SALT LAKE CITY — As golden-hour light illuminated hundreds gathered on the University of Utah's campus Wednesday evening, only the faint sound of crying broke the silence.
Students, staff and community members met in front of the Park Building steps to remember their classmate and pupil Lauren McCluskey, a senior and star on the track team.
"Lauren McCluskey was an outstanding young woman. She was a joy to coach. When you recruit a student athlete, you try to understand them, get to know them," said U. head track and field coach Kyle Kepler.
"And when you bring them on campus, you have an idea of what you want them to be or what you think they can be. And I think Lauren exceeded in all of those areas."
On the sunset-soaked campus, the feeling of loss and love for the young woman who, by all accounts, impacted many for good served as a stark contrast to the cruel way she was taken two days earlier, gunned down by an enraged ex-boyfriend who had lied about his age and his "womanizing" history.
For three of McCluskey's teammates who spoke on the building's steps, the loss is devastating. The women huddled together, comforting each other as they spoke and helping each other finish their thoughts.
"There are no words to describe the pain and loss we're feeling as a team right now," Eliza Hansen said.
"Lauren has always … gave 110 percent in everything she did. The loss of her sweet spirit to our team is truly devastating," she said, trailing off as she paused to cry.
"She was an amazing, genuine and caring person, and she will be really missed," Mesa Weidle chimed in.
"We were beyond blessed to have her as our teammate and as our sister, and we'll always miss her and we'll always, always love her," Raynee Helm-Wheelcock added.
U. President Ruth Watkins' words reflected the somberness of the evening as friends and strangers mourned McCluskey together.
"Words really fail at times like these, incapable of capturing our campus shock and our heartbreak, which we know pales in comparison to what those who love Lauren best are experiencing today. … The act of violence that took Lauren's life defies understanding," Watkins said.
Two vigils also took place Wednesday night in McCluskey's hometown — one at Pullman High, where she went to school, and one at Washington State University, where her parents teach. During the vigil at the high school, attendees honored McCluskey with a candelit lap around the track.
On Monday, McCluskey, 21, was shot and killed by a man she had dated for about a month before she discovered he was a convicted sex offender and nearly two decades her senior. Her efforts to terminate the relationship led to harassment from Rowland, according to her family.
McCluskey, of Pullman, Washington was shot and dumped in the back seat of a car on campus. Police say she was murdered by Melvin Shawn Rowland, 37.
Rowland was found dead a few hours later of a suspected self-inflicted gunshot wound inside the Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church, 239 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. (600 South), after being chased by police.
Although it was not known Wednesday how old Rowland portrayed himself to be, the 37-year-old man had been in and out of the Utah State Prison several times, and his convictions earned him a place on the Utah Sex Offender Registry.
U. student Hannah Vasquez said she met McCluskey just a few weeks ago at a church service and the two became quick friends.
"She sat next to me and we instantly struck up a conversation. And I remember her being very outgoing and sweet and we talked a little bit about going to the U. She told me she was a senior and so I asked her if she was excited to graduate," Vasquez told the Deseret News.
"I remember leaving being very awestruck by her, because no one's really that outgoing and sweet like she was. And I remember leaving being excited to have a new friend."
Like others at the vigil, she said she did not have words to describe how she feels in light of McCluskey's murder.
According to McCluskey's track coach, "She cared about everybody."
McCluskey was also "an excellent student" who regularly appeared on a board in his office that listed the top 10 track athletes with the highest grade point averages, Kepler said.
Although Daniel Wallitz, a U. resident advisor, did not know McCluskey personally, he said her loss has been keenly felt by him and the students he works with.
"I just feel like it's hard when such a tragedy happens on campus, on a campus environment with a student, with an athlete; I feel like it just hurts the morale in general. But I feel like now, it's important for us to stay together as one, and overcome this event and really honor Lauren and remember her for all of her accomplishments," Wallitz said.
In light of the track star's death, the U. and universities across the state have come together to support each other and show solidarity.
"Even though some people didn't know her, it still hits you with someone on campus dying," Vante Hendrix, a member of the U. basketball team, said.
Several U. sports teams, including the track, football, volleyball and soccer teams, announced Wednesday they would wear one of two patches and decals on their uniforms during their upcoming competitions. One is a heart with the initials "LM" in the middle. The other is a winged shoe with "Lauren" written on the shoe.
Several students at Brigham Young University, Utah State University and Weber State University also united to show solidarity for McCluskey and the U. by wearing red on their campuses in her honor.
BYU student Christian Dahneke, who wore a red shirt Wednesday, said it was the least he could do.
"It's a really hard time for the University of Utah, and even though we can be rivals sometimes, when it comes down to it, the most important thing is that everyone feels God's love," he said.
Prior to their win over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday, the Utah Jazz shared a photo on Twitter of a pair of basketball shoes with McCluskey's name handwritten on the side, and the caption "For Lauren."
Earlier Wednesday, a day after releasing a statement regarding her daughter, Jill McCluskey tweeted a short message, thanking everyone for their support.
"Thank you for all the messages of sympathy. We are grieving and not doing any interviews, but I'll share a video my brother put together of Lauren doing track in high school when she was being recruited for college."
The accompanying video posted on YouTube in 2013 shows a young McCluskey at some of her high school track meets.
For Kevin Treu, news of the senseless act of violence that claimed a classmate brought back memories of a shooting at the U. almost a year ago.
"I can say it's like we're left with more questions than answers. And so it's kind of hard to deal with for the community, not even a year since …. For me it's difficult to see it happen again," Treu said after the vigil.
A look into the background of the man who police say murdered McCluskey shows a troubled past.
In a recording of his 2012 parole hearing, Rowland talked about how he once had a promising life ahead, and was even enrolled at the University of Utah as a pre-med student and a certified nursing assistant at the VA Hospital. But an addiction to "internet sexual activity" ruined his life, he said.
The board noted during that hearing that Rowland admitted he was sexually attracted to teenage girls and adult women who were "vulnerable."
Rowland described himself as a "womanizer" during the hearing, and said he got what he wanted by manipulating women. When asked by the board how many women he manipulated, he responded, "I would say every female that I came across dating or met on the internet."
By the time he was 22, Rowland claimed he'd had sex with at least 50 women.
It was also noted during the 2012 hearing that Rowland was kicked out of the prison's sex offender treatment program in 2010 because he tried to manipulate and lie his way through it, according to the board, and seemed to have lost sight of the fact he was there because he raped a 17-year-old girl. He was deemed at that time to be a "high risk" to reoffend, a board member noted during the hearing.
Rowland was convicted in two criminal cases in 2004: an amended charge of attempted forcible sexual abuse and enticing a minor over the internet, according to court records. According to the recording of the 2012 parole hearing, Rowland admitted in one case that he raped a 17-year-old girl he had met on the internet, and in the other was arrested by an undercover officer after trying to arrange what he thought was sex with a 13-year-old.
He was sentenced to up to five years in prison on one case and one to 15 years on the other. The sentences were ordered to run concurrently.
Rowland was initially incarcerated from 2004 to 2012, according to the prison, and then sent back and released two more times for parole violations.
In January 2018, Rowland went before the parole board for the first time in two years stating that he had completed sex offender treatment again. In a recording of that hearing, Rowland said he was initially ashamed and angry when he was returned to prison in 2016, but claimed he then changed his attitude.
"I chose to definitely take a good look at myself when I came back," he said.
Rowland, who became a father, told the board he wasn't happy with the relationship he was in, was narcissistic and selfish, and had problems with infidelity. He used phrases such as "distorted my values" and "living a double life" when answering the board's questions.
At one point, he said he sought attention from "females" who were online and attended school, according to the recording.
"If I can do it here, I can follow the rules on the street," he told the board. "At this point, I want to follow every rule as possible."
Most recently, he was released in April, about a year before he would have served his entire sentence.
Rowland met McCluskey while working security at a downtown Salt Lake bar. The bar owner told the Deseret News that he had contracted with Black Diamond Security to provide security services, and Rowland was at the bar under that arrangement but was never directly employed by the bar.
How Rowland got a job with a security company based on his criminal background was unknown. Multiple calls and messages left with Black Diamond Security were not returned Tuesday.
The bar owner said he had severed ties with the security firm as of Tuesday.14 comments on this story
Jill McCluskey said her daughter ended her relationship with Rowland on Oct. 9. The next day, she requested that a police officer accompany her to get back her car that she had loaned to Rowland, according to the mother.
University of Utah Police Chief Dale Brophy said his officers took reports on Oct. 12 and Oct. 13 from Lauren McCluskey regarding harassment, but he declined to provide details about those complaints or what actions police took. He said his detectives were "working to build a case" at the time of her death.
It was not known if McCluskey had sought a protective order.
Contributing: Andrew Adams, Felicia Martinez