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Lawsuit: University of Utah failed to protect slain student Lauren McCluskey

SALT LAKE CITY — University of Utah track star Lauren McCluskey and her friends contacted campus officials more than 20 times to report her ex-boyfriend’s abuse, stalking and intimidation.

They ignored her cries for help, and on Oct. 22, 2018, McCluskey was gunned down in a parking lot on campus, according to a $56 million lawsuit filed in June by her parents.

Her ex-boyfriend and killer, Melvin Shawn Rowland, was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound the following day in Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church in Salt Lake City.

McCluskey's parents, in an amended complaint filed Monday, allege that university officials, including those tasked with keeping students safe, showed "deliberate indifference" toward their 21-year-old daughter's complaints.

“The university’s response to the reports of abuse was clearly unreasonable in light of the information it received, and its deliberate indifference to the information ultimately deprived Lauren of her access to an education and resulted in Lauren’s predictable, preventable and tragic death,” the lawsuit states.

Former Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham, who has joined the McCluskeys’ legal team, had strong words for the university during a Monday news conference.

"The treatment of Lauren McCluskey by university authorities in a period of grave danger and terror in her life is disappointing in the extreme, and, in the end, led to her horrifying death," Durham said, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

The university responded to the McCluskeys’ lawsuit in September, asking a judge to dismiss it in its entirety. University of Utah lawyers argued that campus police officers had no obligation to protect McCluskey from Rowland’s attacks.

They stated that because Rowland was not an employee or student -- and because McCluskey herself had invited him onto campus during their brief relationship -- the university has no liability in the case.

“(Liability for McCluskey’s death) would require that schools be guardians of every student’s safety from any act of relationship violence, no matter where the act arises or who perpetrates it,” the court filing states.

The new documents from the plaintiffs argue the university had a duty to protect McCluskey, regardless of who her attacker was. The Tribune reported that multiple current and former students have come forward since McCluskey was killed to report that  ampus police officers have ignored reports of rape and harassment for years.

The school obtained a $300,000 grant to address the problem after four women were killed in domestic violence incidents over the past three years, the newspaper said.

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University of Utah President Ruth Watkins said in December, following the release of an independent investigation into the school's actions, that the review did not "offer any reason to believe" the university could have acted differently to prevent McCluskey's murder.

“Instead, the report offers weaknesses, identifies issues and provides us with a road map for strengthening security on our campus,” Watkins said.

McCluskey’s parents said Monday that the university failed their daughter, the Tribune reported.

"We offer many reasons to show that the University of Utah police, and other officials and staff at the university, could have prevented Lauren's murder," her mother, Jill McCluskey, said during an emotional news conference.

“They did not believe her and were dismissive. Now they’re hoping people will forget about Lauren.”

‘An evil, violent, manipulative, predatory sex offender’

The independent review of campus officials' response to McCluskey's complaints found that officials did take the complaints seriously, but it laid out a multitude of flaws in the university's response to the campaign of harassment the student-athlete faced.

It also laid bare everything that took place in the 50 days after McCluskey, described as a “well-liked, kind, trusting and caring” young woman, met Rowland, who the report described as a “master con man” who “manipulated people and events to benefit himself.”

"When Lauren refused to go along with his manipulation and reported his actions to the police, he stalked her and killed her," the report stated.

An emotional Matthew and Jill McCluskey embrace following a June 27, 2019, news conference in Salt Lake City. The couple is suing the University of Utah in connection with the on-campus murder of their daughter, Lauren McCluskey, on Oct. 22, 2018.

McCluskey met Rowland on Sept. 2, 2018, at a Salt Lake City bar where he worked as a bouncer, according to the review, the Tribune and a timeline from the University of Utah. Rowland, 37, lied to McCluskey about his name, calling himself Shawn Fields, as well as his age, convincing McCluskey and her friends he was 28 years old.

He also failed to mention he was a registered sex offender on parole for previous crimes.

Rowland admitted in 2004 that he attempted to sexually assault a teenage girl, the Tribune reported. At his parole hearing eight years later, he told the board he'd raped the girl, as well as two other women.

Four years later, he threatened a parole officer, but his attorney in the case questioned whether Rowland was actually violent. The rape admissions were not discussed, and Rowland, whose violent past was downplayed during his parole hearings, was later granted release, the newspaper said.

He was in and out of prison until he completed sex offender treatment and was paroled for the final time in April 2018, six months before he killed McCluskey.

"Melvin Shawn Rowland was an evil, violent, manipulative, predatory sex offender who took the life of a promising young woman," the independent review stated. "He misled many people. He had multiple identities, plausible storylines and charm."

"As we examined the totality of this troubling event, we discovered that there were several indications that Lauren McCluskey was in trouble," the report said. "Had victim advocates been engaged, Lauren might not have been left to assess the dangerousness of her situation on her own."

Read the amended complaint against the University of Utah below. 

Lauren McClusky Amended Federal Lawsuit by National Content Desk on Scribd

McCluskey knew nothing of his criminal past when she began dating Rowland, who often stayed with her at the residence hall where she lived on campus, the Tribune reported. He also became friends with other students living in the hall.

Later in September, McCluskey went pistol shooting with Rowland and some friends, unaware that Rowland, as a convicted felon, was not allowed to possess a gun, the report said.

Meanwhile, Rowland had begun attempting to control McCluskey's life. On Sept. 26, according to the report, "Lauren calls two of her friends and is very sad. Lauren says that Rowland will not let her 'hang out with friends.'"

The report said the friends felt that McCluskey didn’t sound like herself and that, during that same week, her physical appearance had changed as she began to lose weight.

“Both believe Lauren was too trusting and was being taken advantage of by Rowland,” the report stated. “Neither likes Rowland because he just ‘didn’t ring true.’”

According to the report, McCluskey's friends went to the resident assistant for McCluskey's dorm on Sept. 30 and expressed concern over Rowland's controlling nature and the fact that he had been "practically living with her" in her room.

Rowland also talked about getting McCluskey a gun and bringing it to campus, the students told the resident assistant.

The review found that the concerns of McCluskey’s friends were never passed on to the University of Utah Department of Public Safety, or UUPS. Though housing officials discussed McCluskey’s case among themselves, their focus was on whether housing rules had been broken and not whether she was in a dangerous situation.

They discussed following up with McCluskey about the “guest policy” and that they “should counsel Lauren about the implications of firearms on campus.”

Rowland's comments about bringing a gun onto campus were never reported to campus police, the independent review found.

Read the independent review of the handling of the McCluskey case below.

Lauren McCluskey Independent Review by National Content Desk on Scribd

On Oct. 1, there was talk that something should be done immediately regarding McCluskey’s situation, but a report was not submitted because the computerized reporting system was down.

"No further action is taken at this time," the review said.

The following day, the assistant director of residential education was contacted regarding McCluskey and Rowland’s relationship. Again, since no housing violations had occurred and McCluskey was not seeking help for herself, nothing was done.

‘Many identities’

According to the report, McCluskey began to have suspicions about Rowland on Oct. 3. She soon found out about his criminal record and learned his real age.

"When she asks Rowland about this, he tells her he has 'many identities,'" the report stated.

Between Oct. 5 and Oct. 8, housing officials reviewed the situation but decided “not to ‘overstep’” in helping McCluskey unless she sought help.

McCluskey visited her family in her hometown of Pullman, Washington, from Oct. 5 through Oct. 9 for fall break and, during the visit home, admitted the things she’d found out about Rowland.

Meanwhile, campus housing officials had determined that one of McCluskey’s friends should approach her about the policy regarding firearms on campus. They apparently attempted to contact the friend, but she had also left campus for fall break, the report said.

The remnants of a candlelight vigil for University of Utah student-athlete Lauren McCluskey, 21, are pictured. McCluskey was killed on campus by her ex-boyfriend, Melvin Shawn Rowland, 37, who then killed himself in a Salt Lake City church. 

(University of Utah)

The report stated that McCluskey returned to school Oct. 9, at which point she contacted Rowland, and he came to campus.

"As he approaches, he looks into the window before going to the front door. This action startles Lauren," the report said. "She opens the door, confronts Rowland and breaks off her relationship with him."

McCluskey allowed Rowland to spend the night in her room and, the following day, to use her car to run some errands. Later in the day, she got a text from one of his friends stating she “had broken Rowland’s heart,” but that he would return her car, the report said.

Other messages told McCluskey she should kill herself.

Jill McCluskey called campus police that day, asking someone to go with her daughter to get the vehicle.

“He has her car, and she broke up with him, and he’s supposed to return it to the parking lot at the stadium,” Jill McCluskey said in the call, which was made public by the university in January. “I’m worried that he’s dangerous.”

A few minutes later, the dispatcher called Lauren McCluskey and gave her options on how to retrieve her vehicle. She initially denied help, saying she felt comfortable with Rowland’s friend dropping the car off outside her dorm.

“I think it’s OK,” McCluskey told the dispatcher.

“OK, ‘cause if it’s all right with you, we’re here 24/7. I’m super cool,” the dispatcher said. “You could come hang out here and have him drop it off here.”

University of Utah students are seen during an Oct. 21, 2019, protest advocating for better security on the Salt Lake City campus. The protest was held on the eve of the first anniversary of the murder of student and track athlete Lauren McCluskey.

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Around 5 p.m. that day, McCluskey called police again to say a friend of Rowland’s had dropped the car off at Rice-Eccles Stadium on campus. She asked for a ride and an escort to pick up the car.

The investigation following McCluskey’s murder found that Rowland had been using a “spoofed” telephone number to pretend to be a friend so McCluskey would not know it was him dropping off the vehicle.

The independent review found that because there was no mechanism to record and share routine security calls, like the one asking for an escort to pick up McCluskey's car, officers and detectives later working on the case were unaware that McCluskey and her mother had been concerned about her safety.

A pattern of harassment

The report found that the harassment of McCluskey continued the following day, Oct. 11, when she received text messages alleging that Rowland was hospitalized after an accident. She texted family in Washington, who were skeptical because Rowland didn’t have a car and was supposed to be out of state.

Early Oct. 12, McCluskey got a text message telling her Rowland had died and that it was her fault. Again, she and her family were skeptical, in part because she had seen recent social media activity from Rowland. UUPS investigators later determined Rowland was again using a spoofed number, pretending to be a friend contacting McCluskey.

The Tribune reported that the posts McCluskey had seen were a violation of parole for Rowland, who was barred from using social media.

McCluskey filed a report with campus police that day, 10 days before she was slain. She explained to officers that she believed Rowland’s friends were trying to lure her off campus and into a trap.

"Lauren states that the texts are not threatening," the independent report stated. "(Redacted) tells Lauren that not much can be done if the messages do not contain threats, but to contact UUPS if things escalate."

On Oct. 13, she called police again, telling them Rowland or his friends were emailing and using an unspecified app to threaten her -- they said they would release “compromising pictures” of her and Rowland if she didn’t pay $1,000.

McCluskey paid the cash, the Tribune reported.

She called the police several times that day, sending them copies of the messages she had received. She spoke with campus police by phone, then in person, at which time she filled out a witness statement and told officers she was frightened when she found Rowland peeking into her window the day she broke up with him.

The rest of the day was a flurry of phone activity for McCluskey, who was in contact several times with police regarding what information they needed to investigate Rowland, the report said.

A fearful McCluskey also called the Salt Lake City Police Department twice, seeking additional help, but they referred her back to campus police.

Campus police Chief Dale Brophy said officers took McCluskey's report and pulled Rowland's criminal history but did not check to see if he was on parole, the Tribune reported. If they had, McCluskey's friends' claims that Rowland could have a gun likely would have resulted in his arrest for violating his parole, the newspaper said.

"There was never an attempt by any of the officers involved to check his 'offender status.' Further, there were no policies or procedures that required such checks," the independent review stated.

The Tribune reported that Rowland’s parole officer spoke with him on Oct. 16 but was not aware of McCluskey’s complaints about him.

For the next several days, McCluskey’s case went nowhere because investigators were tied up with other cases. She called Salt Lake City police dispatchers again on Oct. 19, concerned about her case because she had not heard anything in days.

"She expresses concern that she believes there might be an 'insider' within UUPS because her ex-boyfriend knows all about her contact with the police," the report stated.

The report pointed out, however, that McCluskey had given Rowland access to her computer in the course of their relationship, which could have provided him with access to the emails she wrote to police in real time.

Again, Salt Lake City investigators referred her back to university police.

The campus detective assigned to work McCluskey’s case, who was off duty, returned her call, but told her she wouldn’t be back at work until Oct. 23.

By then, it would be too late.

‘No, no, no, no, no!’

The increasingly terrified student continued to forward emails and texts to police in which Rowland or his friends made statements like, “What did you tell the cops? We know everything!”

The Tribune reported that between Oct. 19 and Oct. 22, the day McCluskey was killed, university security footage showed Rowland at multiple locations on campus, apparently looking for McCluskey.

On the day McCluskey was killed, she received a fake text, purportedly from Deputy Chief Rick McLenon with the campus police.

“I plan on calling you, but I’m in a meeting at the moment,” the text read. “Can you come to the station as soon as possible? There is something you need to see. I will go over details when you get here.”

Contacting campus police later that morning, McCluskey learned the text was sent from a number unaffiliated with the university. The officer who confirmed the text was fake told McCluskey not to respond to it but failed to report it to his supervisors, the report said.

From 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., Rowland waited for McCluskey in the residence hall with some of her friends, the Tribune reported.

Just over two hours later, at 8:20 p.m., McCluskey was on the phone with her mother as she returned home from a night class. Jill McCluskey heard Rowland grab her daughter and drag her away.

University of Utah students stand near the campus parking lot where student and track athlete Lauren McCluskey, 21, was shot to death by her ex-boyfriend Oct. 22, 2018. 

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Three minutes later, Lauren McCluskey’s father called 911 in Washington state and reported his daughter’s possible abduction in Utah, explaining what his wife had heard on the phone. The dispatcher transferred him to University of Utah dispatchers.

“Hi, my daughter, Lauren McCluskey, was talking to her mom, and then she just started saying, ‘No, no, no, no, no,’ like someone might have been grabbing her or something,” Matt McCluskey told the dispatcher.

Nine minutes later, officers found Lauren McCluskey’s cellphone and other belongings on the ground near her dorm and mobilized additional officers.

The slain student's body was found around 9:55 p.m., 95 minutes after her abduction, in a car abandoned in a parking lot on campus, the newspaper said. According to police, Rowland had dragged McCluskey into the back seat of the car, which he had driven to the university.

He shot her seven times with a gun he borrowed from a friend.

Click here to listen to all the 911 calls released in the Lauren McCluskey murder.

As police officers scoured the campus for the missing student, her killer called a woman he'd recently met on a dating website and asked her to pick him up, the Tribune said. The went to dinner and then to her downtown home, where Rowland took a shower, police said.

The woman then dropped the fugitive off at a coffee shop.

As authorities sought Rowland in connection with the shooting, the woman saw his photo on the news and called police.

Just before 1 a.m. the following morning, Salt Lake City police officers spotted Rowland and followed him on foot to Trinity AME Church, the Tribune reported. As officers entered the church, Rowland fatally shot himself, authorities said.

People gather outside Trinity AME Church in Salt Lake City on Oct. 23, 2018. The church was the site where Melvin Shawn Rowland, who was suspected of killing his ex-girlfriend, 21-year-old Lauren McCluskey, took his life that morning. 

‘Evidence of possible dangers’ and an untrained police force

John T. Nielsen, the former Utah Department of Public Safety commissioner who led the independent investigation into McCluskey’s case, identified multiple missed opportunities where University of Utah staff should have responded differently to the case, the Tribune reported.

Besides the campus department's failure to learn Rowland was on parole for violent felonies, the report also pointed out the delays by housing officials in taking action when McCluskey's friends attempted to get early intervention in what they believed to be a bad relationship.

Rowland’s consideration of bringing a firearm on campus was never reported to police or to the Behavioral Intervention Team, which was never utilized at all, the report said. No one investigated the reports that Rowland was violating campus housing policy and had easy access to the dorm.

The UUPS was understaffed and its officers lacked training in how to recognize and investigate cases of interpersonal violence or domestic violence, the report concluded. Officers also leaned more toward communicating with the victim via email and text rather than in person.

The department also failed to ensure vital information was followed up on when the detective assigned to the case was off duty.

"An important email was sent to (the detective) on her day off," the report stated. "She did not read it until after the homicide had occurred."

It was, in fact, while the detective -- who was called in on her day off to help with McCluskey's homicide -- was at the crime scene that she logged into her departmental email account and found the student's emails about the fake message from McLenon, according to the report.

The McCluskeys in December wrote an open letter disagreeing with the university's stance that officials could not have foreseen the murder or stopped it from taking place. Ultimately, no one was disciplined in the case, the Tribune reported.

"There were numerous opportunities to protect her during the almost two weeks between the time when our daughter began expressing repeated, elevating and persistent concerns about her situation and the time of her murder," the couple wrote. "This situation cries out for accountability beyond updating policies and training and addressing (campus police) understaffing by hiring five new department personnel."

Last month, on the eve of the anniversary of Lauren McCluskey’s killing, her former track coach agreed with her parents.

"They didn't value it. That is the ugly truth," Chris Vogel told ABC4 in Salt Lake City. "Lauren's life was not, at some very basic levels, worth fighting for. They didn't realize they were actually gambling with life."