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University of Utah police chief orders new review of McCluskey photo allegations

Allegations of officer sharing explicit McCluskey photos opens parents’ wounds, attorney says

Jill McCluskey speaks via Zoom as her attorneys Jim McConkie and Brad Parker listen during a press conference regarding newly discovered evidence and recent developments in her daughter Lauren McCluskey’s case in Murray on Monday, May 18, 2020.
Jill McCluskey speaks via Zoom as her attorneys Jim McConkie and Brad Parker listen during a press conference regarding newly discovered evidence and recent developments in her daughter Lauren McCluskey’s case in Murray on Monday, May 18, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

MURRAY — The chief of the University of Utah’s police department announced Monday evening he is ordering a new, independent review of the alleged actions of a former officer accused of keeping an explicit photo of Lauren McCluskey on his personal cell phone.

“I know this announcement will come as a disappointment to many in the community. Statements by the university over the past 24 hours have leaned heavily on the results of the first internal review. However, if my police department is to regain credibility in the eyes of the community it serves this new review must be completed swiftly and with respect for both the students we serve and for Lauren McCluskey and her family,” Chief Rodney Chatman said in a prepared statement.

“In the interim, I have placed individuals responsible for the original investigation on administrative leave pending the results of this new review,” he said.

University spokesman Chris Nelson confirmed Monday that two people with the department had been placed on leave, but offered no other details.

Chatman’s announcement came several hours after McCluskey’s parents spoke out strongly against former university officer Miguel Deras, who has been accused by unnamed fellow officers in a Salt Lake Tribune article of taking a compromising photo McCluskey sent to him to prove that she was being stalked and extorted, putting that photo in his own cell phone and showing it to others.

The McCluskeys say it is yet another example of how the department did not take their daughter’s case seriously.

“It turns out that the only thing that officer Deras did was download the photos that Lauren provided as evidence to his personal phone to use for his own enjoyment,” Jill McCluskey said, reading a prepared statement from her office in Washington on Monday.

“I wish he had used his time to arrest Lauren’s killer rather than ogling at her image.”

Both Jill and Matt McCluskey read statements Monday, a day after allegations surfaced.

The original internal affairs investigation at the university found no evidence to support the allegations that Deras bragged or shared images except in a law enforcement role.

But several questions remained unsettled on Monday, including who knew what information and when.

McCluskey, a 21-year-old communications major and track athlete from Pullman, Washington, was fatally shot Oct. 22, 2018, near her campus dorm by Melvin Shawn Rowland, 37, who took his own life hours later. Rowland had lied to McCluskey about his name, age, and criminal history, which included serving time in prison. Rowland was a convicted sex offender who was on the Utah Sex Offender Registry at the time of the killing.

From Oct. 10 until her death on Oct. 22, McCluskey called the U. police department more than 20 times reporting her concerns about Rowland. On Sunday, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that McCluskey had even sent Deras one of the explicit photos that Rowland was threatening to release if she did not pay him $1,000.

Monday, McCluskey’s parents and their attorneys responded to the new revelation.

“This betrayal of Lauren’s trust … is appalling,” said attorney Brad Parker.

Also on Monday, a spokesman for the University of Utah clarified what its internal investigation found. And Chief Gary Jensen of the Logan Police Department — where Deras is currently employed — said he was “blindsided” by the allegations while pleading with the public to allow due process and for patience while another internal investigation is conducted.

Matt McCluskey said he’s proud of his daughter for having the courage to share the embarrassing photo with police, but noted that her trust “was betrayed by the officers who were sworn to protect her.”

The father also questioned whether there is other police misconduct that has not yet been discovered.

Jill and Matt McCluskey had previously filed a federal lawsuit against the University of Utah claiming that their daughter’s death was preventable and the university failed in its duty to protect her.

The McCluskeys are scheduled to go into mediation on Tuesday with a judge from Denver presiding over the talks. News of Deras having the picture on his phone fundamentally changes the allegations against the university, said attorney Jim McConkie.

“The focus now also shifts to a university that has an employee who has himself exploited the victim,” he said. “That’s a serious matter because the university is now one of the bad actors that offended and damaged Lauren McCluskey. This is a serious matter because if other women at the university believe that when they take their legitimate complaints to the university and ask for protection or help, that they believe the very people who are supposed to be helping them will take those allegations lightly and in fact exploit them, then this University of Utah will simply not be a safe environment for our grandchildren and our children.”

If mediation talks fall through, McConkie said he has a second $56 million lawsuit already drafted which will include the new information.

Parker and McConkie said Monday they had previously heard rumors of Deras showing off Lauren McCluskey’s photo, but had not been able to confirm it.

“The McCluskeys have not been harmed just once. Every time new facts come to light that the university knew or did not disclose, those scars are again torn open and Jill and Matt McCluskey are again deeply wounded. When will that end?” Parker said.

Matt McCluskey believes Deras’ behavior “was not isolated — it stemmed from a culture that did not take women seriously and refused to hold individuals accountable.”

McConkie, likewise, questioned why the university was just now finding out about the allegations.

“What does it say about the way they investigated it in the first place? They should have found it,” he said.

Sunday, the U released a statement saying its police department completed an internal affairs investigation into the incident in February after hearing about the allegations. The investigation concluded that there was no evidence that Deras had ever “bragged or shared any image from the investigation that wasn’t considered a legitimate law enforcement reason.”

University spokesman Chris Nelson expanded on that statement Monday, stating that the school was not denying Deras had the picture on his phone. At issue is whether he “bragged” or boasted about it to others, or if he was simply asking other officers for help on how to transfer the picture from his phone to a case file.

Nelson said if Deras was being boastful, then it is reprehensible behavior that the university will be the first to condemn. However, Nelson said none of the officers who reported the allegations to the Tribune have come forward to the university.

“There is no evidence to say it happened,” he said.

Because of the incident, however, the police department has changed its processes for collecting and storing evidence of this nature, according to the statement.

Monday night, Chatman, who took over as the U.’s police chief in February, replacing Dale Brophy, said in his statement that even though the internal review was completed before he came to Utah and concluded that there had been no inappropriate action, he’s not completely satisfied with the report.

“After personally reviewing the report today and consulting with the university’s chief safety officer, I have ordered a new investigation to be completed by an outside agency. This is due to the seriousness of the accusation, concerns I have with the thoroughness of the report, and my desire to avoid any perception of bias,” he stated. “In addition to interviews with current police department employees, the review will include outreach to former department employees who were working at the time this alleged incident occurred.”

In Logan, Chief Jensen said Sunday was the first time he had heard of the allegations, despite doing “an in-depth” background check on Deras prior to hiring him.

Jensen said he has received several “emotional” calls and emails regarding the public’s concern over Deras working for the department. But he asked for patience as he works to sort out what is true and what is not.

“I think I’m just sad that people read the headline and they impugn this officer,” he said Monday. “I’m saddened by the fact that people are so ready to simply impugn this good man, because somebody said so.”

Jensen said he is not only conducting an internal investigation, but will ask that a third party also take an independent look at what happened. Until then, he said Deras remains on active duty.

The chief said he does not know who made the allegations against Deras and hopes they were not true, but if they are, he said he does not defend them.

Parker, however, had stronger comments on Monday about Deras.

“I personally believe that officer should not be serving on any police force in the state of Utah. And I believe that’s the position of our clients,” he said.

McConkie said he has not deposed Deras or the other officers who made the allegations. But if mediation talks fail, he said he will be able to depose those people as part of the second lawsuit.

The McCluskeys’ attorneys say the only way for the U. to truly have a safe campus is for school administrators to be completely transparent about what happened in the Lauren McCluskey case and admit that her death was preventable.

“Safety is only achieved with full disclosure,” Parker said.

McConkie also noted that if the McCluskeys win or settle in court, they are donating every cent of their settlement to a nonprofit organization they created to help campus safety throughout the country.

Utah’s Lauren McCluskey, runs on Aug. 30, 2017, in Salt Lake City. McCluskey, 21, was shot and killed on campus Monday night.
Utah’s Lauren McCluskey, runs on Aug. 30, 2017, in Salt Lake City. McCluskey, 21, was shot and killed on campus Monday night.
Steve C. Wilson, University of Utah