By LINDSAY WHITEHURST Associated Press
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A group of University of Utah police officers made inappropriate comments about explicit photos of a student who had submitted the pictures as evidence in an extortion case shortly before her shooting death, an investigation found Wednesday.
Utah’s Department of Public Safety opened an investigation after the Salt Lake Tribune unearthed allegations that an officer had shown off the images of 21-year-old track athlete Lauren McCluskey before her 2018 slaying.
Her shooting death at the hands of a man she had briefly dated has roiled the institution and raised serious questions about how it handled her repeated reports that the man was harassing her before her death, including extorting her with the images she had sent him when they were involved.
University officials have acknowledged mistakes and made changes to policies and procedures. But they maintained that there’s no evidence her death could have been prevented.
An attorney for Officer Miguel Deras has previously denied bragging about the photos. He did show them during a routine briefing, but only to ask how they should be handled and stored and did not make inappropriate comments, his attorney Jeremy Jones said.
“From my client’s recollection, he never participated in that. He showed the photos in briefing, he didn’t ‘smoke and joke’ about the photos at any time,” he said.
The probe found no evidence Deras inappropriately downloaded or electronically transferred the photos. He now works for another department in the city of Logan, Utah. Officials there could not immediately be reached for comment.
University of Utah police Chief Rodney Chatman, who is new to the role, did not name Deras specifically but said he’s disappointed in the “small group” of officers who commented about the pictures around the time of a shift-change briefing, and those who did not report the comments.
“It is inexcusable for any law enforcement officer to discuss photos or information provided by a victim outside of clear and legitimate law enforcement reasons,” he said. Chatman said he would pursue action against individual officers, but he said the exact discipline will be confidential.
McCluskey’s parents, Jill and Matt, criticized the university for being dishonest and failing to take responsibility for their daughter’s death.
“We now call for the University of Utah to redo its incomplete and disingenuous investigation and for an independent review of the facts surrounding Lauren’s murder and the University’s failure to respond to her pleas for help,” the parents said in a statement.
McCluskey had contacted university police more than 20 times before her death to report harassment by a man she had dated, Melvin Shawn Rowland.
Her family says in a lawsuit that those reports were not taken seriously by campus police, who should have quickly discovered he was a registered sex offender on parole who had been lying to her about his name, age and history. Instead, he fatally shot her with a borrowed gun on campus and later killed himself.