Family of slain Utah track athlete sues school

OTL: Family of murdered Utah track athlete files lawsuit (0:27)

The mother of murdered University of Utah track athlete Lauren McCluskey speaks with OTL investigative correspondent T.J. Quinn. (0:27)

SALT LAKE CITY -- The parents of Lauren McCluskey, the University of Utah track athlete slain on campus last year, filed a federal lawsuit against the school Thursday, saying her death could have been prevented had campus officials taken her numerous pleas for help seriously.

"No one has been disciplined or held accountable in the campus police or housing. The same culture prevails in the campus police. There is no significant change," Jill McCluskey, Lauren's mother, said in an email to ESPN on Wednesday. "Initially we were not planning to file a lawsuit, but [university] President [Ruth] Watkins refused to take any responsibility or hold anyone accountable for the failures that resulted in Lauren's murder."

McCluskey was shot to death in October by a man she briefly dated, despite having warned campus police and housing officials numerous times that she feared for her safety. Her killer, Melvin S. Rowland, shot himself the same night.

The civil rights lawsuit, filed in Salt Lake City by Jill and her husband, Matt McCluskey, asks for $56 million in damages. The McCluskeys, both professors at Washington State University, described the lawsuit as a "last resort to affect positive change" after the school announced in December that Lauren's death could not have been prevented, despite numerous failures identified within the school's internal investigation.

Lauren McCluskey, a 21-year-old senior from Pullman, Washington, was a heptathlete on Utah's track team. She began dating a man she believed to be 28-year-old community college student Shawn Fields in September, but friends quickly grew concerned about his jealousy and controlling behavior. According to the lawsuit, one friend reported to a campus housing official that McCluskey had bruises the friend believed were caused by McCluskey's new boyfriend.

Within a few weeks of when they started dating, McCluskey discovered that Shawn Fields was actually 37-year-old Rowland, a convicted sex offender who was on parole. She soon ended the relationship, but within days of doing so, she called campus police to say Rowland was stalking and harassing her. According to police and the school's investigation, McCluskey, her mother and her friends contacted campus police and the school's housing office more than 20 times, including once after Rowland sent McCluskey a text claiming to be a police officer in order to draw her away from her dorm the day he killed her. Despite the repeated calls, campus police never checked Rowland's parole status or sought him for questioning, according to the school's own investigation.

The lawsuit includes accusations that campus housing officials were told of numerous circumstances that should have forced investigations under the federal law known as Title IX, such as signs of domestic violence, Rowland's possession of a gun and her friends' stated fears for McCluskey's life. Police said Rowland attempted to blackmail McCluskey by threatening to reveal compromising photos of her.

"Indeed, no University officials followed up with Lauren in any regard," the lawsuit says.

In a statement, Watkins expressed "deep sorrow" for the McCluskeys' loss and said the school will respond to the lawsuit "through the appropriate channels."

"While there are differences in how we would characterize some of the events leading to Lauren's tragic murder, let me say again that we share the McCluskey family's commitment to improving campus safety," Watkins said in the statement. "We continue to address the recommendations identified by the independent review of the university's safety policies, procedures and resources, and we are making ongoing improvements designed to protect our students and our entire campus community."

On Oct. 22, McCluskey was on the phone with her mother while she crossed campus when Rowland abducted her, leaving her cellphone and backpack scattered on the ground as her parents heard her screams. She was found dead hours later, shot seven times. Rowland killed himself that night after a police pursuit.

The school conducted an investigation into McCluskey's death and released a list of 30 recommendations to improve safety, but Watkins said in December when the results of the review were announced that the investigation did not "offer any reason to believe this tragedy could have been prevented." Jill McCluskey told ESPN that the statement made her "physically ill," and that Watkins did not return messages when she sought to follow up.

Jill McCluskey told ESPN that she and her husband hope a settlement would compel insurance companies to take risk to female students into account and force universities to develop effective policies.

The McCluskeys said any damages recovered would go to the Lauren McCluskey Foundation, which contributes to causes associated with "campus safety, amateur athletics and animal welfare."

The lawsuit names the university, the school's department of housing and residential education, and the university department of public safety, as well as campus police chief Dale Brophy; campus police Sgt. Kory Newbold; campus detective Kayla Dallof; campus police officer Miguel Deras; Todd Justesen, the associate director of the housing department's leadership team; Heather McCarthy, the housing department's area coordinator; and Emily Thompson, a resident director for the housing department, for their "deliberate indifference and failure to intervene."