What really happened to Lauren McCluskey? The inside story of her tragic death

In a Deseret News exclusive, Lauren McCluskey's parents are speaking out about their daughter’s murder and why they believe she was failed by the institutions charged with protecting her.


When her daughter calls, on a chilly Monday evening in October 2018, Jill McCluskey is on the Stairmaster in the basement of her home.

“Hi, Mom,” Lauren says. Lauren is 21, a track star at the University of Utah. She’s months away from graduating.

Lauren and Jill talk every day, sometimes several times a day. They talk about Lauren’s course load, they talk about boys, they talk about track.

Tonight, Lauren sounds happy. Jill puts her phone on speaker so she can finish her workout.

“How are things going?” Jill asks, her breath still a bit labored.

“So good,” Lauren says. This is a relief, Jill thinks. She’s been worried about Lauren. She’s always worried; that’s her nature like any mom. When Lauren was little, she worried about her grades, her teachers, her mood. She used to pace the sidelines at Lauren’s track meets. Helicopter mom, people called her. Jill just wanted the best for Lauren.

And she tried to give it to her, here in this snug, cozy house on a quiet cul-de-sac in Pullman. They moved to Pullman 20 years ago, when Lauren was just 18 months old. Jill had just been offered tenure to teach economics, and her husband Matt had a tenured position in physics offered at the same time. And so they built a home here, on a street safe and quiet enough for Lauren to play with her little brother Ryan, or in the big backyard, on the jungle gym.

Lauren has been away at school now for more than three years, and though she wants Lauren to go out into the world, find herself and be independent, Jill still misses her. That’s why she keeps reminders of Lauren all over the house. It’s a way to feel close. On the corkboard of the kitchen, there’s the newspaper clipping from the day Lauren became Washington state track champion in 2012. Above the living room fireplace, a framed portrait of Lauren’s high school senior picture. And upstairs, next to her twin bed, her medals hang on the wall — enough to completely fill two separate display boards. It looks like the sort of display you’d see in the athletic wing of a high school.

And yet for all she’s accomplished, to Jill Lauren still seems vulnerable, and so she can’t help but worry, especially from 600 miles away.

Lately, Jill’s worries have centered around a guy. His name is Melvin Rowland. Broad shoulders, tall, dazzling smile. Lauren met him at a new club in downtown Salt Lake. He’s a bouncer, taking classes at a community college in computer science. Not exactly Lauren’s type, Jill thought, but at least he’s trying to better himself. At first, wary of her tendency to helicopter, she decided to not interfere, let her 21-year-old daughter figure things out.

Lauren is beautiful, Jill thinks, and most guys do too, and yet she doesn’t seem to know it herself, and she’s always been so disciplined, so driven that there hasn’t been much time for dating. She’s had a couple short-term boyfriends, but nothing like Rowland. He swept her off her feet. A bouquet of roses, expensive dinners, asking her to be his girlfriend. He had an old-fashioned charm.

But then things changed. First, controlling behavior. What she could wear, who she could hang out with. Then, Lauren found out that he had lied about almost everything — his name, his age, and the fact that he had a serious criminal record, including time served for sexual assault.

After that, Lauren involved campus police when Rowland started sending her menacing, scary texts after she had broken things off.

It seems to have worked. On the phone, Lauren sounds relaxed. Maybe this bad boyfriend business is behind her.

“I’ve got good news, mom,” Lauren says. She did well on a quiz she just took in her health communications class, and had a big assignment due at midnight in an online theater class she was taking — but she was on top of it, she reassured Jill, and was heading straight back to her dorm now to turn it in early.

Lauren’s tone is so lively and animated that her father, Matt, can hear in the next room while he’s practicing yoga. Matt almost calls out to Jill to turn the speakerphone down, but then he stops himself — he’s as relieved as Jill to hear Lauren sounding so lighthearted, and he can’t bring himself to interrupt. As a physics professor, he knows what it means for a college kid to turn in an assignment early, especially a student on a Division 1 athletic scholarship. “Good job, girl,” he says to himself.

“I love you, mom,” Lauren says, wrapping up the call.

And then, in an instant, everything changes. “No,” Lauren says, no longer talking to Jill. And then the words come gushing out in a torrent, laced in panic. “No, no, no, no, no!”

Lauren is screaming.

And then the line goes quiet.

A systemic problem?

That night, Oct. 22, 2018, Lauren McCluskey was shot to death by her ex-boyfriend after he abducted her in the parking lot outside of her dorm on the University of Utah campus.

What happened to Lauren is shocking and tragic. But Lauren’s murder was not an isolated incident but part of a larger, systemic problem affecting women across the country: an epidemic of campus dating violence.

Nearly half of dating college women report experiencing violence and abusive dating behaviors. Girls and young women between the ages of 16 and 24 experience the highest rate of intimate partner violence, almost triple the national average, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Indeed, what is striking and unusual about Lauren’s case is not that she was the victim of dating violence, which is all too common. What is unusual is that she had the fortitude to recognize the danger she was in early on, and to ask for help from the authorities responsible for protecting her.

Even so, her pleas for help — and those of her friends and family members — were largely ignored. Her messages went unreturned, or were passed from officer to officer, from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, leaving Lauren vulnerable and increasingly frantic.

Lauren’s story is about more than dating violence. It forces into the spotlight the question the nation is already grappling with, at the heart of seismic cultural movements like #MeToo. These movements protest not just the criminal acts of the perpetrators themselves, but the ways in which power structures — Hollywood, college campuses, the criminal justice system — have served to protect perpetrators and suppress, ignore or dismiss victims.

In other words, was Lauren murdered because she wasn’t taken seriously by the police? And was she not taken seriously because she was a woman?

The University of Utah police, University of Utah President Ruth Watkins, and University of Utah Board of Trustees Chair David Burton declined an interview with the Deseret News.

After an independent review of the police’s handling of Lauren McCluskey’s case, President Watkins said the report about university police “does not offer any reason to believe that this tragedy could've been prevented.”

Lauren’s parents disagree.

“The University of Utah failed to protect Lauren,” said Jill McCluskey. “We want individuals to be held accountable and an admission of responsibility.”

For the first time, in a Deseret News exclusive, Jill and Matt McCluskey are telling the full story of what happened that night, the events leading up to Lauren’s murder and why they believe she was failed by the institutions charged with protecting her.

Lauren’s transformation

Ever since she was a child, Lauren was shy with strangers.

When she was 8 years old, she broke three records in three track events in a single day at a Junior Olympics competition in Washington State.

But in conversations with friends and family, even in interviews with her hometown newspaper about her accomplishments, she would quickly deflect the focus from herself, her answers focusing on the successes of teammates and the support of her family. With new friends, she would put so much attention on the other person, asking thoughtful follow-up questions, that sometimes they wouldn’t learn for weeks that Lauren was a standout athlete.

Track and field medals of Lauren McCluskey's along with University of Utah memorabilia hang on her bedroom wall on Friday, May 24, 2019, at the McCluskey home in Pullman, Wash. Lauren McCluskey was murdered in October of 2018 on the University of Utah cam
Track and field medals of Lauren McCluskey's along with University of Utah memorabilia hang on her bedroom wall on Friday, May 24, 2019, at the McCluskey home in Pullman, Wash. Lauren McCluskey was murdered in October of 2018 on the University of Utah campus. | Geoff Crimmins, For the Deseret News

Even in photographs, though she is strikingly beautiful — her hair perfectly straight, her skin glowing — an impatient smile is painted on her lips, as if she yearns for the attention to be on someone else so she can get back to the race track. “She was just really hard on herself for not being perfect,” says Jill McCluskey.

She set high standards for herself, and was disappointed when she didn’t meet them. But she was also resilient, and would bounce back after a loss, ready to work harder and do better the next time.

In 2012, as a freshman at Pullman High School, she won first place in the high jump in the Washington State High School Championship. But in another event that day — hurdles — she placed second. Despite her first-place win, the picture that ran the next day in the local newspaper showed her face crumpled in disappointment.

Lauren McCluskey's yearbook
Lauren McCluskey's yearbook | Courtesy Jill and Matt McCluskey

Throughout high school, Lauren remained laser-focused on academics and athletics, Olympic dreams in mind. She went to a few school dances, but didn’t date anyone. She had a small, close circle of girlfriends, and when she wasn’t training or doing homework, she volunteered at the Humane Society, a 5-minute drive from her house.

Her shyness continued into college. The pressure of having to perform athletically, get good grades, and make friends at a school with 32,000 students was overwhelming. Salt Lake City was exciting, but it was also daunting, much bigger than the small town where she grew up. She was also intimidated by the older girls on the track team.

Her freshman year, she spent most of her time with her roommate, Alex, who recalls that Lauren walked around campus with her head down so much that she often didn’t see when Alex would wave at her, and she would have to call out Lauren’s name to get her attention.

But as she neared her senior year in college, she changed. Out of nowhere, it seemed, her confidence exploded. She spontaneously shared stories about her life with friends and relatives. One day, she corralled a group of girlfriends to go to an open-mic night at Wiseguys Comedy Club, and then got up on stage and did a routine, leaving her friends in the audience mildly shocked. She started going to karaoke night regularly at Cheers to You, a bar in downtown Salt Lake City, belting out songs at full volume in front of complete strangers. Who was this Lauren, friends wondered. An aura of confidence built around her and an increased energy.

What prompted her transformation? A finish line, of sorts.

A page from a memorial album presented by University of Utah Athletics to Jill and Matt McCluskey after Lauren McCluskey's death.
From a memorial album presented to Jill and Matt McCluskey after Lauren McCluskey's death by University of Utah Athletics. | Courtesy Jill and Matt McCluskey

Lauren had always loved a finish line. But now, instead of Olympic gold, she had a new kind of finish line in her sights: graduation.

After she got her diploma, she wanted to move somewhere warm, like San Diego. Finally, she’d be done with the pressure of papers and exams and track meet after track meet. She would get her own apartment. She’d meet new friends, new boys. Independence seemed so close, she could taste it.

A whirlwind romance

Saturday night, September 2018. It started out a night like any other. Lauren texted Alex about a new bar on Main Street. London Belle. Red velvet couches, pulsating music, crowded dance floor. Line snaking out the door. The Lauren who walked around campus with her head down would have never gone to London Belle. New Lauren? Why not?

The fact was, she felt a little low-energy. It was a new semester, her penultimate one, and frankly, she was burned out, couldn’t wait until college was over. Alex agreed to join her. They didn’t plan to get too crazy — one drink and call it a night. It was a warm evening, the mountains that frame Salt Lake still verdant and green with pine and cottonwoods, the snow that would soon blanket the valley still months away, and so they dressed casually, Alex in a sundress and cardigan, Lauren in jeans, a simple navy T-shirt and sandals.

When they reached the front of the line at London Belle, Lauren met Rowland for the first time. He was a bouncer, and he looked the part. Tight black T-shirt that clung to his sculpted torso, bulging biceps. There was something about him that caught Lauren’s attention, a quiet confidence bordering on intensity.

Once inside, the bar was lively, and every table was full. Lauren and Alex wandered around, looking for a place to sit. Suddenly, Rowland appeared in front of them, guiding them to open seats. After that, he walked by every so often, checking on them.

Lauren could tell he liked her, and she was immediately attracted to him. It didn’t hurt that he was tall. Lauren was 5-foot-8, and Rowland was tall enough that Lauren could wear heels around him, and standing next to him, she could feel petite, which was nice. When he walked away Alex thought to herself that he looked like The Rock. Later, she would wonder if he was on steroids.

Lauren felt a surge of confidence, a little jolt of electricity. She did something she had never done before. She grabbed a cocktail napkin and hastily scribbled 10 digits — her phone number.

“If we see him on the way out,” she told Alex with a grin, “I’ll give it to him.”

Alex was surprised and impressed. Lauren liked going to bars and checking out cute guys, but she’d never given her number out like this before.

But the minutes passed, and Rowland didn’t come back. Then the music picked up, and the dance floor started filling up, and neither of them had the energy for dancing.

On display in the home of Matt and Jill McCluskey in Pullman, Wash., is a University of Utah football helmet with the decal "Lauren" that was placed on the team helmets after their daughter Lauren was murdered in October of 2018 on the University of Utah
On display in the home of Matt and Jill McCluskey in Pullman, Wash., is a University of Utah football helmet with the decal "Lauren" that was placed on the team helmets after their daughter Lauren was murdered in October of 2018 on the University of Utah campus. | Geoff Crimmins, For the Deseret News

As they got up and headed for the door, Rowland appeared again, out of nowhere, in front of Lauren, surprising them both. He put his hands on her shoulders, holding her close. Before she lost her nerve, she thrust the napkin into his hands.

Then she and Alex fled out of the bar and into the thick heat of the evening, giggling all the way back to the car at Lauren’s audacity, feeling young and free.

When Lauren and Alex met up the next morning at services at Capital Church, which they attended weekly, Lauren had a glint in her eye: Rowland had texted her, and they had plans to meet up for a date at a climbing gym later that afternoon.

Lauren called her mother after their first date. She sounded infatuated. He had given her roses, and taken her out to dinner with his work friends to show her off.

Rowland wasn’t like other boys in Salt Lake. For starters, he wasn’t from here. He had grown up in New York. He wasn’t as bookish as the guys she’d met at the U., or as immature. He seemed grounded. He was only a bouncer part time, he told her, so he could pay to finish his associate degree in computer science at Salt Lake Community College.

When Jill heard that he was 28, she worried, but she decided not to say anything. Jill had been Lauren’s informal track coach her whole life, and that’s when the accusations of being a helicopter parent began, mostly because other parents thought Jill shouldn’t be coaching her own daughter. Lauren wasn’t a little girl anymore, Jill reminded herself. Allow her to grow up. Soon she would be graduating and out on her own, and she had to let Lauren make her own decisions. And her own mistakes.

Having a boyfriend would be good for her. And the fact that he was older, well, she wasn’t entirely surprised. Lauren was always mature for her age, and she was tired of the boys on campus, so it made sense that she would be drawn to an older guy, Jill told herself.

“I’m happy for you,” she told Lauren.

'I’m worried that he’s dangerous'

At first, Alex was excited too. The formal dates, the flowers. It was charming.

But as their relationship progressed, Alex noticed things that concerned her. From their first date, Rowland spent nearly every night in Lauren’s room. There was something about the logistics that didn’t add up. Why was this very large man spending every single night in Lauren’s twin bed in her student apartment on campus? It couldn’t be comfortable, it didn’t seem practical. Didn’t he have his own place?

Then, less than a week after they started dating, Lauren started saying things that indicated that Rowland was controlling her: “(He) told me to wear jeans and a T-shirt” or “(He) told me I could invite some friends to a bar.” Lauren readied herself for dates in a panic, fearful that she would anger him by being late. If he texted her, she would rush to respond immediately in case he got mad at her for her delayed response, even having Alex reply to him for her if she was driving.

He would often start their phone conversations with a hostile quiz: What are you doing? Who are you with? Where are you?

He was possessive, jealous. He told Lauren he didn’t want her going out downtown, or to friends' houses or parties, because other men could be there. When her phone died during a night class, he called her later enraged, accusing her of cheating. To protect her from the advances of other men, he bought her pepper spray and pressured her to buy a gun.

He told Lauren this was because he had been cheated on by a previous girlfriend and had trust issues. Lauren told Alex that she figured he’d get over all that once they became more established in their relationship. Alex was worried, but didn’t want to overstep.

“I kind of hinted at it, that this wasn't normal, like the controlling stuff,” Alex says. “But I didn’t want to push it only because I knew he had a lot of control over her at that point. I knew that sometimes, the guy could try to manipulate the girl and cut off communication (with her friends). So that’s why I didn’t push it.”

On Sept. 29, Lauren called Alex to come over to her apartment to talk. When she walked in, she did a double take. Lauren seemed so different, changed all of a sudden. Alex had the urge to ask her: who are you? She looked exhausted. Rowland often asked her to pick him up late at night after his shift at the bar, and it was taking a toll. But it was more than that, Alex could tell. It was his control over her that seemed to be draining Lauren.

She had lost weight, and her eyes were glassy and hollow. She looked defeated, a fragment of the confident, bubbly woman she had been less than a month before.

But she was still so “in it,” Alex remembers, still loyal to him and refusing to criticize him.

“It was in her nature never to say anything bad about anyone, but there were times when she was emotionally abused when he would say things to her, but she couldn’t seem to recognize it,” Alex recalls. “She was under his spell.”

Melvin Rowland
Melvin Rowland | Salt Lake County Jail

Other friends were also worried. The next day, Alex told two of her friends about Lauren’s situation, and they approached University of Utah housing staff to tell them that they were concerned about Lauren’s boyfriend’s control over her and how often he stayed in her room. They were also worried about how much he talked about guns.

Then, during a short visit to Pullman for fall break in the first days of October, Lauren researched her boyfriend online and discovered that he wasn’t who he said he was at all. He had lied about his name, which he had said was Shawn. He was actually Melvin Rowland. He had lied about his age, which was actually 37. And most shockingly, he had lied about his criminal record — that he was a registered sex offender who had spent 10 years in prison, released only shortly before she met him. She stared at his familiar face in a mug shot and tried to calm the panic rising in her throat.

Almost nothing Rowland had told Lauren was true. Born in New York, he was adopted by an older couple, but after they died, he was sent to a state-run group home. He had spent time in a Buddhist institute in California, joined the Job Corps and got a job as a certified nurse assistant after taking classes at Salt Lake Community College.

After a decade in prison on sex-abuse related charges, he had been sent back to prison twice for parole violations that included possessing pornography and failure to complete therapy. At one parole hearing he said he had once dreamed of being a doctor, but his addiction to “internet sexual activity” had ruined his life.

When Lauren returned to campus on Oct. 9, she had been planning on attending a teammate’s wedding with Rowland that evening. From her apartment, Lauren called Alex for advice. She wanted to break up with him, but she couldn’t just shoot him a text to end things, because he had borrowed her car while she was out of town and he still had it. Alex advised her not to go to the wedding, and to meet up with him in a public place — like a coffee shop — to end their relationship.

Unbeknownst to Lauren, while she talked on the phone, Rowland was crouching outside her ground-floor window, watching her and possibly listening to her, Lauren told Alex the next day. When she hung up the phone he burst into her apartment without knocking, berating her for talking about their relationship with other people.

“You shouldn’t be talking to your friends about our relationship,” he said, according to Alex.

Lauren confronted Rowland about his lies and criminal history, and broke up with him. He said he was framed by a girl he met at a fraternity party, that she was 17 and that he hadn’t done anything wrong, even though according to his plea he had admitted to soliciting sex from a 13-year-old girl.

“I only plead guilty because I had to,” he insisted.

Lauren wasn’t convinced, and tried to make him leave. That night, he stayed in her room. According to Alex, Lauren told her that every time Lauren tried to make Rowland leave, he forced himself on her sexually. This happened multiple times, according to Alex.

The next morning, Lauren told Rowland she had to go to track practice, and Rowland left, taking her car to run errands. After he left, she realized she didn’t have practice after all, and called Alex from her apartment to tell her about the night before.

Later that day, Lauren got a mysterious text from a number she didn’t recognize, appearing to be a friend of Rowland’s.

“Why’d you break up with the big guy, he really loves you,” the text read. A short time later, another text, supposedly from a different friend, asked her about her car, telling her he’d drop it by instead of Rowland because he couldn’t stand to look at her.

Then the texts escalated. One urged her to “go kill yourself.”

The texts seemed to have similar grammatical errors to those that Rowland used when texting her, giving her a hunch that it was Rowland himself sending her these texts, not his friends.

Lauren called her mom telling her Rowland had her car and was worried about getting it back. Jill McCluskey called campus dispatch and told them she was "very upset and worried" and requested an escort to help Lauren retrieve her car from Rowland. "I'm worried he's dangerous," Jill told dispatchers. Campus security provided an escort for Lauren and she was able to retrieve her car.

Two days later, Lauren received more texts from Rowland, these claiming that Rowland was dead and that it was Lauren’s fault. Some said he’d killed himself, others claimed he’d been in a car accident and she needed to come to the funeral.

She called University of Utah police, telling them about the suspicious messages.

The officer told her that without threats or anything criminal in nature, “there was not much that could be done.”

Escalating threats

But what happened the next day, on Oct. 13, stopped Lauren in her tracks.

Rowland texted her telling her he had a compromising photograph of the two of them together, and that unless she paid him $1,000, he would publish it online.

Lauren panicked. The photo clearly showed her face and the posters in her room. It would tarnish everything she had worked so hard, all her life, to build. She was Lauren McCluskey, the nice small-town girl, the wholesome track star. Her hundreds of track medals, her high GPA, her very identity — all of that seemed to hang in the balance. She was so ashamed, but she was also angry at him, and at herself for falling for him in the first place.

In a panic, she picked up her phone and Venmo’d him $1,000.

She called campus police and went down to the station. Lauren brought Alex with her, and Alex says they were both surprised when the two officers greeted them in the lobby of the station and did not at any point take them back to an interview room to be questioned privately about the matter.

Alex says it seemed that the officers were not particularly concerned about Lauren’s case, suggesting that perhaps it was a scam and someone had hacked into Rowland’s phone.

According to Alex, one of the officers looked up Rowland on the campus directory, and told Lauren he seemed like a “pretty good guy,” who had only been stopped for a traffic ticket on campus (it would later be revealed to Alex that they had looked up the wrong person in their database, who happened to be a student with the same name). In response, Lauren told the officers he was a sex offender and showed them his mug shot.

Still, Alex remembers that they didn’t seem particularly worried. They told Lauren and Alex that a detective would be in touch on Tuesday.

Unsatisfied with their contact with campus police, Lauren reached out to the Salt Lake City police department, but dispatch routed her back to the university police, saying that the extortion was under the university police’s jurisdiction.

Days later, on Oct. 19, Lauren still hadn't heard anything back from the campus police detective assigned to her case. So she called Salt Lake City police again, and was again rerouted back to campus police. A detective returned her call and told her she wouldn’t be back at work until Oct. 23, four days later, but suggested Lauren should call back if she got another message in which Rowland was attempting to lure her somewhere.

That weekend, Lauren sent three screenshots to campus police showing Rowland’s criminal history and continued harassment.

On Friday night, Oct. 19, Lauren and Alex went to Lake Effect, a different bar in downtown Salt Lake City. When they got back to campus, Lauren confided in Alex that she was still stressed about Rowland.

“I remember when the two of us got back on campus, we were talking about her future and the whole Rowland thing. She said one day when she is happily married to a nice guy, hopefully we can look back on this and laugh,” said Alex.

On Monday, Oct. 22, Lauren received another alarming text: this time, from someone claiming to be the deputy chief of campus police, asking her to go to the police station. Lauren called campus police, and the detective who took the call told her not to respond.

Lauren knew it was Rowland, and called Alex to tell her. Alex asked if she had sent the information to the police, and Lauren texted her that afternoon to confirm that she had. (Impersonating a police officer is a crime. According to a later independent review the officer who took the call didn't do anything further with the report beyond telling Lauren to ignore the text).

Alex never heard from Lauren again.

The day of the murder

Around 3 p.m. that day, Rowland snuck into Lauren’s apartment building and began waiting for her in the lobby.

Around 8:20 p.m., Lauren was returning from class when Rowland confronted her in the parking lot outside her dorm. She was on the phone with her mother, who had just put her on speaker so her dad could hear from the other room, where he was doing yoga.

After Lauren screamed and the line went dead, Rowland grabbed her roughly, causing her to drop her backpack and phone, police believe. He then shoved her into the back seat of the car he had driven to campus and shot her multiple times.

I had that same feeling, like I knew he could die. I just felt like, Lauren could die tonight. – Jill McCluskey

Rowland then called a woman he had met on a dating site and asked her to pick him up. They went to dinner and went to her home downtown, where Rowland showered. Afterward, she dropped him off at a coffee shop.

In the meantime, back in Pullman, Matt and Jill were frantically trying to figure out what had happened. When the line dropped, Matt first thought that Lauren had been in a car accident. But as Jill and Matt repeated her name over and over again with no answer, it was clear to both of them what had happened: Rowland or his friends had grabbed her.

Matt picked up his phone to dial 911, and left the other phone line open, in case Lauren came back. Five minutes later, they heard a young woman’s voice, but not their daughter’s. It was a medical student, who said that Lauren's computer and backpack were on the ground, but Lauren was nowhere to be seen.

'Lauren could die tonight'

When the line went silent, Jill had flashbacks to when her son was rushed to the hospital with a ruptured brain aneurysm, just five years before, and they thought they would lose him.

“I had that same feeling, like I knew he could die. I just felt like, Lauren could die tonight,” said Jill.

Matt, his stomach in knots, clung to hope.

“I really thought this was going to be one of those situations where it’s all going to be resolved, and all that fear and uncertainty would just go away. I thought we were going to find her. I really thought that we would.”

At 9:55 p.m., Lauren’s coach called Jill to tell her the news: while searching the parking lot, police found McCluskey’s body in the back seat of a car.

One look at Jill’s face, and Matt already knew they had lost her.

“I was just stunned,” said Matt. “It wasn’t even like I could work through any emotion at that point. I just think I said, 'No, no, no, no, no, no, that can’t be.'”

“It was like a physical trauma,” he remembers. “It was like being hit with a baseball bat.”

Later that night, the woman Rowland met on a dating site recognized him from the news, and called the police. Salt Lake City police found him shortly after midnight, and followed Rowland into Trinity AME Church.

As the police entered, Rowland shot himself to death.

The aftermath

In the days after Lauren’s death, new information poured in. News reports revealed that Rowland was on parole at the time of the shooting, and that a parole agent had spoken to Rowland on Oct. 16, unaware that four days earlier, McCluskey had begun calling university police to accuse him of harassing her.

University police did not check to see if Rowland was on parole when McCluskey had accused Rowland of harassing her and extorting her — which could have led to a parole violation and a return to prison.

More of Rowland’s violent past was uncovered: an attempted sexual assault of a teen girl in 2004, a 2012 parole hearing in which he admitted to raping the teen and two other women, a 2016 admission that he had threatened that “if an agent were to come conduct a field visit, he might become violent.”

On Nov. 2, University of Utah President Ruth Watkins announced that she asked an independent investigator to look at “actions taken by individual officers” in the weeks before McCluskey was killed.

On Dec. 19, the results of the review were released, which listed multiple significant missed opportunities to help Lauren, including that reports to housing officials by McCluskey’s friends weren’t passed on, and the days when the detective on McCluskey’s case was off and the work was not assigned to another officer.

Among the recommendations, the review said the campus Department of Public Safety is understaffed, it needs to hire a victim advocate, it needs to train all its officers on dating violence, and it needs to adopt a lethality assessment already used by many other Utah police departments in intimate partner violence cases.

Watkins said the report about university police “does not offer any reason to believe” that McCluskey’s slaying could have been prevented. “Instead, the report offers weaknesses, identifies issues and provides us with a roadmap for strengthening our security on campus.”

“Overall the tone of the report sort of bent over backwards to be gentle on the university,” said Matt. “But the facts themselves were very damning ... they found an amazing number of failings, and then for them to say, we’re going to implement all these changes, but it wouldn’t have made any difference in preventing Lauren’s murder? It’s a very convenient, legal fiction, and blatantly false.”

A page from a memorial album presented by University of Utah Athletics to Jill and Matt McCluskey after Lauren McCluskey's death.
From a memorial album presented to Jill and Matt McCluskey after Lauren McCluskey's death by University of Utah Athletics. | Courtesy Jill and Matt McCluskey

Jill and Matt say their goal is to do Lauren’s memory justice by demanding accountability for her murder. That's why they say they are considering a lawsuit against the University of Utah.

“I am very determined not to profit personally,” Matt said. "It kind of boils down to honoring Lauren's memory and improving things for the future."

We want individuals to be held accountable and an admission of responsibility. – Jill McCluskey

University of Utah police declined an interview with the Deseret News.

Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown did speak with the Deseret News about Lauren’s death.

In an interview with the Deseret News, when asked if he believed SLCPD was responsible in any way for Lauren’s murder, Chief Brown said: “That is a very difficult question. I’m sitting here trying to think, because I know that is the question that Jill and Matthew want to know: who is responsible for the death of their daughter?” he said.

“I don’t think it’s fair for me to comment on their investigation and what occurred up there,” he said. “But what is fair to say is that we all have to do better. We’ve got to look at ways that we can protect those we have the responsibility to protect ... because in the end, none of us ever want to see a tragedy like this occur again.”

Jill McCluskey displays her Mother's Day card from her daughter Lauren on Friday, May 24, 2019, at their home in Pullman, Wash. Lauren McCluskey was murdered in October of 2018 on the University of Utah campus.
Jill McCluskey displays her Mother's Day card from her daughter Lauren on Friday, May 24, 2019, at their home in Pullman, Wash. Lauren McCluskey was murdered in October of 2018 on the University of Utah campus. | Geoff Crimmins, For the Deseret News

Mother's Day

The day before Mother’s Day in Pullman, Washington, six months after her daughter’s death, Jill McCluskey sits at her kitchen table, reading a card Lauren made for her when she was 11 years old.

“You are a great friend, a great coach, a great person, and a great mother. Thank you for always being there for me and supporting me through all my life. I love you, Happy Mother’s Day,” it reads. The words are written in large cursive letters, surrounded by small hearts. Lauren made one for Jill every year.

That’s one thing Lauren will never have, Jill says wistfully: the chance to be a mom.

Lauren shows up almost nightly in Jill's dreams, except with a different ending: she's not dead, she's merely hiding, she was safe all along. When she wakes up, the grief hits her all over again.

Tomorrow will be just as painful as today, she knows, but Jill has no choice but to face it, the way she will every day for the rest of her life.

“I think I miss her every day,” she says. “So I don’t know that Mother's Day is much different.”