MURRAY — Following new allegations about how University of Utah police handled Lauren McCluskey's case, the department announced on Monday a new investigation will be conducted by an outside agency in response to reports a police officer boasted about seeing explicit photos of the college student prior to her murder.
That announcement happened after lawyers representing McCluskey’s family in a massive lawsuit against the University of Utah also said Monday they plan to meet with the Utah Attorney General’s Office this week regarding how the university handled her case before she was killed in 2018.
Depending on how those meetings go, lawyers said they may reach a settlement, the lawsuit may continue into the next process, or a second lawsuit may be filed against the school.
The developments come a day after the Salt Lake Tribune reported on a startling allegation that a University of Utah police officer assigned to her extortion case showed an explicit image of her to colleagues days before she was gunned down by the man she told police was harassing her. The report stated that the officer, identified as Miguel Deras, bragged about having the image and showed it to at least one other officer in October 2018.
"Hopefully at the mediation, there will be a chance for full disclosure and discussion, and we'll be able to come to a settlement," said Brad Parker, an attorney representing the McCluskey family. "Our clients are coming to this mediation with open minds and hoping this matter can be concluded. But if it can't, we'll go through the discovery process, which includes deposing the officers."
The new allegation is at the center of a new lawsuit complaint, which lawyers said they’ve drafted but will wait to file until after mediations Tuesday and Wednesday. Jim McConkie, another attorney representing the family, said the new allegation “fundamentally changes the nature of this lawsuit.” McConkie doubled down on the report, claiming that a University of Utah officer showed the image to another officer not assigned to the case “for what appears to be prurient reasons.”
“His acts were intentional,” McConkie said. “Essentially, what he did was he revictimized the victim, and so the lawsuit has expanded in scope. … The focus now also shifts to a university, who has an employee, who has himself exploited the victim. That’s a serious matter because the university is now one of the bad actors that offended and damaged Lauren McCluskey.”
McCluskey’s parents, Jill and Matt, said their daughter was upset that campus police weren’t taking her reports seriously and even contacted the city's emergency dispatch twice to find another agency to take the case. Matt McCluskey said it took “a lot of courage” for his daughter to send extortion evidence to police and that her trust was “betrayed.”
“It turns out the only thing officer Deras did was download the photos she provided as evidence to his personal phone for his own enjoyment,” Jill McCluskey added in a conference call from the family’s Washington home. “I wish he would have used his time to arrest Lauren’s killer rather than ogling at her image. We hope something is done.”
The report has also prompted a strong reaction from several state leaders, but university officials told KSL on Sunday they found no evidence to support the claims after an investigation. In the statement, officials said they started the investigation after the allegation surfaced and that an investigation concluded in February.
“(It) found no evidence that a former officer had ‘bragged’ or shared any image from the investigation that wasn’t considered a legitimate law enforcement reason,” the statement reads, in part. “This was based on interviews with multiple officers who would have been present at briefings during this time period. No officers currently or previously employed ever reported this at the time of occurrence.”
A university spokesperson told KSL NewsRadio on Monday the officer didn’t download images to a personal device, and the images were collected when McCluskey filed a stalking and extortion report in October 2018. They added the question that remains is whether an officer made an inappropriate comment and showed the photos to others.
A new investigation
In a statement released on Monday night, University of Utah Police Chief Rodney Chatman said a new investigation into the alleged incident has been ordered by an outside agency.
“This is due to the seriousness of the accusation, concerns I have with the thoroughness of the report, and my desire to avoid any perception of bias,” Chatman explained in the statement.
When the new report is finished, police will release it to the public.
Last year, an internal investigation found that “a photo was shared in the context of a shift-change briefing,” Chatman said in the statement. However, the incident was never reported to police department command staff or any other university agency that might have investigated it further.
Chatman, who joined the university police force after McCluskey’s murder, said if the claims are true it is a “serious breach of trust and violation of professional law enforcement standards.”
If my police department is to regain credibility in the eyes of the community it serves this new review must be completed swiftly and with respect for both the students we serve and for Lauren McCluskey and her family.
–University of Utah Police Chief Rodney Chatman
“It is inexcusable for a police officer to inappropriately share or discuss photos or information provided by a victim seeking justice,” Chatman continued. “This is an especially egregious offense on a college campus where young women are already reluctant to report sexual assault to police for fear of not being believed or no action being taken if they report a crime.”
In addition to ordering the new review, Chatman also placed those involved in the original investigation on administrative leave pending the new review’s findings.
Both current and former police department employees will be interviewed in the new investigation.
“Statements by the university over the past 24 hours have leaned heavily on the results of the first internal review,” Chatman said. “However, if my police department is to regain credibility in the eyes of the community it serves this new review must be completed swiftly and with respect for both the students we serve and for Lauren McCluskey and her family.”
A second lawsuit?
Lauren McCluskey was shot and killed on the university’s campus by Melvin Rowland on Oct. 22, 2018. The two had briefly dated until she learned that Rowland lied about his name, age and criminal past, which included that he was on parole from Utah State Prison at the time and a registered sex offender.
She filed a report with university police days before her death, saying she had received text messages and emails from different numbers and individuals that threatened to leak comprising photos of her online if she didn’t pay the sender. She told police that she paid $1,000 to prevent the photos from going on the internet. Rowland is believed to have been the person behind those texts and emails. He shot and killed himself inside a Salt Lake City church shortly after McCluskey’s body was discovered.
The McCluskey family filed a $56 million lawsuit against the university last June, arguing that university officials ignored Lauren McCluskey’s multiple reports of abuse, stalking, intimidation and extortion. The Utah Attorney General’s Office, which is representing the university in the case, filed for the case to be dismissed in January.
A University of Utah spokesperson said a hearing regarding that proposal was scheduled to be held at the Salt Lake City federal courthouse last week but was postponed until in-person arguments could be held.
A “highly respected judge” from Denver is set to come in to mediate the matter beginning Tuesday and Wednesday, Parker said. Those meetings will likely determine what comes next in the case, which might include a new lawsuit regarding the newly-surfaced allegations. It might be filed later this week if mediation meetings don’t resolve the current dispute.
While university officials say they concluded their investigation in February, McConkie and Parker said they had only heard rumblings that an officer may have mishandled images but nothing to the extent that the Tribune laid out until the article was published Sunday. They said they are aware of the names of the witnesses to the account but haven’t been able to get a deposition from university police officers since the university hasn’t formally responded to the lawsuit in federal court.
“Every time a new disclosure like this comes out that the university has known but not disclosed, it just opens and scars and wounds of Jill and Matt McCluskey, and they’re injured over and over again,” Parker said. “They wonder when this will ever end. One thing we want is the university to make disclosures — just be open and honest about what occurred. The fact there’s a lawsuit doesn’t extinguish the obligation to be open.”
Matt McCluskey questioned if the university is hiding anything else about how police handed his daughter’s case, especially since the latest information was revealed a year and a half after she was killed.
“The officer’s behavior was not isolated,” he said. “It stemmed from a culture that did not take women seriously and refused to hold individuals accountable.”
Logan police offer update
The police officer in question, Miguel Deras, currently works for the Logan Police Department. Logan police said Sunday they are looking into the allegations about Deras. On Monday, Logan Police Chief Gary Jensen issued a statement about the issue. He said the department was “blindsided by what was reported” and that there wasn’t any evidence to back the claim by university police employees that the officer made those remarks.
“Although the allegations are difficult to read and very serious in nature, please remember they are allegations. We are taking the allegations seriously and are investigating the claims,” Jensen wrote in a statement. “Please be patient while we consult with the University of Utah Police Department, who has reportedly already done an in-depth internal investigation on this very claim, including interviews of (the officer’s) co-workers, employees and a forensic download of the office’s phone.”
Jensen added that he has received “several emotional phone calls and emails” and that if the department does find evidence to substantiate the allegations, the department will “take appropriate action.”