Parents of slain University of Utah student sue the school
A $56 million lawsuit filed Thursday alleges that the University of Utah failed to protect a student who was killed by an ex-boyfriend she had complained about to police more than 20 times.
Lauren McCluskey‘s death on October 22 on the Salt Lake City campus occurred because the university refused to respond to numerous reports of stalking, abuse, intimidation and dating violence and other behaviors prohibited under the federal Title IX law, according to the wrongful death suit filed in US District Court.
Jill McCluskey said she and her husband repeatedly asked University President Ruth V. Watkins “to take responsibility and to hold individuals accountable” for their daugther’s death, and emailed Watkins in December 2018 offering to form a partnership to address what they saw were safety deficiencies.
“The university has taken no responsibility for Lauren’s preventable death,” Jill McCluskey told reporters. “No one has been disciplined or held accountable in the campus police or housing.”
“The university must pay a large amount so that they realize it is in their interest to believe women and act with urgency when their female students ask for help,” she said, describing the lawsuit as a “last resort.”
In a statement, Watkins said the school again expresses “deep sorrow for the loss of Lauren McCluskey.”
“While there are differences in how we would characterize some of the events leading to Lauren’s tragic murder, let me say again that we share the McCluskey family’s commitment to improving campus safety,” she said in the statement. “We continue to address the recommendations identified by the independent review of the university’s safety policies, procedures and resources, and we are making ongoing improvements designed to protect our students and our entire campus community.”
Lauren McCluskey was a 21-year-old track athlete from Pullman, Washington. Her mother said any money from the lawsuit would go to the Lauren McCluskey Foundation, which honors her daughter’s legacy through charity, and student athletes.
The lawsuit names several defendants, including the university’s department of housing and residential education and department of public safety.
Concerns about safety on campus
The suspect, Melvin Rowland, 37, was a convicted sex offender who had spent more than a decade in prison. He had continually harassed McCluskey after she ended their short relationship. Rowland killed himself hours later after a police chase.
Recordings of 911 calls to Salt Lake City Police show that McCluskey sought help from authorities multiple times and grew increasingly frustrated.
“I’m worried because I’ve been working with the campus police at the U, and last Saturday I reported and I haven’t gotten an update,” she told Salt Lake City Police dispatch on October 19.
“They haven’t updated or done anything,” she added.
McCluskey also told police she paid Rowland $1,000 to keep compromising photos of the two of them private, according to a university timeline of McCluskey’s contacts with police. Police had assigned a detective to follow up on possible sexual extortion charges, the timeline noted.
A pattern of stalking and harassment
The lawsuit said university officers “ignored” McCluskey’s report of stalking and sexual harassment and warning signs of domestic violence. Instead, officers suggested she was “was the victim of an online scam,” the lawsuit said.
Officers also rushed McCluskey to finish a witness statement at the police station, the lawsuit said, “telling her that they were only concerned about the extortion and that she could just leave everything else about the stalking, harassment, domestic violence and dating violence out of the statement.”
Jill McCluskey said her daughter had also met twice with her counselor to discuss the situation.
In all, Lauren McCluskey and her friends contacted university officials more than 20 times, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit said the campus police and housing department failed to take meaningful actions “despite having actual knowledge that Melvin Rowland was harassing Lauren and stalking her.”
Several weeks before McCluskey’s death, her friends reported to housing officials that Rowland had talked about bringing a gun to campus, Jill MCcluskey said.
“They did nothing with that information,” she said. “On October 22, 2018, he brought that gun to campus and killed her with it.”
Rowland was convicted in 2004 of felony charges of enticing a minor and attempted forcible sexual abuse, according to the Utah Department of Corrections sex offender registry. In audio of the hearings released by the Utah Boards of Parole and Pardons, he admitted to a history of manipulating women.
“The review team’s report identified gaps in training, awareness and enforcement of certain policies rather than lapses in individual performance,” the university said.
University police “failed to investigate” whether Rowland was on parole or contact anyone who may have information on him, the lawsuit said. Police also “failed to make an attempt to determine whether Melvin Rowland was behind the harassment and extortion,” the lawsuit said.
After the review, Watkins announced several measures focused on training and improved communication.
James W. McConkie, a McCluskey family attorney, said he hopes the lawsuit “will help the university accept the responsibility which they have for this tragic event.”
“In Utah, when someone does something that’s wrong, we expect them to do everything they can to make it right, but we also expect them to take responsibility for what they have done,” he told reporters.
“And unless that process is complete, then healing and reconciliation are impossible,” McConkie said.
Killed while on the phone with her mother
Rowland had confronted McCluskey outside of her residence call while she was on the phone with her mother. He forced her into the back seat of a car and shot her multiple times, according to the university timeline.
Lauren’s father, Matt McCluskey, called the police, who found her body.
Rowland called a woman from a dating site to come pick him up. They went to a restaurant, drove by the capitol, went to her apartment so he could shower and then she dropped him off at a coffee shop, according to the timeline.
After she did, she recognized photos of Rowland in news reports and called the police.
Police then spotted Rowland and chased him on foot to a church, where he shot and killed himself, the timeline said.
“I do not want to be in this world without Lauren. But being stuck here, I have no choice but to try to make this world better,” Matt McCluskey told reporters.
“We want the University of Utah and all academic institutions to be places of leaning where students worry about midterms not survival,” he said.
CNN’s Eric Levenson, Chuck Johnston, Chris Boyette, Joe Sterling and Melissa Alonso contributed to this report.