Updated at 4:45 p.m. MT
A University of Utah student athlete who was shot and killed on Monday night had a brief but tumultuous relationship with her suspected shooter, her family said, as police began to piece together the violent episode that put the university’s campus on lockdown overnight.
Police confirmed that Melvin Rowland shot 21-year-old Lauren McCluskey near a residence hall on campus before escaping to a church downtown and killing himself as police closed in. University of Utah Police found McCluskey deceased in the backseat of a car with her belongings on the ground.
At a press conference Tuesday morning, Dale Brophy, the university’s chief of police, said they were alerted by the victim’s mother.
“At 8:30 p.m., we received a phone call from a frantic mother telling us that something happened to her daughter,” said Brophy.
Jill McCluskey, the victim’s mother, confirmed in a statement she was on the phone with her daughter, who was walking back to her apartment after a night class, when she was approached by Rowland, 37.
“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,” she said.
The shooting sent shockwaves through a campus that had experienced the shooting death of another student almost a year ago. ChenWei Guo, a 23-year-old student from China, was gunned down on Oct. 30 by a drifter, Austin Boutain, while in his car. The university canceled classes on Tuesday and is providing counseling and support services to students, faculty and McCluskey’s fellow teammates.
Lori McDonald, the associate vice dean of students, said the campus community had been affected by both shootings and encouraged students to seek out campus counselors and other support services. “It is important to acknowledge that trauma and stress impact us differently — there is no normal reaction to something like this,” said McDonald, choking back tears.
Police Building Case
Jill McCluskey said her daughter had ended the relationship with Rowland earlier this month after he had lied about his name, age and criminal history. Lauren McCluskey had asked for a campus escort on Oct. 10 to retrieve a car the suspect had borrowed, Jill McCluskey said.
Brophy said Lauren McCluskey had filed a police report on Oct. 12 and 13 against Rowland, but did not disclose details of those complaints or a possible motive in the killing.
He said a detective from the University of Utah Police Department had been working on building a case against the suspect. After a manhunt involving university and Salt Lake City police, Rowland was located off campus and pursued by officers on foot. He broke into the Trinity A.M.E. Church on 239 E 600 S where police said they found Rowland in a pastor's office dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Brophy said Rowland had a criminal history and had been living in a halfway house in Salt Lake prior to the shooting.
‘A Proud Ute’
Director of Athletics Mark Harlan described McCluskey as a “proud Ute” who had been a standout on the university’s track and field team.
“She had been a pentathlete for us, but was moving into specializing in jumps ... and an incredible student,” he said.
McCluskey was from Pullman, Wash., where her parents are professors at the University of Washington.
Jill McCluskey said her daughter had been a honors student and state champion high jumper as well as record-holder for the 100-meter hurdles. She was majoring in communication at the U and was excited about her graduation next May.
“She loved to sing and had great strength and determination. She was dearly loved and will be greatly missed,” her mother said.
The Mental Toll Of Campus Shootings
Monday's shooting happened two weeks before the year anniversary of another student at the U, ChenWei Guo, who was shot and killed in an attempted carjacking on campus.
“The close proximity of that anniversary certainly weighs on lots of our minds,” said Lori McDonald, the Dean of Students at the University of Utah.
When traumatic events like these happen on a recurring basis, they can have an even stronger impact than normal, according to Robin Gurwitch, a psychology professor at Duke University School of Medicine.
“It may make those worries and those concerns and those triggers even higher because it happened at a time where I already was worried,” Gurwitch said.
College campuses are unique, according to Gurwitch, because students are surrounded by their community but their immediate family support network is often far away.
Gurwitch said changes in mood, sleep and appetite, or hypervigilance and anxiety should go away over several weeks. If they don’t, it may be a sign to seek help.
The university is offering counseling services and a campus vigil for McCluskey is planned for Wednesday evening. Gurwitch said events like vigils are one way for students to see the support that does exist around them.
A separate vigil for domestic violence awareness month was already planned for Friday, October 26 at the University of Utah library.
Erik Neumann and Claire Jones contributed reporting
Watch the press conference from the University of Utah below.