Officers Involved in McCluskey Case Claim They Were Mistreated by the U, Prepare for $10 Million Lawsuit

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Maya Fraser

Department of Public Safety on Campus in Salt Lake City. (Photo by Maya Fraser | Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Kayleigh Silverstein, Assistant News Editor

 

Months after the University of Utah settled a $13.5 million lawsuit with Lauren McCluskey’s parents, five officers involved in McCluskey’s case sent a notice of claim to the U claiming they were treated unfairly in the fallout of her case.

This notice of claim could result in a $10 million lawsuit against the U. 

The Handling of the McCluskey Case

On Oct. 22, 2018, 21-year-old student-athlete Lauren McCluskey was murdered by her ex-boyfriend Melvin Shawn Rowland, a registered sex offender on parole.

In the weeks leading up to her murder, McCluskey had reached out to U security and police to report harassment and concerns about extortion.

On the day she was killed, she sent evidence to officers showing someone had texted her falsely claiming to be the department’s deputy chief. She thought Rowland was trying to “lure her” somewhere.

In Dec. 2018, the results of an independent investigation into the handling of McCluskey’s case were released. It found the U police did not start investigating McCluskey’s calls until a week after her first report due to lack of training and resources.

Dale Brophy, a former U police officer involved in the alleged mishandling of Lauren McCluskey’s case, is one officer represented in the notice of claim.

The investigation made 37 recommendations for Brophy’s department and U housing, some of which were enacted by Brophy during his remaining time at the U.

In July of 2019, Brophy retired from the U, despite receiving a letter in his file congratulating him for making adjustments to the department after McCluskey’s murder.

Brophy received a severance package with benefits as well as a $6,000 retirement party from the U.

In May 2020, concerns arose over the conduct of Miguel Deras, the officer assigned to investigate McCluskey’s extortion case. 

Questioning the thoroughness and accuracy of the U’s 2019 internal review, then Police Chief Rodney Chatman called on the Utah department of public safety to conduct an independent investigation of the U police department’s handling of allegations against Deras. 

The report confirmed Deras showed the explicit photos, which were given to the police by McCluskey over her concerns of extortion, to at least three male officers without a work-related reason.

The Notice of Claim

On Feb. 3, 2021, the Utah attorney general’s office, which legally represents the U, received a four-page notice of claim from Jeremy Jones, an attorney who often represents members of Utah’s police union.

Three other officers joined Deras and Brophy in sending this notice of claim to the U. Mario Sellick and Aaron Nelson were fired by the U for knowing about Deras’ misconduct but not reporting it to their superiors. 

Former Deputy Police Chief Rick McLenon, who was originally responsible for investigating Deras’ misconduct, resigned from the department before the DPS report was publicly released.

Their notice of claim is the first step in filing a $10 million lawsuit against the U. Richard Piatt of the Utah attorney general’s office explained a notice of claim has to be filed prior to a lawsuit, as taxpayer money is potentially involved. He said the notice is a “heads up” that the officers intend to file a lawsuit.

All five officers claim they were mistreated by the U in the fallout of the controversial case. 

“What the officers wanted was to not have been railroaded and scapegoated in the first place,” Jones said. 

Because Jones said this has already been done, the officers want the U to do the right thing by changing the narrative which has already been advanced. 

This narrative, Jones said, is centered around placing blame at the feet of the line officers involved in the McCluskey case. 

Jones said there were many problems leading to the notice of claim. 

First, Jones claims the investigation into Deras’ handling of the McCluskey case should not have been made public as per GRAMA regulations.

Jones said the U also changed their administrative protections for officers to make it easier to scapegoat them and take disciplinary action against them. 

“Essentially, not providing the officers reasonable notice of the actual allegations, not providing them a meaningful opportunity to contest the allegation, preventing the officers from calling witnesses, preventing the officers from cross-examining or evaluating any real evidence that was being presented against them, and then firing the officers,” Jones said.

According to Jones, the officers Mario Sellick and Aaron Nelson were fired not for any wrongdoing related to the McCluskey case, but rather for their failure to adopt the narrative the U wanted to maintain.

“Rather than blaming the line officers, I think the U would have done better to acknowledge the institutional problems that helped create the situation or exacerbate the situation, to the extent that anybody besides Mr. Rowland was responsible for Lauren’s tragic death,” Jones said. 

When asked to clarify what he believes to be the institutional problems leading to Lauren’s murder, Jones said there were many problems stemming from the police department’s lack of resources. 

“There was a request for quite a prolonged period of time from people within the police department saying things like ‘we are really overworked, we do not have enough resources to manage the cases that we have,’” he said.  “Saying things like ‘we don’t have the specialized detectives in the way that we need to handle high-level engagement or high-level crimes.’”

Jones said his clients have tried to have a conversation with the U about the next steps, but they have been ignored up to this point. 

“Typically the institutions simply ignore these things and then they don’t care about them until an actual lawsuit is filed. That’s never been my clients’ objective and we’ve had plenty of engagement in order to avoid filing a notice of claim, but it just simply hasn’t gone anywhere,” Jones said. 

Because of this, Jones said, the route they are forced to take is to file a lawsuit against the U. 

“Scapegoating my guys, sacrificing their good names, their reputations and their careers doesn’t do anything except hurt more people, certainly not in the same way that Lauren was hurt, but that doesn’t make the wrongs visited upon them any less real.” Jones said. 

Chris Nelson, the spokesperson for the U, said the U does not have a comment on the notice of claim. However, he said if a lawsuit is filed in court, the University will respond via the Utah attorney general’s office. 

A Student Perspective

Ayana Amaechi, a senior studying biology and former vice president of University Relations at the U, said her stomach dropped when she read the news about the notice of claim from the officers involved in McCluskey’s case. 

“These individuals, I would argue, are the most undeserving of any monetary contribution from the U, and if anything, should have paid into some form of compensation or faced severe repercussions to account for both their wrongful actions and lack thereof, that contributed to Lauren’s murder,” Amaechi said in a written statement. 

Amaechi said as a student, it is painful to hear the U say they did everything they could do, for that to later be found untrue. 

“In my University role, years later, I keep seeing certain situations pop up where I just hope that they’re doing the most they can do,” she said. “I’m supposed to have faith in that. But it’s hard knowing that might not be the case given their history and unwillingness to admit fault. Acknowledging fault is what instigates real change.”

Amaechi said if situations like this were to arise in the future, the U should practice complete and utter honesty. 

“It is so hard to have a university, which is meant to exist as a social and academic entity, double as a business,” she said. “I think it’s really difficult because even in a business, there’s a code of ethics that they should follow.”

Amaechi continued on to say it is much more comforting as a student to hear an institution own up to their faults rather than lie about them. 

“In medical settings, it’s been noted that if you make a mistake or an error with a patient, you are a lot less likely to become sued if you are honest, upfront, and apologetic about what you’ve done,” she said. 

Soon after the news about the notice of claim came out, Amaechi posted a summary of the events on her Instagram story with a poll function asking students to share any questions, thoughts, or feelings. 

“This makes me want to exit my program before I’m finished at the U. They failed her in so many ways, so many times. She was one of the sweetest, kindest people I ever knew. I wish everyone could have met her. I’m physically sick reading about this,” said one student in response to the poll. 

Amaechi said when news like this circulates, it can cause harm and re-traumatize students. While she understands the U may not legally be allowed to speak about this issue at this time, she wishes they would be more vocal about denouncing actions like this. 

“Trust is hard to build, and given the general higher education approach to admitting fault, it’s even harder,” she said. “I understand that it would be legal malpractice not to attempt to have the case thrown out for grounds that it is improper, but I wish prior to litigation, they would have owned up to it.”

 

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