If you follow sports or true crime, you’re probably familiar with the death of Lauren McCluskey. If you are not aware, this story will make you profoundly sad and angry. A 21-year-old being murdered while attending college is a parent’s worst nightmare. What makes the killing of McCluskey even more horrific is that it should have never happened. This tragedy was preventable.
The ESPN documentary LISTEN looks back at the 2018 homicide of the University of the Utah track and field athlete. McCluskey was stalked and harassed before being killed by her ex-boyfriend. This was a calamity of the highest order because McCluskey repeatedly asked for help from the university police and the Salt Lake City police. No one did enough to assist her until it was too late. It’s a frightening and unfortunately familiar tale of how our justice system fails women. When clear warning signs are ignored, the result can be deadly.
LISTEN spends the first half of the 90-minute film laying out the details, including McCluskey’s background and how 37-year-old registered sex offender Melvin Rowland spun a web of lies to start a relationship with her. ESPN’s T.J. Quinn and director Nicole Noren, who have been reporting on the story for four years, also reveal new information, including interviews and documents.
Everyone wants to know how this could have possibly happened. So many people knew how dangerous Rowland was, yet he continued to prey on victims until his own death (Rowland died by suicide soon after killing McCluskey). LISTEN attempts to add context and give viewers a better understanding. The journalism here is exceptional. However, the answers and responses from those in law enforcement who should have protected McCluskey will satisfy no one, particularly her grieving parents.
The documentary looks into all the ways that the system fell short and how it took a lawsuit that was settled for $13.5 million to hold anyone accountable. And still, there are lingering questions and doubts about how much has changed for the better.
Among the significant interviewees in LISTEN:
- Miguel Deras, the former campus police officer who first took McCluskey’s report about Rowland blackmailing and harassing her
- Paul Amann, the former Utah assistant attorney general, who prosecuted Rowland for two sex crimes
- Megan Thomson, Rowland’s parole agent
The most jarring interview is with Deras, who, according to ESPN, had never before spoken publicly about the case. He was in his third year with the police in 2018. In LISTEN, he apologizes for not pushing his superiors to do more but said at the time he thought the police were dealing with an extortion case. He added he wasn’t ‘100 percent sure’ that Rowland was the source of threatening text messages. Deras’s response as to why the police never bothered to talk with Rowland might shock some viewers.
Deras was fired in 2020 after an investigation concluded that he showed off explicit photos of McCluskey to his co-workers. He denied the accusation to Quinn.
McCluskey wasn’t just let down by the justice system. Quinn and Noren uncover information about how ordinary people, who could have intervened and stopped Rowland, chose not to get involved. A simple phone call could have saved her.
LISTEN is an important examination of what happens when too many fail to act. Sometimes an individual pays the ultimate price.
LISTEN premieres Tuesday, March 28 on ESPN+ at 7 p.m. EDT. available for on-demand viewing on ESPN+ and ESPN+ on Hulu after the premiere. It will also be the focus of a two-hour 20/20 report on Friday, March 31, at 9 p.m. on ABC.