Jill and Matthew McCluskey at Press Conference
Matthew and Jill McCluskey speak at a press conference to announce their lawsuit against the University of Utah in the wake of their daughter Lauren's murder. | Photo by Elise Vandersteen Bailey

 

Jill and Matthew McCluskey announced at a press conference Thursday morning that they have filed a $56 million civil rights lawsuit against the University of Utah following the on-campus murder of their daughter, 21-year old student-athlete Lauren McCluskey. They say the U failed to protect their daughter and “never took responsibility for their failures” after her death.

Defendants named in court documents include the State of Utah, the University of Utah, the University Department of Housing and Residential Education and the University Department of Public Safety. It specifically names Chief of Police Dale Brophy, Sergeant Kory Newbold, former Detective Kayla Dallof, Officer Miguel Deras, Director of Residential Education Todd Justensen and housing employees Heather McCarthy and Emily Thompson.

Lawyer James W. McConkie stated on behalf of McClusky’s parents that “Lauren’s death was preventable” and “the murder occurred because of the University of Utah’s repeated failure to respond to Lauren’s multiple and continuing pleas for help.”

A summary of the lawsuit given to the press stated, “This preventable murder occurred because the University repeatedly ignored multiple concerning reports of stalking, physical abuse, emotional abuse, intimidation, dating violence, domestic violence, sexual harassment, gender based discrimination and other dangerous and abusive behaviors prohibited under Title IX.”

The $56 million figure was arrived at based on other wrongful death suits.

University of Utah student and track athlete Lauren McCluskey was killed in a shooting on campus on Tuesday, Oct 22. Photo by Steve C. Wilson, courtesy of the University of Utah.

Lauren McCluskey was shot to death on Oct. 22 by her ex-boyfriend, Shawn Melvin Rowland, in the backseat of a car that had been parked near her dorm on campus. Rowland took his own life later that night during the course of a police pursuit.

McCluskey had broken up with Rowland on Oct. 9 after dating him for about a month because she discovered that he had been lying to her about his name, age and criminal history. Rowland had previously been convicted of two sex offenses — enticing a minor over the internet and attempting to sexually assault a teenager — and was on parole.

Lauren and those around her contacted the university about Rowland, including calls to campus police, “more than 20 times” between Oct. 9 and Oct. 22, according to a press release about the lawsuit. The first calls were about retrieving Lauren’s car from Rowland. Later, Lauren called several more times about threatening messages being sent to her from multiple different phone numbers. Some of these messages claimed that Rowland was dead and that she was to blame. One told her to kill herself. Lauren told police she felt the messages were attempting to “lure her somewhere.”

Lauren called the police again on Oct. 13 to report that Rowland contacted her, demanding $1,000 and threatening to release an explicit photo of her online if she didn’t comply. She paid the money to Rowland.

During the course of these calls and other contacts with the police, Lauren and her mother repeatedly expressed fears over Lauren’s safety. In one of the first calls, Jill told a dispatcher, “I’m so worried that something is going to happen to her.” Lauren told police in an in-person meeting that she had seen Rowland looking into her dorm room window the day she broke up with him, telling them the incident made her afraid.

Lauren also called Salt Lake City police twice on Oct. 13, saying she was concerned that nothing was happening with her case. Those calls were routed back to campus police. In fact, it wasn’t until Oct. 19 that a detective began working on a possible extortion case, related to the blackmail.

In addition to the phone calls, Lauren both emailed and met officers in person. The day of her death, she contacted an officer after someone else contacted her, pretending to be Deputy Chief Rick McLenon.

Documents were given to the press stating that, while Lauren and Rowland were dating, “Fellow students and friends started to notice bruising.” Claims of Rowland physically abusing McCluskey had not previously been made to the public.

“The University of Utah failed to investigate whether Rowland was on parole, failed to attempt to make contact with Rowland or with anyone who might have information about him, failed to make any attempt to determine whether Rowland was behind the harassment and attempted blackmail, failed to acknowledge that Rowland had committed crimes in addition to the blackmail, failed to use any reasonable means to protect Lauren, failed to formulate or implement any plan to prevent further abuse, failed to inform Lauren as required of the rights and remedies available to her,” stated the documents.

Jill said in the press conference that, without these failures, Lauren would still be alive.

Lauren’s parents, Jill and Matthew McCluskey, students, staff, family and friends attend a vigil on the steps of the Park Building for Lauren McCluskey who was tragically killed on campus at The University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah on Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018. (Photo by Kiffer Creveling | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

An independent investigation into the university’s actions found issues with state justice system databases, poor cooperation between the various campus offices which had received information about Rowland and McCluskey leading up to her death, staffing shortages in the campus police department and insufficient training for officers to deal with dating violence. That investigation made a long list of recommendations, which the U accepted. However, university president Ruth Watkins said that the independent investigation’s results didn’t lead her to believe that the murder could have been prevented.

Since then, the university has hired new police officers and increased their training in dating violence. What they have not done is to end the employment of police officers involved in Lauren’s case, despite repeated calls to do so from Jill and Matthew McCluskey. The McCluskeys reiterated in Thursday’s press conference that they believe no one has been held accountable for the failures they believe led to Lauren’s death. They also said they believe no meaningful change has taken place at the U.

Jill McCluskey speaks at press conference
Jill McCluskey speaks at a press conference announcing a lawsuit against the University of Utah in the wake of their daughter Lauren’s death. | Photo by Elise Vandersteen Bailey

Jill McCluskey said she “tried to work with Watkins to remedy the system and hold individuals accountable.” She claims that her emails went unanswered. Those emails asked the university to partner with the McCluskeys to build a better response to cases similar to Lauren’s. After the nonresponses, she concluded that “the only way to improve campus safety is to file a lawsuit.” Jill called it a “last resort to affect positive change.” Matthew said they filed it with “the greatest remorse.”

In a tweet Wednesday evening before the press conference, Jill wrote that any money potentially won in the lawsuit will be used to support student-athletes, campus safety and other charitable work done in Lauren’s name.

Jill reiterated this during the press conference, saying that “we will not profit” from the lawsuit.

McConkie, the McCluskeys’ lawyer, said, “There must be a shift in thinking when a woman reports an abusive relationship to the university.” The McCluskeys and their legal team say they want the university to become a “responsible institution” and properly address the concerns of women. Matthew says they hope the case will make the campus safer for future students, “so they can live long and beautiful lives”.

The University released a statement from Watkins, saying, “We will respond to the McCluskey family’s lawsuit through the appropriate channels, but I want to express again our deep sorrow for the loss of Lauren McCluskey. Our hearts go out to her family and friends.”

The statement continues, “While there are differences in how we would characterize some of the events leading to Lauren’s tragic murder, let me say again that we share the McCluskey family’s commitment to improving campus safety. We continue to address the recommendations identified by the independent review of the university’s safety policies, procedures and resources, and we are making ongoing improvements designed to protect our students and our entire campus community.”

[email protected]

@EliseAbril

This article was updated on 6/27/29 at 2:20pm local time to include a statement from the University of Utah.

Elise Vandersteen Bailey
Elise is the Investigative Editor at the Daily Utah Chronicle. In her almost four years at the paper, she has won nearly 20 awards from professional journalism organizations. She currently attends graduate school at the U, studying Public Policy and Population Health Sciences, and spends her free time wondering whether it's too nerdy to Tweet whatever "cool" graph she's found most recently.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Elise — excellent coverage of the situation. By nature, I am not one that thinks lawsuits against schools are wise. It seems that we are taking funds away from where they should be going — to educate students. However, and this is a BIG however, when schools fail big time, maybe a large monetary reward is needed to send a wake-up call.
    It seems to me that if the University had even stepped up after the fact to meaningfully address the deficiencies in how things are ha
    ndled, the lawsuit would not have been filed. I think the parents are very much aware that nothing can bring their daughter back. In that respect, what is money?
    But the U of U didn’t seem to get the message. And have continued to miss-step time after time in addressing the lacks in their procedures.
    Maybe a huge monetary penalty is needed.

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