Women who are in abusive relationships, or relationships they fear will become abusive, are often told to reach out for help to prevent things from progressing further. Lauren McCluskey, a track athlete at the University of Utah who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend on October 22, 2018, did just that.
She alerted the campus police. She showed them threatening text messages from her ex, told them about his criminal record, which she found out about a month into their relationship.
Recent reports by the University of Utah Department of Public Safety and the Utah Department of Public Safety, along with publicly released 911 calls, reveal that McCluskey expressed concerns to police officers six times in the 10 days before she died. None of it mattered. She was left to fend for herself.
The cries for help actually began on September 30, when two of her friends reported their concerns over McCluskey’s relationship and safety to the Resident Adviser at their dorm. The following day, an official report was filed to the housing officials, but after a brief review, they decided “not to ‘overstep’ in assistance to Lauren unless she was seeking support.”
On October 10, a day after McCluskey broke up with Melvin Rowland after finding out the 37-year-old sex offender had been lying about his age and criminal background, McCluskey’s parents called campus police. Rowland was supposed to return McCluskey’s car, and they were worried he would hurt McCluskey when he did. Campus police did end up escorting McCluskey to the car exchange, which went off without any acts of violence.
But two days later, McCluskey herself started reaching out for help. On October 12, she called campus police for the first time, about disturbing text messages she was receiving from Rowland’s friends, but campus police said they did not rise to the level of harassment. The following day, October 13, she called campus police again, this time with concrete proof of extortion — text messages presumably from Rowland and his friends that threatened to post private pictures of her online if she didn’t pay them money. The campus police said it would take time to review the materials.
The same day, October 13, she called 911 about the extortion threats. In audio posted online by KUTV, McCluskey is heard telling dispatchers that she is worried that campus police aren’t acting fast enough. Dispatch responds by telling her campus police has jurisdiction over her case, routing her call back to University of Utah Police.
Six days later — after a detective had taken three previously-scheduled vacation days, and according to the university review, spent three days “in various case assignments and follow-up investigations unrelated to Lauren’s case” — McCluskey finally talked to the the detective in charge of her case. However, she was once again told that it would take time to evaluate and investigate all of the text messages in question.
Later that day, October 19, McCluskey called 911 once again, to express concern to SLCPD over how long the campus police were taking to investigate. Once again, she was told to call campus police dispatch directly.
On October 20, McCluskey sent the detectives screenshots of threatening text messages from Rowland, and detailed information about his criminal history that she had found online.
On October 22, McCluskey’s dad called the campus police and 911, after overhearing McCluskey get attacked while she was on the phone with her parents. It was too late. Rowland had shot her in the head and killed her. Police pursued him, and he ultimately committed suicide during the chase.
A subsequent review of the case was alarming. A report on how campus police handled McCluskey’s case found University of Utah police officers were not familiar with how to conduct searches for criminal background or parole information. Had they done a proper check, they would have found out that Rowland was listed on the sex offender registry, and in 2004 was convicted of enticing a minor and attempted forcible sexual abuse. He had spent over a decade in prison, had been released on parole three times, had violated that parole, and had been sent back to prison twice.
Even without that information, campus police’s lack of urgency in responding to McCluskey’s case was troubling, considering that authorities knew of the threats against McCluskey as early as October 10, and given that approximately 75 percent of women who are murdered by their abusive partner are killed when they try to end the relationship.
The independent review of the University of Utah police’s handling of McCluskey’s case — the same report that lays out many of the missteps above — was also disturbing. It concluded that campus police had taken McCluskey’s reports seriously, and stated that her death was not preventable.
McCluskey’s parents disagreed with that analysis.
“We respectfully disagree with the conclusion that Lauren’s murder could not have been prevented,” they said in a statement. “There were numerous opportunities to protect her during the almost two weeks between the time when our daughter began expressing repeated, elevating and persistent concerns about her situation and the time of her murder.”
More than 1,000 women are murdered by intimate partners every year in the United States. The funding for the landmark Violence Against Women Act, however, which assists victims of sexual violence, domestic abuse, and stalking, has currently lapsed, thanks to the current partial government shutdown.