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Mom of murdered student blasts University of Utah police

University of Utah President Ruth Watkins, left, John T. Nielsen, former Commissioner of Public Safety for the State of Utah, Sue Riseling, executive director, International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, Keith Squires, Senior Vice
FILE - University of Utah President Ruth Watkins, left, John T. Nielsen, former Commissioner of Public Safety for the State of Utah, Sue Riseling, executive director, International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, Keith Squires, senior Vice President for Government and Industry Relations, and Commissioner Jess L. Anderson, Utah Department of Public Safety, speak about actions to improve campus safety in response to an independent review team's findings and recommendations related to the Lauren McCluskey case at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018. Calling it an "unforgivable lapse of judgment and professional competency," the mother of slain University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey on Thursday blasted the University of Utah police department for not taking her daughter's case seriously.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Calling it an "unforgivable lapse of judgment and professional competency," the mother of slain University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey on Thursday blasted campus police for not taking her daughter's case seriously.

Jill McCluskey also called for the officers, whom she believes "failed" her daughter, "be held accountable for neglecting her numerous, persistent attempts to seek help, and be disciplined appropriately."

The strong prepared statement from Jill and Matthew McCluskey comes a day after an independent panel assigned by the university to investigate whether the U. Department of Public Safety properly handled Lauren McCluskey's case, released its final report. The report's authors said Wednesday that they aren't sure whether McCluskey's murder at the hands of Melvin Shawn Rowland, 37, on Oct. 22 could have been prevented, even though the report outlines numerous mistakes made by officers, including failing to do a simple criminal background check on Rowland and not receiving messages or returning calls in a timely manner.

In a three-page statement released by Lauren McCluskey's parents, they say they believe their daughter's death could have been prevented.

Lauren McCluskey, 21, a University of Utah student, was killed Monday night.
Lauren McCluskey, Utah Cross Country and Track and Field, photographed Aug. 30, 2017, in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Steve C. Wilson, University of Utah

"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," they wrote.

"This situation cries out for accountability beyond updating policies and training and addressing (police) understaffing by hiring five new department personnel."

Lauren McCluskey met Rowland in September. At that time, Rowland lied about his name and age. In early October, she learned Rowland's true identity and discovered he was a registered sex offender who had been paroled from the Utah State Prison three times. On Oct. 10, Jill McCluskey called university police herself.

"She explicitly said that she wanted Lauren to have a police escort because she was worried about Lauren’s safety," the family wrote.

Jill McCluskey said she was able to look up Rowland's criminal background using her own computer in her hometown of Pullman, Washington.

"This simple search immediately revealed Rowland’s sex-offender past and potential dangerousness," she said.

On Oct. 12, Lauren McCluskey told U. police that she was receiving what she believed were fake messages being sent by Rowland in an attempt to lure her out of her apartment, according to the report. Those messages included claims that Rowland was in the hospital following a car crash and later that he had died.

The McCluskeys said the fact that Rowland was a registered sex offender, was sending fake messages to their daughter to lure her outside, and that their daughter was scared of him, should have prompted U. police to treat her case as more than a simple extortion case.

But the family said that in a police report filed on Oct. 12 based on their daughter's phone call, an officer wrote, "I explained that without any threats or anything of a criminal nature that there isn’t much we can do."

Lauren McCluskey called police again the next day, on Oct. 13, but her mother said "there was no recognition that this was a continuing and escalating case. In fact, each of the several times that Lauren called the police, it was like the first time. The person that Lauren would speak to indicated no knowledge of who Lauren was, why she was calling, and apparently had no knowledge of any accumulating record of her issues," according to her statement.

Lauren McCluskey made many calls and sent emails to U. police between Oct. 13 and 19, her mother said. But because of their lack of response, she contacted Salt Lake police "out of desperation," hoping they might be able to do something. Salt Lake police could only refer her case back to the U. since the investigation was in the university's jurisdiction.

The final report acknowledges that on Oct. 19, Lauren McCluskey contacted Salt Lake police dispatchers because "she is very concerned about her case because she has not heard back as to its disposition."

On Oct. 22 — the day of the murder — Lauren McCluskey received a text from someone claiming to be the deputy chief of the U. Department of Public Safety asking to meet with her. Again, McCluskey believed it was an attempt by Rowland to lure her out of her apartment.

McCluskey forwarded the message to the officer assigned to her case. But because officers are not required to check work email when they're not working, the message was not received until after McCluskey was killed, according to the report.

A second officer, whom McCluskey called, did return her call and told her the text was a fake.

"However, he did not report this alarming attempt at luring Lauren from her residence to anyone. This information was a major red flag, and this final inaction by the UUPD was fatal," the McCluskeys wrote. "The fact that (the officer) did not report this to (the deputy chief), or to anyone at all, is inexplicable and indefensible.

"Lauren’s reporting went nowhere. This is an unforgivable lapse of judgment and professional competency. This contradicts the finding that the police were taking Lauren’s complaints seriously."

According to the University of Utah, the two officers handling McCluskey's case have each been with the department three years or less.

Jill McCluskey further said the "the disconnection between university counseling staff, with whom my daughter was meeting, and UUPD or any other entity on campus, is another glaring fault." The independent panel's final report also acknowledged this problem.

Jill McCluskey acknowledged that writing her letter was difficult because her daughter loved the school and their family will always support U. athletics. And she agrees with the final report's conclusion that "there were failings both systematically and individually … correcting the issues we have identified in this report might lessen the probability of such a tragedy occurring again.”

However, she also believes that "the University of Utah must substantially improve its responsiveness to women who are in danger of relationship violence so that future tragedies will be prevented."

U. spokesman Chris Nelson released a brief statement Thursday in response to the McCluskey family's letter.

"The University of Utah has received and reviewed Jill and Matthew McCluskey’s response to the independent review. The university has also shared the family’s response with members of the review team. The university is committed to implementing the recommendations made in the report. More information about the specific actions the university has taken, and will take, can be found online."