SALT LAKE CITY — The mother of a University of Utah student shot and killed on campus by an ex-boyfriend was on the phone with her daughter Monday when the tragedy unfolded.
"Suddenly, I heard her yell, 'No, no, no!' I thought she might have been in a car accident. That was the last I heard from her. My husband called 911. I kept the line open and in a few minutes, a young woman picked up the phone and said all of Lauren’s things were on the ground," Jill McCluskey, mother of U. senior Lauren McCluskey, said Tuesday.
Now as vigils and funerals are planned for the standout student-athlete who was deceived by a convicted sex offender, University of Utah officials say they will review the events leading up to the shooting to determine whether more could have been done to protect McCluskey, who had allegedly reported harassment to police a week earlier.
McCluskey, 21, a senior from Pullman, Washington, and a star on the track and field team, was shot and killed sometime between 8:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. Monday near the dorms, sparking a campuswide lockdown as police looked for the gunman.
An intense manhunt ended about 2 a.m. when officers found Melvin Shawn Rowland, 37, dead of a suspected self-inflicted gunshot wound inside the Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church, 239 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. (600 South).
On Tuesday, Jill McCluskey said her daughter dated Rowland for about a month until she learned that he had lied to her about his name, his age and his criminal history. What Lauren McCluskey didn't know was that Rowland was 17 years older than her, had served prison time for sex crimes and was a registered sex offender.
"She ended the relationship with her killer on Oct. 9, 2018. He had borrowed her car, and she requested for the University of Utah police (to) accompany her on Oct. 10, 2018, to get the car back. She blocked his and his friends’ phone numbers and complained to University of Utah police that she was being harassed," Jill McCluskey said in a statement.
University Police Chief Dale Brophy said his department received a phone call about 8:30 p.m. Monday "from a frantic mother telling us something had happened to her daughter."
A search of the parking lot near the dorms and the surrounding area was immediately launched. McCluskey's body was found in the back seat of a vehicle and some of her personal belongings, like her cellphone, were in another area of the parking lot.
Brophy declined Tuesday to go into many details about the fatal confrontation, including whose car McCluskey's body was found in, whether she was walking or driving home from class or what transpired when confronted by Rowland.
Police believe within 30 minutes of the shooting, Rowland was picked up by another person and driven off campus. Investigators have talked to that person but did not make an arrest, Brophy said.
After midnight Tuesday morning, based on a tip, Salt Lake police spotted Rowland near 600 South and 250 East. The officers ran after Rowland, who entered Trinity AME Church through a back door. Officers with K-9s followed him inside where they heard a "commotion" from upstairs and a gunshot, said Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown.
After police secured the building, they found Rowland's body.
McCluskey's parents, both professors at Washington State University, noted that their daughter had complained to University police that she was being harassed. Brophy said his officers took reports on Oct. 12 and Oct. 13, but he declined to talk about the nature of those complaints or what kind of harassment McCluskey was allegedly receiving or what actions were taken. He said his detectives were "working to build a case” at the time of her death.
As for escorting McCluskey to get her car back on Oct. 10, Brophy said his office has no record of that and was trying to determine Tuesday whether it was possible that another agency handled that.
It was not known Tuesday if McCluskey had applied for, or had been advised to apply for a protective order.
Seran An, one of McCluskey's former roommates and a close friend, said McCluskey told her two weeks ago that she had met Rowland in a downtown Salt Lake bar, but stopped dating him when she discovered he hadn't been truthful with her about his age or criminal past. An said when the campus alert was issued last night, she had a gut feeling based on the description of the suspect that it was him.
"I read the description about that guy. It was kind of telling me in my gut it was something related to her maybe," she said. "I tried to call her but, gosh, when I first noticed when I got the alert, I was so scared if I called her she was maybe hiding somewhere so I couldn’t do that right away. But I tried to reach her."
Brophy initially said that Rowland had recently walked away from the Fortitude Treatment Center, a state halfway house at 1747 S. 900 West, so investigators could not find him for questioning into the harassment allegations.
Yet a spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Corrections refuted that and said Rowland was never assigned to Fortitude during his last release from prison. According to the sex offender registry, Rowland's home address was listed as an apartment in the area of 400 West and 300 South. Kaitlin Felsted said that is where the department believes he had been living.
When asked Tuesday if police did enough to protect McCluskey, Brophy said: "I want the answer to that question as well, and when we have that answer we’ll share it with you."
Brophy, as well as Dean of Students Lori McDonald and Athletic Director Mark Harlan, were visibly shaken during a press conference at Rice-Eccles Stadium Tuesday to address the tragedy.
"As a parent of a college student myself, I can’t even fathom what (Lauren's parents) are going through right now,” the chief said.
"It is with tremendous sadness and a heavy heart that we are here today,” McDonald said, adding that the entire campus is "feeling a profound loss."
She said counseling services are available for students and encouraged everyone to "hug those you love."
McDonald said U. President Ruth Watkins was away on business in Beijing when the shooting occurred, but immediately boarded a flight and was expected to be back in Salt Lake City Tuesday night.
"This isn’t right. I don’t really have any words. Lauren was a proud Ute heading into her senior year,” said a saddened and visibly disturbed Harlan.
Earlier, Harlan released a statement calling the shooting a "senseless act."
"This news has shaken not only myself but our entire University of Utah athletics family to its core. We have university counselors and psychologists on standby to support Lauren’s teammates, coaches and friends. Our thoughts and prayers go out to her family and all of those dear to her,” he said.
McCluskey was majoring in communications and was scheduled to graduate in May.
"She loved to sing and had strength and determination. She was dearly loved and will be greatly missed," her mother said.
A vigil for McCluskey is scheduled at the U. for 5 p.m. Wednesday.
According to court records, Rowland was convicted of an amended charge of attempted forcible sexual abuse in 2004 in 3rd District Court and was sentenced to up to five years in the Utah State Prison. A judge ordered the sentence to run concurrently with his conviction in a separate case that same year of enticing a minor over the internet, a second-degree felony. He was sentenced in that case to one to 15 years in prison.
Rowland was initially incarcerated from 2004 to 2012, according to the prison. Over the next few years, Rowland was placed on parole and returned to the prison for various violations at least two more times. He was last released from the Utah State Prison in April, according to Felsted.
In September of 2014, after being out of prison for only two months, the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole issued a warrant for Rowland's arrest for possessing pornography, failing to participate in treatment and not allowing his parole officer to conduct a search, according to corrections officials.
He was only sent back to a prison for a month for that violation but returned to prison for another one in 2016.
"Mr. Rowland failed to complete sex offender treatment and absconded from parole supervision," according to the board.
Because of those convictions, Rowland was listed on the Utah Sex Offender and Kidnapper Registry.
At least two women have filed for protective orders against Rowland since 2004, court records indicate.30 comments on this story
The shooting comes just days before the one-year anniversary of the death of U. student ChenWei Guo, who was shot and killed on campus by a drifter who attempted to steal his car and kidnap a woman who was with him on Oct. 30, 2017. The shooting launched a massive manhunt on campus and in the foothills above the school as police searched for Austin "AJ" Boutain. He was arrested the next day at the Salt Lake Main Library.
Help for people in abusive relationships can be found by contacting the YWCA's Women in Jeopardy program at 801-537-8600, or the confidential statewide Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-897-LINK (5465). Resources are also available online at udvc.org.
Contributing: Felicia Martinez