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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Police, officials failed to heed repeated alerts about Lauren McCluskey’s eventual killer, lawsuit says

The undated photo provided by the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office shows Melvin Rowland, who killed Lauren McCluskey. (AP)

They met in a Salt Lake City nightclub in early September 2018. A bouncer at the club, he told her his name was Shawn Fields, and he was 28 years old.

Lauren McCluskey, a 21-year-old Pullman native on track scholarship at the University of Utah, dated him for a while. The signs of trouble were almost immediate. He insinuated himself into Lauren’s life, demanding rides home from work in the early-morning hours and all but moving into her dormitory room. He was jealous and controlling; he stalked Lauren, told her what to wear, and complained if she socialized without him.

Her friends noticed a rapid change in Lauren’s behavior. An A student, she let her schoolwork go. She seemed stressed out, exhausted and “defeated” – and did everything she could to avoid making the man she thought was Fields angry. They saw bruises on her.

One friend went to a graduate housing adviser for Lauren’s dorm on Sept. 27, saying she was concerned for Lauren’s life and noting that the man had talked about having access to a gun. She also relayed information about his jealous rages, controlling behavior, delusions of infidelity and stalking. The friend was concerned that the man also had access to compromising images of Lauren, and would use them to blackmail her.

That was the first of more than 20 times that Lauren, her friends or her family would reach out to university officials in the days before her murder, according to a federal lawsuit filed by Lauren’s parents, interviews and reporting on the case by journalists in Utah and elsewhere.

Housing officials did not ultimately respond in any fashion to those initial concerns, though they met and discussed them, concluding that they needed to respect Lauren’s privacy, the lawsuit alleges.

In fact, no housing official ever “followed up with Lauren in any regard,” the lawsuit claims, or alerted law enforcement.

About a month after they began dating, Lauren discovered that the man’s name was not Shawn Fields.

It was Melvin Rowland, and he was 37. He was on parole for two felony convictions for enticement of a minor over the internet and attempted forced sexual abuse, and he was a registered sex offender.

Once she started looking, it was all so easy to find. Much of what she discovered she found while home in Pullman on a break in early October, doing internet searches with a friend.

Back in Salt Lake City, Lauren and her friend hatched a plan for Lauren to break up with Rowland in public; before that could occur, she found him peering into her dorm-room window on the night of Oct. 9. He pushed his way in, demanded to know who she’d been on the phone with, and “effectively held Lauren hostage in her dorm room” all night, the lawsuit says.

The next morning, having ended the relationship, Lauren loaned Rowland her car, as a way of getting rid of him. Later on Oct. 10, she began receiving harassing and threatening text messages purporting to be from Rowland’s friends, but which seemed like they came from Rowland himself.

One said, “Go kill yourself.”

Thus began 12 days of Lauren’s fruitless complaints to the police.

Lauren became fearful that Rowland was trying to lure her somewhere secluded under the pretense of returning her car; she told her mother of her concerns, and Jill McCluskey contacted the University of Utah Public Safety Department Oct. 10.

Lauren was given a security escort to retrieve her car – not by campus police, but by a separate campus security office – and that was the end of it.

No follow-up on the case was performed by security officials or campus police.

More threatening texts followed. Lauren approached university police herself Oct. 12.

“In response, UUPS acted with deliberate indifference by claiming there was nothing that they could do to help and advising her to contact UUPS only if the situation escalated,” the lawsuit alleges.

Rowland then did what Lauren’s friend had feared he would – he said he’d publicly post compromising images of her unless she paid him $1,000.

She paid him. He asked for more.

Lauren called the campus police the morning of Oct. 13 and reported the threats and extortion. Feeling she was not being taken seriously, she went to the department in person with a friend later that day.

An officer talked to them in the lobby, remaining standing during the interview. Lauren told him about the harassment and extortion, showed him messages from Rowland and told him about Rowland’s criminal history.

Lauren was told at that point that she had probably been the victim of some kind of online scam. Though Rowland was not a student, and though Lauren had told officers about his real identity, campus police then searched the student database. They found a student with a similar name, and told Lauren he “seems like a good guy.”

In response, she Googled Rowland, and showed them the accurate information. He was on parole for two felonies, and a registered sex offender.

Officers took a statement from Lauren and told her they’d be back in touch in three days. A detective was assigned. No one pursued information about Rowland’s status as a parolee, which might have made it possible to act on potential parole violations, including the fact that he spoke of having access to a gun.

At that point, the lawsuit claims, the university had a legal responsibility to act to protect Lauren, including using “all reasonable means” to protect her from further violence.

Fearing she was not being taken seriously, Lauren contacted the Salt Lake City police, who referred her back to campus police. Two days after the meeting in the lobby, Lauren called campus police, but “no one … expressed familiarity with her case,” the suit says.

On Oct. 16, the day Lauren had been told to expect a response from the detective, she heard nothing. The same silence followed on Oct. 17, 18 and 19. Lauren continued to send word of her concerns for her safety, but police “did nothing to investigate and took no action with regard to Lauren’s case.”

On Oct. 19, Lauren received texts from Rowland making it clear that he knew she’d gone to the police, including, “What did you tell the police?” and, “We know everything.” He again seemed to be trying to lure her into the open.

She contacted the campus police again, asking for the detective assigned to the case.

She was told the detective was on vacation, and would return Oct. 23. If she received any more texts that seemed meant to lure her somewhere, she should contact them again, she was told.

On Oct. 22, Lauren received a text purporting to be from the deputy chief of the campus police, asking her to come to the department. Fearing it was Rowland trying to lure her out, she tried to contact campus police. She left repeated messages over a two-hour period, until an officer finally returned her call, and told her not to respond to the message – taking no further action.

Later that night, as she returned from class, Lauren was accosted by Rowland as she was walking to her dorm room and speaking to her mother on the phone. Rowland dragged her to a nearby car, which he had borrowed, forced her inside and shot her seven times.

“That night, UUPS finally investigated Melvin Rowland and discovered that he was on parole, that he had multiple telephone numbers, that his telephone numbers had been used to harass and extort Lauren, that he had borrowed a gun and a car and that he was expecting the police to arrest him for extorting Lauren,” the lawsuit says.

“When UUPS located Melvin Rowland using his telephone, he ran and they pursued him into a church near the University where he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.”