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Guest opinion: Lauren McCluskey's death was preventable

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
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.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

On Christmas Eve, the Salt Lake City Police Department released a disturbing audio recording of University of Utah coed Lauren McCluskey’s 911 call made on Oct. 19, just three days before her murder on Oct. 22, hoping that someone in law enforcement would take her case seriously.

It had been a week since Lauren had first contacted the university’s campus police about her harasser, Melvin Rowland. She told the police operator that nothing had been done to follow up on her complaint.

Tragically, this would not be Lauren’s last cry for help to the police before Rowland brutally murdered her.

Responding to Lauren’s death, University of Utah President Ruth Watkins convened a panel to look into the circumstances surrounding her murder. Last week, Watkins held a news conference detailing the investigative panel’s findings. Watkins shockingly concluded the report does not offer us a reason to believe this tragedy could have been prevented.

Not only was this not the finding of the report, but it is simply not true. Indeed, the report itself suggests a number of steps, which if taken, may have saved Lauren’s life.

Lauren’s heartbroken parents, Jill and Matthew McCluskey, immediately protested Watkins’ conclusion in an articulate and detailed letter rebutting her claim.

As a retired career state and federal prosecutor, I’d like to comment on some of the things that could have prevented Lauren’s murder.

In my opinion, the chief failures of the university’s response boil down to this:

First, the University of Utah Police, or UUPD, never learned that Rowland, Lauren’s murderer, was on parole, and that he had repeatedly violated that parole. This is astonishing since they were aware he was a violent sex offender.

They knew — or should have known — he had broken the conditions of his parole by shooting a gun, using social media and extorting money from Lauren.

All someone in the police department had to do was pick up a phone and call over to the Utah Department of Corrections Adult Probation and Parole and ask. Had they done so, AP&P officers could have taken Rowland into custody and Lauren’s murder would have been prevented.

The report disclosed that it was not a part of UUPD protocol to make such parole inquiries of AP&P and that they never do so. This glaring oversight alone likely cost Lauren her life.

In fact, I believe there should have been a public database, like the sex offender registry, that lists every offender on parole, with their parole officer’s phone number, so Lauren, her parents or concerned friends could have made that call if the police didn’t. This is something the Legislature could remedy right away.

Second, on Oct. 13, nine days before her murder, Lauren furnished campus police with probable cause for Rowland’s immediate arrest on either state or federal felony extortion charges. There was clear evidence from Lauren that he not only threatened to publish embarrassing photos he had taken of her but she had given him $1,000 as a result of his extortionate demand. Given that law enforcement knew of Rowland’s record of sexual violence, his apprehension should have become a priority.

Had he been taken into custody on either the parole violation or the extortion charge, almost certainly Lauren would be alive today.

Finally, on Monday morning, Oct. 22, the day of her death, at 10:39 a.m., Lauren emailed the campus police, alerting them to having received a text purportedly from Deputy Police Chief Rick McLenon trying to lure her out of her apartment on the pretext of a meeting to discuss her case.

The police told Lauren the sender of the text was falsely impersonating Chief McLenon, a crime in and of itself. Since Rowland had attempted such a ruse before, it follows that he was behind this latest effort.

The importance of this event can’t be overstated. Coupled with his record and previous actions, it demonstrated a bold effort to get a hold of Lauren and do her harm.

If nothing else, this should have gotten the police’s attention and impelled them to arrest Rowland and to take steps to ensure Lauren’s immediate safety.

They did neither, and Lauren died.

Sadly, I wonder that if the activity logs of the UUPD during Lauren’s last week were checked, they would reveal many police actions such as traffic enforcement, and investigations into vandalism, cheating and minor drug issues and the like — all of which, though important, pale in comparison to Lauren’s predicament and the priority it should have been given.

Contrary to what President Watkins stated, I have little doubt that university personnel could have, and should have, prevented Lauren’s murder.