University Of Utah Admits 'Shortcomings' In Death Of Student Who Was Allegedly Killed By Boyfriend After Restraining Order

·7 min read

Weeks before 19-year-old college student Zhifan Dong was found dead in an off-campus motel room, she had voiced fears about her boyfriend.

Now—five months after police allege Dong was killed by that same man, 26-year-old Haoyu Wang—The University of Utah, where both had been students, is acknowledging “shortcomings” in how it handled the case in the weeks leading up to Dong’s death.

In documents released by the university, officials acknowledged there had been “insufficient and unprofessional communications” and a “need for clarity in the training of” Housing and Residential Education (HRE) staff, who delayed “notifying university police and the Office of Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action, and Title IX of indications of intimate partner violence.”

Officials say the housing staff had been aware that the Salt Lake City Police had arrested Wang for domestic violence against Dong nearly a month before her death, resulting in a restraining order taken out against him, but failed to report those details as required to campus police for weeks—even though key card data showed neither student had returned to the dorm building for days.

“I expect our staff to recognize signs of intimate partner violence and take the appropriate steps to provide support and resources to our students and to escalate these types of situations, as necessary,” said Lori McDonald, vice president for student affairs at the university. “In this case, key details were overlooked and staff failed to make connections with other parts of campus that could have accelerated the university’s ability to gather additional information and respond more urgently. This is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”

Dong’s death has once again thrust attention on the university and how it responds to intimate partner violence accusations nearly four years after another student, 21-year-old Lauren McClusky, was killed by her ex-boyfriend despite reaching out to campus police more than 20 times to report harassment and ask for help.

Dong— who had come to the university from her home country of China—was found dead inside a downtown Salt Lake City Quality Inn on Feb. 11, according to a statement from Salt Lake City Police.

Wang had been inside the room at the time. He later allegedly told investigators that he had killed Dong and then tried to take his own life by injecting himself with drugs, police said.

He had allegedly given Dong a fatal injection of heroin, Oxygen.com previously reported.

The first signs of trouble between the couple had surfaced nearly a month earlier, when Dong had gone to the front desk of a downtown hotel on Jan. 12 and reported that she had been a victim of intimate partner violence, according to a timeline of the case released by the university.

Wang allegedly admitted to hitting Dong in the head during an argument, university officials said. He was arrested and a temporary protection order was ordered for Dong against him, although that information was never communicated to university police.

Currently, there is no process or regulation requiring local police departments to notify colleges or universities of arrests or protective orders involving students,” the university said.

Dong called Salt Lake City Police again the next day, along with HRE staff, to report “concerns about Wang’s wellbeing,” the university said.

On Jan. 14, housing staff were unable to make contact with Wang but did talk with Dong, who provided a more detailed account about the alleged incident of domestic violence.

She told the staff that she and Wang both suffered from depression and were “in a bad situation,” according to written documentation released by the university.

Based on her account, the couple had started to argue the night of Jan. 12 and Wang had ordered her to leave the hotel room. She began to pack her bag, but he allegedly complained that she was disturbing his sleep, then held her neck and arms down and hit her when she tried to escape his grip.

“I got scared, I quickly packed my stuff, the hotel front desk helped me call the police,” Dong said.

She told the staff she hadn’t heard from him since that night, but just wanted to “make sure he is safe” and reported his suicidal ideation.

While the HRE staff documented their interactions in the coming weeks with both Dong and Wang as they tried to work through the issue in case management software, they never reported the details to police, the Office of the Dean of Students or the Office of Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action and Title IX as they were required to do, officials said.

In the days that followed, housing staff were unable to make contact with either party until Jan. 24 when they found Wang in his room. He told them he had a counseling appointment scheduled for later that day and his mental health had already been improving, according to the documents.

On Jan. 31, Dong’s roommate told HRE she hadn’t seen her roommate in a while, which was confirmed by her key card swipe history which showed her last wipe to get into the building was on Jan. 28.

The key card history for Wang, also showed that he hadn’t been to the dorm building for days.

While Dong later did reply to housing staff via text message saying she was okay, her roommate reported her missing to the residence hall staff on Feb. 6 after growing increasingly concerned about her whereabouts.

The housing staff officially filed a missing persons report to campus police two days later, finally triggering their involvement in the case.

That same day, University police were able to speak to Dong during a video call—in which she showed them she was alone in her hotel room—but she refused to come into the station or provide her location.

Three days later, she was dead.

Dong’s parents Junfang Shen and Mingsheng Dong said in a statement provided to NBC News through their attorney Brian C. Stewart that they believe The University of Utah “failed to protect” their 19-year-old daughter.

“We trusted the University of Utah with our daughter’s safety, and they betrayed that trust,” they said. “They knew Zhifan was in serious danger but failed to protect her when she needed it the most. We do not want her death to be in vain.”

Stewart said the family is planning to sue the university in the wake of her death.

His firm also represented McClusky’s family, who was awarded a $13.5 million settlement in a civil case against the university in 2020. University officials conceded they had “failed” McClusky and her family and vowed to make improvements to training and protocols in the months ahead.

University officials have said safety has “completely evolved” since McClusky’s 2018 death, noting that 29 recommendations have either been implemented or are in the process of implementation as a result of the 21-year-old’s death.

“We remain committed to constant evaluation and improvement in order to create an environment that is as safe as possible for our campus community,” officials said as part of their response released Tuesday.

However, Stewart pointed the Dong’s recent death and told NBC News it was “inexcusable that the University continues to make the same mistakes with the same tragic consequences.”

Dong’s parents are now left to mourn the loss of their only child—who had loved to read, draw and dreamed of one day owning a big house with small farm where she could invite her parents to come and live with her.

“How many dreams could have been realized? How much happiness could have been obtained? Why is reality so cruel to a kind, honest, strong, brave and optimistic person? How can people bear it? How can our family face this?,” her parents told The Salt Lake Tribune.