wait. She wasn’t telling officers that she felt she was in danger, Chief Dale Brophy has said, and his detectives had other cases to work.

But as a team of independent investigators begins examining the department’s decisions and policies in the wake of McCluskey’s slaying, experts in dating and domestic violence say there were signs that the 21-year-old senior and track athlete was at risk.

McCluskey told police she had dated Melvin Shawn Rowland for a month before discovering he was a registered sex offender who had lied about his name and age while concealing his criminal history. Just before she ended their relationship, she said, he had peeked into her campus apartment window and scared her, and he was “really upset” about their breakup.

Three days later, she received messages falsely claiming he was dead and it was her fault, a police report shows. The next day, Rowland demanded $1,000 to delete compromising photos; she told an officer she was scared because she didn’t want them to appear online, another report said.

Rowland’s behavior fits a pattern of stalking and threats of harm, experts said, though not every police force is trained to recognize that, or that harassment and extortion can represent threats of violence.

“People are quick to label it harassment when in actuality it’s stalking,” said Jennifer Landhuis, director of the Stalking Prevention, Awareness, and Resource Center of AEquitas in Washington, D.C.

And the distinction is important because stalking is often a predictor of intimate partner homicide, said Jenn Oxborrow, executive director of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition.

University murders are relatively rare events that spur people who work in campus safety to take notice and look for ways to prevent future cases, said Christopher Brown, a senior consultant for the safety firm D-PREP and a detective at a university in California.

“I guarantee you,” he said, “an agency, when they get a report like [McCluskey’s] in the future, they are going to look at it with a more critical lens.”

Hours after McCluskey was fatally shot on Oct. 22, police found Rowland dead by suicide in a Salt Lake City church.

Assessing the threat

University police appear to have been basing decisions about how to proceed, at least in part, on McCluskey, rather than focusing on Rowland’s criminal history and how he was treating her.

At a news conference three days after her slaying, Brophy repeatedly pointed out that McCluskey never told officers she felt she was in danger.

  • Her mother had asked the department about arranging an escort to help McCluskey retrieve her car from Rowland after their Oct. 9 breakup, Brophy said, adding that McCluskey told dispatchers “she didn’t feel uncomfortable with Rowland coming up to her apartment.” 

  • After McCluskey reported the extortion threat, he added, "We did believe that Rowland and/or his associates both were threatening her financially and reputationally, but there was no indication from Lauren to us at any point during this investigation that he was threatening physical harm. And that was evidenced by, ‘Oh, he can bring the car to my apartment.’ He was very good at getting people to trust him, and Lauren was no different.”

  • Brophy said he believed his officers “made every attempt to make sure Lauren, throughout this process, if she felt physically threatened or if she felt like she was in personal harm, that she needed to tell us so we could help her. Unfortunately, that just didn’t happen for us.”

But experts say victims often don’t recognize the danger they’re in, and there were clear warning signs in Rowland’s behavior that officers could have seen.

The Lethality Assessment Program promoted by the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, for example, focuses on what a current or former partner is doing, not on a victim’s actions, Oxborrow said.

“Instead of blaming someone for not doing all that they could, or choosing a dangerous partner, or for refusing help at certain points, what it does it teaches … why someone would be reacting this way,” she said.

She said she is talking to U. administration about joining the program, and has moved the campus police to “the top of the list” for training.

With no record of Rowland specifically threatening physical violence against McCluskey prior to the murder, she probably didn’t realize she was at risk, said Jeff Temple, a professor at University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston who studies dating violence.

(Utah Department of Corrections via Associated Press) This undated photo shows Melvin Rowland, who police say killed student Lauren McCluskey on the University of Utah campus on Oct. 22, 2018.

But dating violence can start with psychological forms, he explained, and Rowland had multiple risk factors.

First, McCluskey had just ended their relationship, and that rejection can trigger aggressive responses. Rowland had already shown a willingness to commit violence against others. In 2004, he pleaded guilty to a felony count of attempted forcible sexual abuse and to a count of enticing a minor over the internet. He had been in and out of prison for parole violations since he was first released in 2012.

The false text messages about Rowland’s death also could have been interpreted as a suicide threat, Temple said, which he calls “a real strong red flag.”

"You're saying you're OK with ending your life,” Temple said, “which probably means you're OK with ending someone else's life.”

Temple and Landhuis also say law enforcement should recognize that harassment and extortion can represent threats of violence.

In some departments, a high-risk team coordinates with community partners, such as victims’ advocates and the courts, to gauge the likelihood of homicide and prevent it, said Lundy Bancroft, a Massachusetts expert who has written about domestic violence abusers. Team officers often carry cards that list warning signs for a domestic violence homicide.

“If there were a high-risk team” at the U., Bancroft said, “and they got information about this case and looked into it, it probably would have taken them a number of hours and not a week to identify it as a high-risk case, and maybe this girl would still be alive.”

Connecting victims with advocates

For Oxborrow, the most glaring missed opportunity in the days and weeks before McCluskey’s death was that she apparently never spoke with a victim advocate.

Initial reports released so far by campus police don’t indicate officers offered to connect her with an advocate or other services.

“It could have raised her level of awareness (about the danger she was in). It could have raised her awareness with her friends. She could have told roommates and friends, teachers,” Oxborrow said. “She could have gone back to law enforcement and told them.”

It’s not surprising that McCluskey didn’t feel she was in danger, Oxborrow said, because Rowland appeared to be trying to manipulate her into doubting herself. Even after she confronted him about his deceptions, he tried to argue he was 30, not his actual age of 37, police said.

Coordinated community response teams are one way to improve how police respond to dating and domestic violence, Temple and Landhuis said. They aim to ensure communication among agencies and with victims, a broader focus than high-risk teams. When police on coordinated teams receive a report like McCluskey’s, Temple and Landhuis said, they easily connect the victim to an advocate.

An advocate can explain risk factors and possibly help a victim seek a protective order or a stalking injunction, they explained. A victim might also disclose details to an advocate that he or she didn’t share with police, Temple and Landhuis said — and with the team approach, the advocate can quickly update police, who might step up their response.

The U.'s police force does not belong to a high-risk or a community response team. The domestic violence coalition’s training, Oxborrow said, teaches law enforcement how to identify high-risk victims, and how to connect victims with advocates and other resources, such as emergency shelters, legal advocacy and crisis counseling.

Tapping the power of parole

McCluskey reported the extortion threat — and that she had sent the $1,000 Rowland demanded via an app — on Oct. 13. The department didn’t formally open a case until Oct. 19, after McCluskey reported another suspicious message.

At that point, university police had known for days that Rowland was a registered sex offender. But the released reports give no indication they knew he was still on parole; Brophy has said the department did not know.

“Our current investigative process is to gather evidence that supports the claim and then make contact with the suspect,” he said at the Oct. 25 news conference. “It’s during that phase we would have reached out to [Adult Probation and Parole] for assistance.”

He added: “We didn’t want to lose any of our evidence before we had any of our suspects. In order to get digital information from spoofed websites, or real websites, we need subpoenas.”

But with Rowland on parole, officers could have searched his electronic devices without a warrant. The terms of Rowland’s parole prohibited him from using social media, and he had been returned to prison for that before.

Bancroft, more critical of the department’s handling of McCluskey’s case than other experts who spoke with The Salt Lake Tribune, said officers should have immediately determined whether Rowland was on parole or probation. If a suspect is being supervised by law enforcement, Bancroft said, his or her agent should be contacted and information should be shared.

“That was a clear dropped ball,” Bancroft said.

If McCluskey had obtained a protective order against him, that would not have necessarily sent Rowland back to prison, said Kaitlin Felsted, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections.

But a parole agent would have looked into the circumstances and could have incarcerated Rowland for 72 hours before deciding whether the parole board should issue a formal warrant for his arrest, Felsted said.

Brophy has explained the delay in opening a case by saying his detectives have many cases, and were working others. While such delays aren’t unusual, Brown said, his chief sends a daily email alerting officers to critical incidents, and those incidents can receive priority.

Brown said a revenge porn case, as the extortion McCluskey faced is often called, should be considered a critical incident because photos and electronic trail can quickly be deleted.

( Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune ) University of Utah President Ruth Watkins announced Friday that an independent team will investigate the response to Lauren McCluskey's reports to campus police before her slaying. Keith D. Squires, left, and retired attorney John T. Nielsen, right, are two of the team members; both previously led the Utah Department of Public Safety.

A U. spokesman last week did not confirm whether police there have such a critical incident alert system. University President Ruth Watkins said Friday that two former commissioners of the Utah Department of Public Safety, John T. Nielsen and Keith Squires, and former University of Wisconsin-Madison Police Chief Sue Riseling will investigate campus police policies and the handling of McCluskey’s case.

Brown also encourages campuses to educate students on domestic and dating violence. He says most students are away from home for the first time and may not realize all the ways they need to protect themselves.

“We’re dealing with a subset of the population that are extremely vulnerable,” Brown said.

The U. does offer prevention and awareness materials to educate students, faculty and staff about dating violence and stalking, according to its most recent Fire and Safety report. That training, however, is not mandatory.

Additionally, all students in the athletic department — including McCluskey — must attend a sexual assault prevention training every fall, university spokeswoman Annalisa Purser said.

Still, Oxborrow said, dating violence is “difficult to understand and see. And then when you realize that’s happening, it can be really devastating to try to talk to the people you love and trust about this.”

That’s why having law enforcement and advocates trained to identify red flags is so important, she said.

As the U. continues to add student housing, she hopes the department develops a unit dedicated to domestic and dating violence.

The more people living on campus, “the more [domestic and dating violence] needs to be a priority for them,” she said, “because it’s a reality.”