Acknowledging for the first time that the on-campus murder of track star Lauren McCluskey was “preventable,” the University of Utah agreed Thursday to pay her parents $13.5 million as part of a historic legal settlement in the case.
The deal effectively ends two civil rights lawsuits filed against the school, one in state court and the other in federal court, that alleged the U. could have done more to protect McCluskey after she repeatedly went to campus police in the weeks before she was killed. The settlement announcement came on the two-year anniversary of her death.
“The University of Utah acknowledges that the murder of Lauren McCluskey was a brutal, senseless, and preventable tragedy and acknowledges the unspeakable loss the McCluskey family has suffered and continues to suffer,” the agreement reads.
Jill and Matt McCluskey have asked for that admission since their daughter was killed on Oct. 22, 2018, and U. President Ruth Watkins’ insistence weeks later that there wasn’t “any reason to believe this tragedy could have been prevented.” Watkins’ statement followed an independent review that pointed out several missteps made by officers, an overall failure by police to recognize the warning signs of escalating interpersonal violence and 30 fixes that could improve the school’s response in the future.
Since then, more misconduct has come to light, including the officer assigned to McCluskey’s case showing off explicit photos of her to his co-workers during the period before her death, while he was supposed to be looking into her concerns.
As part of the settlement, the university will pay $10.5 million to the parents, with an additional $3 million going to the Lauren McCluskey Foundation that they have set up to improve safety on campuses across the nation. The school will build an indoor track, too, to be named for McCluskey and to be used by the track and field team on which she competed for the U.
The school said in the agreement that the center is part of “considerable progress in improving campus safety” since McCluskey’s killing. It has also invested in research, instituted new trainings, hired a chief safety officer and overhauled its police department, with the previous leaders of the force stepping down in light of the mishandling of the case that has garnered national attention.
“Improving campus safety requires an ongoing commitment,” the court filing reads. “The McCluskeys and the University of Utah also wish to engage in a mutually constructive and supportive collaboration to improve safety on campuses across the country.”
The McCluskeys had first filed suit in September 2019, calling it a “last resort” at the time. They had wanted an apology, they said, but the U. had stopped talking to them.
Their daughter, a 21-year-old student-athlete, was fatally shot outside her campus dorm by Melvin S. Rowland, a 37-year-old man whom she had briefly dated. He had lied to her about his name, age and criminal history — including not disclosing that he was a registered sex offender on parole. When McCluskey found out, she ended the relationship.
In the following days, she contacted campus police several times to report that Rowland had begun harassing her and threatening to release compromising photos of her. He extorted her for $1,000, she told officers, to keep them private.
Many of those concerns were not taken seriously. A detective didn’t investigate anything until after McCluskey was killed. And a report from the Utah Department of Public Safety this year confirmed that the officer on her case, Miguel Deras, displayed McCluskey’s intimate pictures to at least three of his co-workers without a work-related purpose.
Neither Deras nor the detective ever discovered Rowland was on parole for felony sex abuse; some of McCluskey’s allegations could have been violations of his terms of release. And McCluskey twice called Salt Lake City’s police dispatch line looking for more help.
Deras also never acted on her concern, which she shared with him the morning of the day she was killed, that she had received an email from someone impersonating a police deputy chief in an apparent attempt to draw her out of her dorm. She believed it was from Rowland but Deras didn’t relay her complaints to anyone else in the department.
Hours after shooting McCluskey, Rowland died by suicide.
McCluskey’s parents insisted in their original filing — asking for $56 million — that the U. had many opportunities to step in and help their daughter. The U. initially fired back, in part, that its officers had no obligation to protect McCluskey because her killer wasn’t a U. employee or student and had no connection to the university.
Prior to the settlement, the case was set to go to trial early next year.