CRIME, POLICE + COURTS
OPINION: The University of Utah Police could have saved Lauren McCluskey’s life
Lauren McCluskey didn’t need to die.
That’s something we’ve all known in our hearts from the second we heard the news of her tragic murder. Her young life was cut short by Melvin Rowland, a registered sex offender, ten days after she’d filed a harassment complaint against him with the University of Utah Police.
It could have been prevented. That’s the feeling I’ve been struggling with since this news broke; that with that many warning signs, there must have been a way they could have saved her life.
That’s not just a feeling anymore.
The Deseret News got ahold of the report filed by University of Utah police when Lauren McCluskey asked them for help, and there is a clear line of mistakes that shows exactly how they failed her.
Evidence is mounting that the University of Utah Police Department botched this investigation from day one.
Exhibit 1: McCluskey told the police she was scared
Lauren McCluskey felt like her life was in danger. She made that as clear as possible to the University of Utah Police.
It’s spelled out in black-and-white on nearly every page of the report. From the very moment she first contacted them on October 12th, she told their officer that she was “concerned that [Rowland’s] friends are trying to lure her into a trap.”
That wasn’t just an off-hand comment. It was something she told them again and again. When she spoke to another officer the next morning, she told them that Rowland had been stalking her, once even peeking through her window to spy on her. And he’d threatened her, telling her that would be repercussions if she – in his words – “calls the cops.”
She was afraid for her life, and she told them that directly. Twice, the officer writing up the report quotes McCluskey as saying that she was “scared” about what Melvin Rowland might do.
That’s why I’m having a very difficult time accepting how University of Utah Police Chief Dale Brophy described her report in their press conference last week:
We did believe that Rowland and/or his associates both were threatening her financially and reputationally, but there was no indication from Lauren to us at any point in this investigation that he was threatening physical harm.
That’s what Chief Dale Brophy told the public. But he knew full well that she’d told them twice that she was scared.
I spoke to attorney Greg Skordas about this, just to make sure there was no legal difference feeling threatened and scared.
“There’s no difference,” he told me. “She absolutely reported … that she was afraid of this person.”
She was afraid of this man. She told them that. And they didn’t protect her.
Exhibit 2: They knew Melvin Rowland was a registered sex offender
Melvin Rowland was on parole. He was a registered sex offender, whose address and photo were clearly posted on the Department of Corrections website.
It would have been so easy to get him off of the streets.
Parole is an extension of prison. When someone is on parole, they are a ward of the state, and the state can haul them right back into their cell at moment’s notice – especially if they’re a registered sex offender that’s stalking, harassing, and threatening a young woman.
With one phone call to his parole officer, Melvin Rowland could have hauled back into prison.
There is no question about whether or not the police knew about Rowland’s background. The police report makes it abundantly clear that they knew exactly who they were dealing with.
Lauren McCluskey explicitly told them that Rowland was a registered sex offender. In fact, those words, “registered sex offender”, show up in the report twice.
The reporting officer also pulled up Melvin Rowland’s drivers’ license and had Lauren McCluskey confirm that they were looking at the right person. And they even knew about his criminal history.
The report says, as plainly as possible:
I ran a criminal history of Melvin Shawn Rowland. … The criminal history shows that Shawn [Rowland] has been convicted for Enticing a minor over the Internet and Forcible sex abuse. Shawn’s criminal history is attached.
They knew exactly who he was and what he was capable of doing.
All they had to do was pick up the phone and call Adult Probation and Parole. That’s it. Just one phone call and Melvin Rowland would have been off the streets. Lauren McCluskey would have lived.
Exhibit 3: The police told her there was nothing they could do
The first officer who spoke to McCluskey told her outright that he wouldn’t help her. Even after she’d told them that she thought Rowland and his friends were trying to “lure her into a trap”, the officer just said: “There isn’t much we can do.”
Instead, they told her to deal with the man who was threatening her on her own. They told her to tell Rowland and his friends to leave her alone, and then just said: “Contact us if this escalates.”
The next officer she spoke to wasn’t much better. McCluskey told her that Rowland was disguising his phone number to call her, that he was threatening to send pictures of her to her parents, that he’d been watching her through her window, and that he’d already successfully extorted her out of $1,000.
But that officer just told her to call her bank. She was one of their students, coming to the police for help, and instead of taking care of her themselves they sent her to the bank to deal with extortion.
The University of Utah police put through the paperwork for an investigation after McCluskey demanded they press charges, but they didn’t call his parole officer, call Rowland, or do anything at all to protect her. They didn’t even look at her case for another six days.
Six days. That’s how long they sat there, knowing that Lauren McCluskey was in danger, and doing nothing about it.
Police Chief Dale Brophy justified that last week, saying that they put it off because of their caseload.
But I want to know, Chief Brophy: what took priority over this? What case was the University of Utah dealing with that was more important than a registered sex offender prowling the campus, peering through the dorm windows, and threatening one of their students?
What was more important than Lauren McCluskey’s life?
We need a federal investigation into the University of Utah police
I am very concerned about how this investigation was handled from the beginning. But right now, I’m even more concerned that nothing is going to change.
I am concerned that this was not a one-time mistake. I think that this is the smoke rising up from a raging fire inside of the University of Utah Police Department. I think that this is a glimpse into how they handle every criminal report they receive.
Police sources familiar with the investigation told me that Utah’s Department of Public Safety may be tapped to review how this case was handled. But that doesn’t go far enough.
This is going to be a case of the fox guarding the hen house. The Department of Public Safety is a state agency investigation, and they’ve been called in to investigate another state agency. There’s a clear conflict of interest there, and it concerns me.
I want this to go higher. I want the Department of Justice to come in from D.C. and look at how this case was handled and how they handle the other cases they receive.
There’s absolutely a precedent for calling them in. When I worked for the FBI, the Department of Justice investigated the University of Montana and Missoula police’s handling of another sexual harassment case. It’s something they do all the time, all across the country.
A federal agency wouldn’t have a conflict of interest. If we want to see real change that’ll keep a tragedy like this from happening again, we need someone like the Department of Justice to step in and fix what went wrong.
We reached out to the University of Utah three times to today to ask if they would welcome an investigation from the Department of Justice or just for any comment at all on all the issues we’ve brought up with how they handled this case.
So far, the University of Utah has declined to comment.
More to the story
You can read the University of Utah’s full police report here.
Dave and I talked about this on the air. If you missed the show live, you can still hear everything Dave, myself, and our special guest, defense attorney and former Salt Lake County prosecutor Greg Skordas had to say on the Dave & Dujanovic podcast.
Dave & Dujanovic can be heard weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon on KSL Newsradio. Users can find the show on the KSL Newsradio website and app, as well as Apple Podcasts and Google Play.
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