It’s October in Salt Lake City, Utah, and college senior Lauren McCluskey is heading home after a night class. For weeks, she has been struggling with hassle from an ex-boyfriend, fending off attempts to lure her to a rendezvous. But as she talks to her mother on the telephone, someone approaches – leaving her to gasp her last words in desperation down the line.
Lauren’s life began on February 12, 1997, in Berkeley, California. But while she was still a baby, her parents Jill and Matt found work at Washington State University, moving their family to the college city of Pullman, WA. There she showed an interest in active pursuits from an early age.
In fact, when Lauren was just eight years old, she entered her first track event with the Junior Olympic association. And soon, she was setting records across the board. Amazingly, by the time that she started high school, she was already competing on a national level in both hurdles and high jump as well as multi-events.
With 19 USA Track and Field All American titles to her name, Lauren soon became a star at Pullman High School, earning state champion in high jump. And over the years, she continued to win more accolades both on and off the track. By the time that she graduated, the promising young athlete had a scholarship to the University of Utah in the bag.
At college, Lauren continued to excel. Competing in both high jump and multi-events, she delivered her team’s tenth-best performance of all time in the pentathlon. Meanwhile, she majored in communication, impressing her professors with her ability to engage and discuss in the classroom.
According to those who knew her, Lauren loved making friends and seemed to enjoy an active social life at college. And on September 2, 2018, she was out at a bar near her school when she met Melvin Rowland, an older man who worked as security at the venue. Apparently, they hit it off, and the pair soon began dating.
During their relationship, Rowland came to see Lauren frequently at her dorm room on the University of Utah’s campus in Salt Lake City. There he socialized with other students and ingratiated himself into the young athlete’s life. However, he was not all that he seemed – and soon some alarming facts came to Lauren’s attention.
On October 9, just over a month after Lauren and Rowland had first met, she invited him over to visit her dorm room. But this was no romantic rendezvous. Apparently, one of Lauren’s friends had told her that Rowland had lied to her about his name, his age and – shockingly – the truth that he had committed a sex offence that had landed him on a register.
According to records, Rowland was convicted back in 2004 for attempted forcible sexual abuse, as well as using the internet to entice a minor. While incarcerated, he confessed that he was attracted to young, vulnerable women and that he had manipulated them in the past. However, at a later parole hearing, he claimed that therapy had transformed his outlook on life.
In 2013 Rowland was released, his name placed on the sex offenders register for life. And five years later, he met 21-year-old Lauren, telling her that he was younger than his 37 years. But when she found out the truth, she confronted him in her dorm room and broke off the affair.
Despite the argument, however, Rowland slept over in Lauren’s room and even borrowed her vehicle the next day. But on October 10, Jill McCluskey called the campus to request a security escort to help her daughter retrieve the car. Initially, Lauren reassured them that it felt okay to be in Rowland’s presence – although that would soon change.
Two days later, Lauren contacted campus police. Apparently, she had been receiving strange messages informing her that Rowland had died– and that she was to blame. However, after checking social media, she realized that the claims were false. And although she told an officer that she did not feel threatened by the lies, she also suspected that her ex-boyfriend’s friends were attempting to tempt her out of her room.
The next day, Lauren telephoned the police again. This time, she had received messages threatening to post risque pictures of her and Rowland online – unless she paid a ransom of $1,000. Afraid for her reputation, Lauren sent the money, although she also began working with a detective to put together a sexual extortion case.
On October 19, an official investigation was launched. But that same day, Rowland was captured on security videos at locations around the college. For four days, he continued to stalk the campus, presumably hoping to catch Lauren alone. And then, on the morning of October 22, she received another strange text.
In it, someone posing as Deputy Police Chief Rick McLenon asked Lauren to pay a visit to the station. However, she was suspicious and emailed investigators with her concerns. Meanwhile, Rowland set up camp in the communal area of Lauren’s dorm, where he spent the afternoon socializing with her friends.
That evening, Lauren was talking to her mother on the telephone as she returned home from a night class. But as she reached her residence’s parking lot, Rowland stepped out to confront her. And on the other end of the line, Jill listened in horror as she heard her daughter cry out. “Suddenly, I heard her yell, ‘No, no, no!’” she wrote in a statement released on October 23.
Initially, Jill feared that Lauren might have been involved in an accident of some kind. And while her husband Matt dialed 911, she remained on the line. Minutes later, a passerby found Lauren’s telephone, along with her other possessions, on the floor of the parking lot. Soon, police were on the scene, where they eventually discovered Lauren’s body in the back seat of a parked car. She had been shot more than once.
While police were searching for Lauren, Rowland contacted a woman whom he had encountered while internet dating. Oblivious to what had just taken place, she collected Rowland, and the pair went for dinner before visiting the state Capitol. Afterwards, Rowland showered at her apartment. But by the time that his date dropped him off, he had already been named as a suspect in Lauren’s murder – and the woman soon notified police.
In the early hours of the morning, the manhunt for Rowland came to a head when police saw him in the city’s downtown. After pursuing the suspect on foot, officers tracked him to the Trinity A.M.E. church, where he turned the same weapon he had taken Lauren’s life with on himself. Apparently, he had borrowed the gun from a friend after telling them that he wanted to show his girlfriend how to use it.
As Lauren’s family and friends struggle to come to terms with her senseless death, tributes have poured in to a promising athlete taken before her time. Meanwhile, some have questioned whether University of Utah police could have done more to prevent the shooting – particularly in light of Rowland’s criminal past. But were the authorities at fault, or was it simply a tragedy that nobody could have predicted? For the moment at least, the jury remains out.