University of Utah Murder Raises Important Issues

On Monday, October 22nd, University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey was found dead in the backseat of a car. The 21-year-old communications major had dated her killer, Melvin Rowland, for about a month after meeting him at a bar where he worked as a bouncer. She broke off the relationship on October 9th after a friend informed her that Rowland had lied about his name, age, and criminal history.

Back in 2004, Rowland had been convicted of two felonies: forcible sexual abuse and enticing a minor. He pleaded guilty to the charges, was registered as a sex offender, and spent nearly a decade in prison. He was granted parole in 2012 and 2016 but broke the conditions of his release both times and returned to prison.

At various parole hearings from 2010 to 2018, officials consistently expressed concerns about Rowland’s inability to stop meeting and luring women online. At a hearing in 2012, Rowland admitted that he was attracted to vulnerable women and teenage girls, and liked manipulating them. Nevertheless, at an early 2018 hearing, Rowland portrayed himself as a changed man and was granted early release from prison. He met McCluskey shortly thereafter.

Rowland’s inability to stay away from underage girls and stop his manipulative behavior raises an important question, one that people are still debating: Is it possible for rapists and sex offenders to be rehabilitated? It’s not surprising that a man who admits his own prowess at manipulating women would also be able to manipulate officials into believing he’s a changed man. The fact that those officials believed him is alarming.

Given Rowland’s proclivity for manipulation, he should have been subjected to more extensive therapy during his parole. It’s possible there was an underlying mental disorder at play in his behavior. Regardless, he took his own life after fatally shooting Lauren McCluskey, so there is one less predator on the streets. The disgusting 37-year-old will not be missed.

Still, McCluskey’s murder might have been prevented by the University of Utah Police, had they not failed to do their job. On October 12th, she began receiving suspicious text messages which she believed were from Rowland’s friends, as she had blocked Rowland’s phone number. It seemed as though “Rowland’s friends” were trying to lure her somewhere. She told university police about the messages, but they didn’t determine that the messages were really from Rowland (using fake numbers) until it was too late.

The next day, October 13th, McCluskey received a demand for $1000 in order to prevent compromising pictures of her and Rowland from being made public. She deposited the money but filed a report with university police. According to University of Utah Police Chief Dale Brophy, the police opened an extortion case but did not begin a formal investigation until October 19th because of workload issues.

Sex-based extortion is a major issue, one that university police clearly should have taken more seriously. It’s uncertain what other issues were causing such a supposedly tremendous workload, but the fact that they put her case on the back burner is a significant failure on their end. Perhaps McCluskey would still be alive today if they had acted more quickly to protect her.

Thankfully, the University of Utah has announced that it will be conducting separate reviews into campus safety and how the police force responded to McCluskey’s complaints. Considering this isn’t the only murder to have occurred recently on campus – last October, international student ChenWei Guo was shot and killed –  an investigation seems overdue.

In addition to making sure that police take claims more seriously, it’s important that parents continue to educate their children on the warning signs of emotional abuse or manipulation in relationships. It’s sad that we live in a world where we can’t always trust the seemingly wonderful people we meet and date. Lauren McCluskey’s devastating fate is a reminder to all of us that there’s a fine line between kindness and pure naivety.