The University of Utah track athlete shot dead by an ex-boyfriend told police she’d recently sent the man $1,000 to keep compromising photos from being posted online, university officials revealed Thursday.
Lauren McCluskey, a 21-year-old senior from Pullman, Washington, was slain Monday night on the campus in Salt Lake City, police said. The suspect, Melvin Rowland, 37, killed himself hours later after a police chase, university police have said.
McCluskey told campus police on October 13 that she had gotten messages from Rowland, whom she’d met the prior month, or from his friends demanding money in exchange for not posting compromising photos of her and Rowland online, according to a timeline of McCluskey’s contacts with campus police that was released by the university’s communications office.
McCluskey told police she sent $1,000 to an account in hopes of keeping the photos private, the timeline shows. Police had assigned a detective to follow up on possible sexual extortion charges, it also notes.
McCluskey had made contact with university police regarding Rowland at least six times over the 12 days before her body was found in a car on campus, less than two hours after she vanished while she was on the phone with her mother, the timeline shows.
Amid questions over how campus police handled the case, the university’s president has vowed a “fully independent of the university review both of the campus safety task force and the work of our police department with independent experts.”
It’s still not clear who will lead the review or when it will begin, President Ruth Watkins said.
The meeting and the breakup
McCluskey met Rowland on September 2 at a local bar where he was working as a bouncer, and they struck up a relationship, according to the timeline.
Five weeks later, on October 9, she decided to end the relationship after learning that Rowland was a registered sex offender and his age. Rowland was convicted in 2004 on a felony charge of enticing a minor and attempted forcible sexual abuse, also a felony, according to the Utah Department of Corrections sex offender registry. His release date was listed as 2013.
Rowland spent that night in McCluskey’s dorm room and “borrowed her car the following day to run errands,” the timeline states.
McCluskey’s mother contacted campus police the next day and asked them for a security escort to help her daughter get her vehicle. McCluskey “initially declined the assistance, stating that Rowland was going to drop the vehicle at her apartment and she felt comfortable having him do that,” the timeline states.
A dispatcher told McCluskey that university security officers would be near the building “just in case” and asked her to call back, if necessary. McCluskey later called police to say her car had been dropped off at a parking lot and she needed a ride to pick it up. A security escort drove her to her car, the timeline states.
On October 12, McCluskey called campus police to report suspicious messages she believed were from Rowland’s friends.
“The texts stated that Rowland was dead, and it was Lauren’s fault. She was able to determine by looking at social media that was untrue. The reporting officer asked Lauren if she felt in danger or threatened by the texts,” the timeline states.
“She stated she did not, but that she felt his friends were trying to lure her somewhere. The officer told her to not go anywhere that made her uncomfortable and to call back if she received additional messages or contact.”
The next day, McCluskey reported the alleged sexual extortion to campus police, who took a report and assigned the detective. A formal investigation started October 19, the timeline shows.
The day of the killing
Around 10:30 a.m. on Monday, McCluskey e-mailed police to report she’d gotten a text from someone claiming to be the deputy chief and requesting she come to the police station.
“University Police now believe the text came from Rowland with the intent of getting Lauren to leave her dorm room,” the timeline states.
Rowland spent that afternoon in a residence hall with some of McCluskey’s friends waiting for her, it shows.
Then, around 8:20 p.m., Rowland confronted McCluskey in a parking lot outside her residence hall as she spoke with her mother by phone.
“In the altercation, she dropped her cell phone and belongings,” the timeline states. “He dragged Lauren to a different spot in the parking lot where he forced her into the back seat of a car he had driven to campus. He shot her in the car multiple times.”
Not knowing his daughter’s fate, McCluskey’s father called campus police at 8:23 p.m. and told them what her mother had heard on the phone, the timeline states.
Police arrived at the parking lot eight minutes later and found McCluskey’s belongings. They searched her dorm and the area nearby.
“During a search of the parking lot, they found Lauren’s body in the backseat of a vehicle,” according to the timeline.
Rowland, meanwhile, made his way off campus, calling a woman he’d met on a dating site for a ride.
“They went to dinner at a local restaurant, drove by the state Capitol and then went to her home in downtown Salt Lake City where Rowland took a shower,” the timeline shows.
“She later dropped him off at a coffee shop downtown. Subsequently, she saw news reports about the shooting, recognized photos of Rowland and contacted police. The woman is fully cooperating with the investigation and it is not anticipated she will face charges.”
University police identified Rowland as the suspect from campus security cameras that “recorded him in the parking lot outside the residence hall,” university officials said in a written statement. “Another video showed him getting into a vehicle that left campus. Police also had the information relayed by her parents.”
Just after midnight, Salt Lake Police spotted Rowland chased him on foot to a church, where he shot and killed himself, the timeline shows.
Rowland borrowed the gun “under false pretenses” from an acquaintance, according to the university statement. The lender contacted law enforcement after hearing about the shooting and is fully cooperating
“Rowland said he wanted to borrow the gun to teach his girlfriend how to shoot,” it states. “It is not anticipated that any charges will be filed.”
Questions about the handling of the case
As the university launches its inquiry, questions are swirling about how campus police handled the case, including why the department didn’t contact Utah Adult Probation & Parole on October 13, after learning Rowland was a registered sex offender.
“University Police were investigating what was understood at that time to be an extortion case and did not yet believe there was enough evidence to share with other law enforcement. The current investigative process is to gather evidence that supports the claim and then to make contact with a suspect. It’s during this phase that police would have reached out to AP&P,” university officials said in their statement.
Another question is: Why didn’t University Police assist McCluskey in getting a restraining order?
“Rowland was threatening Lauren financially and reputationally, but there was no indication to University Police from Lauren that he was threatening her with physical harm,” the university said.
“I believe my officers and my entire department work in a very tough environment,” University of Utah Police Chief Dale Brophy said Thursday.
“Their actions were appropriate, and (they) worked very diligently that evening to do everything that they could to solve this crime and made every attempt to make sure that Lauren, throughout this process, if she felt physically threatened or she felt in physical harm that she needed to tell us so we could help her,” he said. “Unfortunately, that just didn’t happen for us.”
Mourning and remembering
University of Utah sports teams are honoring McCluskey.
“Our cross country team will wear black armbands today when they compete at the Pac 12 championships. They’ll wear a patch. It has the outline of a heart and Lauren’s initials, L.M. inside,” Dameon Myres, associate director of athletic communications at the University of Utah Athletics, said Friday.
“Our football players tonight will have a sticker on their helmet of the track-shoe-with-wings logo. Inside the logo is the name Lauren.” The Utes play UCLA in Los Angeles.
The track and field, soccer and volleyball teams also honored McCluskey this week.
A Lauren McCluskey memorial fund has been established by the University of Utah. On the request of Lauren’s family, the fund will help support future scholarships for student-athletes in track and field.
Condolences and messages of support are being posted the University of Utah’s site.