Family of Slain University of Utah Student Lauren McCluskey Files $56 Million Lawsuit Against School

Jill McCluskey/University of Utah
Jill McCluskey/University of Utah

University of Utah track star Lauren McCluskey was gunned down on campus in October, and—according to her parents—nobody has been held accountable.

Now, McCluskey’s family filed a $56 million federal civil-rights lawsuit against the school on Thursday over its “repeated failure” to respond to the student-athlete’s “multiple and continuing pleas for help” in the days leading up to her death.

The 21-year-old was on the phone with her mother, walking home from a Monday night class, when she was “hunted down” and shot seven times by her ex-boyfriend, the lawsuit states.

“Suddenly, I heard her yell, ‘No, no, no!’ I thought she might have been in a car accident,” Jill McCluskey said at the time, reported The Salt Lake Tribune. “That was the last I heard from her.” Police later discovered her body in a parked car.

The shooter, 37-year-old Melvin Rowland, killed himself hours after Lauren’s death. Her family has said that McCluskey dated Rowland—a convicted sex offender—for about a month before discovering that he had lied about his name, age, and criminal history.

Shortly after the two began dating, the relationship “began to sour,” and Rowland became “possessive, controlling, and manipulative,” according to the lawsuit. McCluskey’s friends said at the time that she had stopped paying attention to her studies, “seemed defeated,” and had developed several bruises, the complaint states.

When Lauren discovered Rowland’s deception, she ended the relationship, the lawsuit claims.

“He attempted to blackmail Lauren,” the McCluskey family said in a press release. “He tried to intimidate Lauren when she contacted the police in an attempt to scare her into withholding information regarding his criminal behavior. And he impersonated a police officer in an attempt to lure Lauren away from her dormitory. Lauren reported this all to the police, but her reports, in practicality, were ignored.”

McCluskey and her friends reported Rowland’s “abusive,” “dangerous,” and “threatening” behavior more than 20 times before the shooting, according to the 51-page complaint filed on Thursday in U.S. District Court for the Central District of Utah.

Despite those reports, “no investigation occurred, no plans were developed or implemented and no effort was made to take any meaningful action reasonably calculated to end the harassment or to otherwise prohibit Melvin Rowland from having ongoing access to the university’s campus,” the complaint claims.

The McCluskeys contend in their lawsuit that the University Department of Public Safety “acted with deliberate indifference and conscious disregard of the deadly situation” and “failed to use any reasonable means to protect Lauren.”

“Rather than investigating the allegations [made by] Lauren and treating them with the urgency that they deserved, the detective in charge of Lauren’s case went on vacation and returned to find that Lauren had been murdered,” the lawsuit states.

In December, a scathing independent review of the case pointed out multiple missteps in the course of the university’s response to McCluskey—and outlined 30 recommendations to improve safety at the school, including hiring more officers, bringing on a victim advocate, improving domestic violence training, better communication between departments on campus, training from outside law enforcement agencies, improved background checks, and more.

University President Ruth Watkins said at the time that the review “does not offer any reason to believe” that McCluskey’s death could have been prevented but that it “offers weaknesses, identifies issues and provides us with a road map for strengthening security on our campus.”

The university also noted that no one would be disciplined or fired over the case.

In June, the university released an update to the campus safety improvements in which it acknowledged that there were “gaps and mistakes” in the case and noted that the university is now “acting on its commitment to take steps to reduce the likelihood of such a terrible tragedy happening again on campus.”

Watkins said in a statement released on Thursday afternoon that, although there are “differences” in how the university would characterize the events leading to McCluskey’s 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,” she added.

McCluskey’s mother said on Wednesday that any money collected from the case will go toward a foundation the family set up in her daughter’s name.

“Lauren’s death was preventable,” said Jim McConkie, an attorney for the family. “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.”

The lawsuit is “a last resort to affect positive change,” her mother said on Thursday.

“Women must be believed and taken seriously when they ask for help.”

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