Documents reveal offers to help, missed opportunities before a U. student was killed in a Salt Lake hotel
University of Utah president promises ‘full transparency’ as detailed report of student Zhifan Dong’s final days is made public
The University of Utah has released hundreds of pages of documents that detail the university’s interactions with a 19-year-old, first-year student from China who police say experienced domestic violence and later died when her boyfriend allegedly injected her with a lethal dose of illegal drugs in a downtown hotel.
The extensive report released Tuesday details many offers to help Zhifan Dong, who died Feb. 11, as well as her boyfriend, also a U. student from China, but the two largely declined help or did not respond to offers of assistance. It also acknowledges mistakes and missed opportunities by university staff and police.
Haoyu Wang, 27, is charged with murder.
Campus law enforcement called the case a complex mix of behavioral health challenges, alleged intimate partner violence, missing persons, housing staff shortages and a criminal investigation.
University of Utah President Taylor Randall, in a letter to the community, notes “extensive efforts to support and ensure the safety of Dong and provide assistance to Wang.”
“Although the university made extensive efforts to support and ensure the safety of Dong and provide assistance to Wang, our self-evaluation revealed shortcomings: a delay by former members of our housing services staff in notifying the University of Utah Police Department of indications of intimate partner violence; processes, procedures and trainings in housing that needed to be clarified and improved; and insufficient and unprofessional internal communication. We have addressed each of these areas, including employment actions.”
According to U. officials, there were “more than 25 actions over a 29-day period (from Jan. 12 to Feb. 11) to meet, text, email and videoconference with the students and friends; review access logs; speak with family; file missing person reports; canvass local hotels and provide aid.”
Despite these efforts, the university recognized shortcomings in its response “to this complex situation, including insufficient and unprofessional communications, a gap in the training of housing workers and a delay in notifying university police of indications of domestic violence.”
In the letter to the community, Randall wrote, “I believe the university must err on the side of full transparency.”
He continued: “Transparency shines a bright spotlight on our actions. Only by seeing can we improve.”
Dong’s mother, Junfang Shen, and father, Mingsheng Dong, released a statement through their attorney, Brian C. Stewart, saying, “We trusted the University of Utah with our daughter’s safety and care. They failed her and now our hearts are broken because our precious daughter was taken from us.”
Stewart, of the Salt Lake City law firm Parker & McConkie, which represented Lauren McCluskey’s parents after their daughter was slain on the U. campus in 2018, also issued a statement.
“We are glad that that university has chosen to begin releasing relevant information and has admitted that mistakes were made by university police and Housing and Resident Education employees, allowing opportunities to protect Zhifan and prevent her death to be missed,” he said.
“It is clear that real change is still required in how the university responds to reports of intimate partner violence in order to prevent these tragedies from continuing to occur.”
The release of the documents and Randall’s statements on transparency was a sharp contrast to the university’s handling of the on-campus homicide of student-athlete Lauren McCluskey during the administration of then-U. President Ruth Watkins. The details of McCluskey’s death were closely held by university officials.
McCluskey, 21, was shot and killed near her campus dorm in October 2018 by 37-year-old Melvin Rowland, a convicted sex offender who was on parole. The two had dated, but McCluskey ended the relationship after she found out Rowland had lied about his name and age. Rowland took his life the same night he killed McCluskey.
In McCluskey’s case, her family sued the university and settled for $13.5 million over the botched handling of her reports to campus police expressing concern for her safety.
The university acknowledged in the settlement that her murder “was a brutal, senseless and preventable tragedy,” The New York Times reported.
In Dong’s case, corrective actions were taken including final written warnings issued to two employees and one memorandum of expectation. Two other employees voluntarily resigned prior to receiving any formal corrective action, a university spokesman said.
University Chief Safety Officer Keith Squires said in a statement, “No life should ever end in such tragic circumstances.”
“As soon as our police learned of the intimate partner violence between these two students, our officers launched a comprehensive and deliberate search for Zhifan Dong and Haoyu Wang in coordination with Salt Lake City police,” he said. “We remain saddened that we were unable to locate them in time.”
The narrative quotes Lori McDonald, vice president for student affairs, who said she expects university staff to recognize signs of intimate partner violence and take appropriate action.
“In this case, key details were overlooked and staff failed to make connections with other parts of campus that could have accelerated the university’s ability to gather additional information and respond more urgently. This is unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” McDonald said.
Help for people in abusive relationships is available in Utah and nationwide
- YWCA’s Women in Jeopardy program: 801-537-8600
- Utah statewide Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-897-LINK (5465) and udvc.org
- 24-hour Salt Lake victim advocate hotline: 801-580-7969
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233
Missing from campus housing
Dong hadn’t been to her on-campus room two weeks prior to her death in a downtown Salt Lake hotel on Feb. 11, according to university card swipe records.
The man accused of ending her life by injecting her with a fatal dose of drugs, then 26-year-old Wang, lived in on-campus housing, too. On Jan. 14, Dong reported Wang’s suicide ideation to Housing and Residential Education employees. A check of card swipes showed the last time Wang swiped into the building was Jan. 11, according to documents newly released by the university.
University housing staff believed they contacted Wang but later learned there were two students named Haoyu Wang and they had spoken to the wrong student. As a result, he was not reported missing, according to a timeline prepared by the university.
The documents state that campus housing employees and University of Utah police were unaware that in the same time frame, Dong had obtained a temporary protective order against Wang after a physical confrontation in a Salt Lake hotel on Jan. 12.
They learned of the protective order three days prior to Dong’s death after housing officials reported her missing to university police. Dong did not immediately disclose that information to university employees and there is no process or regulation that requires local police departments to notify colleges or universities of arrests or protective orders involving students.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said Tuesday that there should be a process to make college and university law enforcement agencies aware when students who live on campus obtain any orders of protection or those whom an order has been issued against.
Gill said that could be achieved through a memorandum of understanding or perhaps even statutorily.
“So let’s say if I’ve got Jane Doe. She has gotten a protective order and she’s a student resident and I as the university police, I’m aware that there’s a protective order in place. When there is a dispatch that is being sent to Jane Doe on campus, having that information, arming the police with that information will make their response that much more robust and vigilant with that knowledge in mind,” Gill said.
Gill said he has had multiple conversations with Randall since he was named president of the U. in August 2021. They share common interests in “further facilitating a sense of public safety” at the university’s campuses.
“In every conversation that I’ve had with him on these issues, and I’ve had several, I am impressed by his commitment,” Gill said.
A timeline by university officials indicates that after Dong was reported missing on Feb. 8, university police entered Wang’s name into the National Crime Information Center database, which flagged his arrest on the domestic violence charges.
According to the timeline, university police offered to have a victim’s advocate accompany her to the hearing about the protective order but Dong said she preferred to handle it herself.
Early on the morning of Feb. 11, Wang sent an email to a university housing administrator that stated by the time the email would be read “Zhifan, and me, are not in this world.”
The housing administrator read the email at 4:49 a.m. and called university police, according to a timeline by the university. The email was sent at 3:51 a.m.
“UUPD pings both students’ phones from 5 to 6:30 a.m., and locate them at the Quality Inn, 616 S. 200 West,” the timeline states. University detectives notify Salt Lake police and officers from both agencies enter the hotel room.
“Wang is taken into custody. After administering first aid to Dong, officers determine she is deceased. Paramedics check Wang before he is booked into the Salt Lake Metro Jail,” the timeline states.
Wang’s email states that he and Dong were “deeply” in love and mentions the domestic violence incident that escalated to the point Dong sought help from the front-desk clerk at the hotel where they were staying.
“Almost all people think that she hates me. And are scared that she may be under my control these days, or maybe I will hurt her. But in fact. We love each other so deeply. We did, quarreled, and hurt each other at that night about a month ago. But in fact. We love each other so deeply,” he wrote.
“She knows that I suffered so much (because of my illness and horrible life) and cannot keep going. So, she decided to go with me,” wrote Wang.
In the email, Wang, then 26, insisted Dong was not under his control, “although we were together. We decided to use opioids to have a painless death. So I bought heroin and fentanyl on the dark net.”
According to Wang’s email, he and Dong “planned to leave this world on the 15th, but I messed up. While we were trying the feeling that heroin would brought to us, I was fine and she got severe respiratory depression and vomited. She was unconscious during the following several hours. I didn’t have the heart to see she suffering. So, I injected high dose of heroin to her, witch (sic) would relief (sic) her from suffering.
“Now I am going to follow her. This world does not deserve her. We promise to each other that we will be together in heaven forever. God will cure her and me.”
According to charges filed against Wang, “Officers forced entry into Wang’s room after receiving no response to their knocking. They found Wang lying on the bed next to (Dong) who was deceased.”
Offers of help
According to the university’s timeline, there were numerous occasions that Dong and Wang could not be located, did not respond to texts or emails, or declined offers of help and support.
One text exchange between Dong and a housing employee urged Dong to respond to emails, texts and voicemails sent to her.
“Your roommate says she hasn’t seen you in over a week and we want to make sure you are ok,” the staff member writes.
Dong responded: “My mood is a little bit bad so I am just resting. I will be back to school in a few days. Thank you.”
The staff member replied: “Hey, were are (sic) you staying off campus?”
Dong responded: “I just met a person called (name redacted) on Facetime. I’m safe. I’m sorry that I don’t want to meet anyone. I just want to have a good rest.”
While Dong did not seek help from the university for herself, she raised concerns about Wang’s suicidal ideation. At one point, Dong disclosed to a university employee that she and Wang both have a history of depression and hospitalizations, according to the records.
Recently, the Utah State Records Committee ordered the initial police contact report filed in a missing person’s case involving Dong to be released to the public at the request of a media organization. “In the June hearing, university attorneys sought to protect the document as requested by the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office while prosecution of Wang proceeds,” the university’s narrative states.
Wang faces charges of first-degree murder and two counts possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance, one a second-degree felony charge and the other, a third-degree felony. He remains in the Salt Lake County Jail awaiting a competency hearing.
The university released the missing persons report along with more than 100 pages of documents, a narrative and timeline university leaders say “provide additional context in the case.”
“The document release also serves to remind the campus community of the systems and processes in place to support students in crisis. The university will continue to be transparent and share information related to Dong’s passing, listen to suggestions on how we can improve and take actions to better protect students, staff and faculty,” according to its narrative.
After Dong’s death, university leaders reviewed trainings, procedures and processes, and identified that housing staff missed key indicators and delayed reporting to other campus offices, according to the narrative.
Updates were made to the emergency procedures manual and other improvements have been implemented. The university also took corrective action with housing employees involved directly in the incident. Two employees resigned before the investigation concluded and corrective actions were taken with the remaining three employees.
According to Sean Grube, Housing and Residential Education executive director who joined the U. in March 2022, all housing staff will receive updated and revamped emergency procedures training for the current 2022-23 academic year.
“We have restructured our trainings for housing staff,” Grube said. “We are committed to consulting with outside experts to help us rethink how we do things.”