SALT LAKE CITY — Saying the University of Utah has taken no responsibility for the death of their daughter and as a last resort to make the campus safer, the parents of Lauren McCluskey sued the school for $56 million Thursday.
Matt and Jill McCluskey say university police and campus housing officials failed to protect their daughter despite her repeated calls for help before her murder.
"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 said.
The McCluskeys and their lawyers held a news conference Thursday announcing the civil rights lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City.
The 51-page complaint alleges U. police ignored Lauren McCluskey's reports of stalking, physical and emotional abuse, intimidation, dating violence and other behavior prohibited under Title IX. Attorney Jim McConkie said he hopes to prove "deliberate indifference" by the university.
"We had hoped for an adult conversation with the University of Utah administration, to work with them to build a safer future for all students," Matt McCluskey said. "Regrettably, the administration has chosen the path of defensiveness, denial and no accountability."
Lauren McCluskey, 21, was shot and killed on Oct. 22 near her campus dorm by Melvin Shawn Rowland, 37, a convicted sex offender who was on the Utah Sex Offender Registry at the time of the killing. Rowland and McCluskey had gone out on dates, but she soon discovered he had lied to her about his name and age.
When McCluskey found out who he really was, she told police that Rowland attempted to blackmail her by demanding money in exchange for not distributing intimate pictures of her.
From Oct. 10 until her death, McCluskey made multiple calls to the U. police department. She even called Salt Lake police in hopes of quicker action. But university police never conducted a full background check on Rowland, who had served many years in the Utah State Prison, and at least one call made by McCluskey to the officer assigned to her case went to voicemail because the officer was not on duty.
"Matt and I were shocked that the campus police and campus housing response to Lauren's cries for help were incompetent, unaware, skeptical of her, complacent and uncaring," Jill McCluskey said.
In one instance, she said, U. housing did nothing when her daughter's friends reported that Rowland talked about bringing a gun to campus, and then "he brought that gun to campus and killed her with it."
"That is just one of the many failures that resulted in Lauren's death," Jill McCluskey said. "If any one of these failures did not occur, Lauren would be alive today."
U. President Ruth Watkins said in statement that the university would respond to the lawsuit through appropriate channels but expressed "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," Watkins said.
"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.”
A three-member independent review panel found numerous mistakes were made by the university and by campus police, but concluded that it was impossible to say whether McCluskey's death could have been prevented.
Jill McCluskey said the panel made 30 recommendations for the university to fix systematic problems, yet Watkins said that the university's report into the case does not offer any reason to believe the tragedy could have been prevented.
“Her statement made me physically ill," Jill McCluskey said.
She tried to work with Watkins to remedy the system and hold individuals accountable, she said, but the president never responded to her email. That is when she realized the only way to improve campus safety was to file a lawsuit, calling it a “last resort to affect positive change.”
"If the university must pay a large amount for failing to protect Lauren, it will be more likely to believe women and act with urgency when their female students ask for help," Jill McCluskey said.
McConkie said juries take seriously cases in which life and death are treated "casually" and are "willing to step forward and say, 'This figure is large and it will put a stop to this kind of nonsense.'"
The McCluskeys, of Pullman, Washington, said that any money from the lawsuit would be placed in the Lauren McCluskey Foundation, a nonprofit organization that honors their daughter’s legacy by supporting charitable work that promotes campus safety, amateur athletics and animal welfare.
McConkie said the McCluskeys had hoped the university would have "locked arms with them" after the review panel's report to fund the family's foundation and become a voice for campus safety nationwide.
"Taking responsibility is the right thing to do, respects Lauren, and will make students safer," Matt McCluskey said.
McConkie said Lauren McCluskey's death was preventable and occurred because the U. failed to respond to pleas for help.
"The university never took these complaints seriously enough to even talk to her ex-boyfriend or her ex-boyfriend's associates," he said.
The U. failed to investigate whether Rowland was on parole, and didn't try to contact him or with anyone who might have information about him, according to McConkie. The school also didn't try to determine whether Rowland was behind the harassment and attempted blackmail.
He also said the U. failed to use any reasonable means to protect Lauren, make any plan to prevent further abuse or inform her about the rights and remedies available to her.
McCluskey family friend and Washington State University economics professor Ron Mittelhammer said Lauren McCluskey supported and protected others and it's "cruel irony" that when she was in desperate need, the U. ignored her.
"Make no mistake about it, it was people who failed Lauren McCluskey," he said.
In addition to the university, defendants named in the lawsuit are the U. Department of Housing and Residential Education, the U. Department of Public Safety, police Chief Dale Brophy, police Sgt. Kory Newbold, detective Kayla Dallof, officer Miguel Deras, and U. housing employees Todd Justensen, Heather McCarthy and Emily Thompson.
KSL Newsradio asked Utah Gov. Gary Herbert about the lawsuit Thursday on "Let Me Speak to the Governor."
Herbert said the U. wants to provide the best protection for students in all aspects of campus life.
"I think they're trying to do that," he said. But "mistakes happen" and instances occur that "sometimes you have no control over."
Herbert said state public safety officials reviewed the situation to "see where there was a breakdown, what changes should be made, certainly there was some communication, seems like to me, areas that need improvement."
The court, he said, would decide if there is any merit to the lawsuit and whether any damages should be awarded.