University of Utah student and track athlete Lauren McCluskey was killed in a shooting on campus Monday night, U president Ruth Watkins announced in a statement Tuesday morning.
McCluskey, who is from Pullman, Washington, was a 21-year-old senior majoring in communication. She was a pentathlete transitioning to a specialty in jumping events, and ranks 10th all-time at the U in the pentathlon.
“We’re blessed everyday — educators, and in my role as director, and all the coaches and staff — to be around an elite group of students and student athletes,” said U athletic director Mark Harlan at a press conference Tuesday. “So when something like this happens, it defies any logic, any reason.”
Her parents are Jill McCluskey, a professor of sustainability and director of the School of Economic Sciences, and Matthew McCluskey, a professor of physics and astronomy, both at Washington State University.
“Several members of our university administration spoke with Lauren’s family last night and I have also reached out to them,” read Watkins’ statement. “Her family is understandably in shock at this news about their daughter. They are heartbroken. We have and continue to offer our full support to them at this terrible time.”
At around 8:30 p.m., university police (UPD) received a “frantic” call from McCluskey’s parents reporting a potential abduction in a parking lot near student housing.
First responders searched the area and found McCluskey’s body in the backseat of a car on the south side of the South Medical Tower — one of a set of two apartment buildings that house students. A student found McCluskey’s belongings at another location in the parking lot.
The U notified students at 9:56 p.m. of the shooting through its emergency communication system, advising everyone on campus to shelter in place. The advisory was lifted at 11:46 p.m.
Police identified the suspect as 37-year-old Melvin Rowland after witnesses placed him at the scene. UPD began a manhunt, receiving help from the Salt Lake City Police Department and the FBI.
At a press conference Tuesday, UPD Chief Dale Brophy said they believe Rowland left campus within half an hour of the shooting. He was picked up in a silver Hyundai. Police have contacted the driver of the car, but they have not been taken into custody.
Rowland was spotted near 600 S. and police pursued him on foot. He slipped into the back door of Trinity A.M.E. Church — an African Methodist Episcopal church located at 239 E. 600 S. After containing the church, police heard a commotion followed by a gunshot in the upstairs of the building. They found Rowland dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
At 1:48 a.m., the university announced he had been located and was no longer a threat.
According to police, Rowland and McCluskey had been involved in a previous relationship. He is a registered sex offender stemming from an offense in 2004. Rowland was granted parole on April 17.
A statement posted to Twitter on Tuesday by McCluskey’s mother said she dated Rowland for approximately one month. He had lied to her about his name, age and criminal history, it read. When a friend told McCluskey about Rowland’s sex offender status, she ended the relationship on Oct. 9.
Rowland had borrowed McCluskey’s car and she requested that UPD accompany her to retrieve it on Oct. 10, according to the statement. On Oct. 12 and 13, UPD received reports that McCluskey was being harassed by Rowland after blocking his and his friends’ phone numbers. The department assigned a detective to the complaints who Brophy said was putting together a case against Rowland.
On the night of her death, McCluskey was talking to her mother on the phone as she returned to her apartment from a night class.
“Suddenly I heard her yell, ‘No, no, no!’ I thought she might have been in a car accident,” McCluskey’s mother wrote. “That was the last I heard from her.”
McCluskey’s father immediately called 911 while her mother left the line open. A few minutes later, she said, a young woman picked up the phone and said all of McCluskey’s possessions were on the ground.
Some students have been questioned as part of the ongoing investigation.
U student Travis Wright had just returned to his dorm room in Gateway Heights from a fraternity event when he received the emergency alert. Although he didn’t hear gunshots, Wright was shaken by the experience.
“It was kind of sketchy because we were just right below — like 300 feet from where it happened,” he said. “It’s just not really safe and this has happened twice in a year now.”
Another U student was killed in a shooting at the mouth of Red Butte Canyon near campus on Oct. 30, 2017 — nearly one year ago. Dormitories were subsequently placed on lockdown. Despite having previously confronted a similar threat, some student leaders were frustrated with Housing and Residential Education’s (HRE) response to the situation.
“There have been so many discussions around what housing should be doing to address that in case this random act of violence happens again,” said Mohan Sudabattula, a programming assistant with HRE. “Nothing has been done.”
Sudabattula said he was angry and frustrated that there was not a protocol in place that allowed him to comfort students — something he feels is a responsibility that comes with the job.
“There were a lot of people that were not handling it well emotionally — they were still very traumatized by last year’s event,” he said. “It was tough, our upper-ups took an almost militant mentality, I guess for pragmatic reasons but that is not what a lot of people needed. A lot of people were bawling and in tears — breaking down. A lot of people just needed some comfort but that is not what we got tonight.”
Just after 1:00 a.m. Tuesday morning, the U announced it was canceling classes on Oct. 23 “to allow our campus community to grieve the senseless loss of this bright, young woman,” Watkins’ statement read.
Watkins was in Beijing, China, on university business at the time of the shooting, but is en route to the school, according to Dean of Students Lori McDonald at the Tuesday press conference.
“The trauma of last night’s event has clearly impacted all of our campus community,” McDonald said.
Members of the track and field team were gathered at 8:30 a.m. to address and mourn the loss of their teammate, reported Harlan.
“Every single counselor the university had showed up this morning,” he said. “And there were some hugs, and words, and they’re trying to figure it out because it just doesn’t make sense.”
The school’s athletic schedule has not been affected, and the next home event is a volleyball game scheduled for Wednesday.
“We’ll get through this,” Harlan said. “These are strong young people, they’re resilient. And we’re just going to do everything the rest of the year in Lauren’s memory.”
Those who knew McCluskey can share memories and others can send sympathy messages on an “In Memoriam Condolences” page set up by the university. The U has arranged a giving site in honor of McCluskey. Her family has suggested the funds go toward scholarships for future track and field athletes.
The Associated Students of the University of Utah and the U’s Athletics Department have organized a vigil for Wednesday at 5 p.m. on the steps of the Park Building in Presidents Circle. On Tuesday night, Trinity A.M.E. is hosting a vigil at 6:30 p.m. and student grief and loss support group Actively Moving Forward will hold a meeting at 7 p.m. in room 311 of the Union building.
Campus will remain open Oct. 23 so students mourning McCluskey’s loss have access to the Counseling Center, which will host drop-in services at its mindfulness center. Counselors will also be stationed in the lobbies of the Peterson Heritage Center, Marriott Honors Community and Lassonde Studios. Human Resources’ Employee Assistance Program will provide counseling for staff and faculty.
According to the CDC, Utah had the 10th lowest homicide rate in the nation in 2016. In 2017, Deseret News reported guns were used in at least 68 percent of the year’s murders. However, according to the article, guns were involved in all but one case in which victims were between the ages of 14 and 21.
One in three women who are murdered are killed by a current or former intimate partner and “72 percent of all murder-suicides involve an intimate partner; 94 percent of the victims of these murder suicides are female,” according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
“As a campus community, we share grief over this tragic loss of life,” wrote Watkins. “Our deepest sympathy is extended to Lauren’s family and friends.”
Correction: In a press conference Tuesday UPD Chief Dale Brophy incorrectly stated Melvin Rowland had walked away from a halfway house called Fortitude Treatment Center. The Utah Department of Corrections released a statement Tuesday saying while Rowland was on parole, he was directly released back into the community and did not spend time at any community correctional center. This article has been edited to reflect that information.