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University of Utah admits ‘shortcomings’ in handling domestic violence case

Zhifan Dong had only been at the University of Utah for a few months when she sounded the first alarm: she told a residential director in the university’s housing department that her ex-boyfriend, who was living in the same dorm, assaulted her in a motel room in downtown Salt Lake City.

Two days after the January 12 assault, Ms. Dong, 19, told the manager that she was worried about her ex, Haoyu Wang, 26. She said he was having suicidal thoughts and she hadn’t heard from him since his arrest in connection with the assault.

Both Ms. Dong and Mr. Wang were international students from China, but she did not want to return home alive. Ms. Dong was found dead in a motel room about a month after reporting Mr. Wang to the police.

In documents released this week, the university acknowledged that it had mishandled some of the warning signs leading to Ms Dong’s death. The documents include text messages, emails and internal reports that show staff from the university’s housing department were slow to tell campus police that Ms. Dong had been attacked.

The paper trail reveals the university’s missteps, but it doesn’t fill in the gaps of what happened to Ms. Dong in the last weeks of her life, when she skipped classes and stopped staying in her dormitory. In danger and far from home, the only glimpse of her experience is a few vague text messages sent from her phone in which she refused school help and said she needed “rest”.

A few days later, on February 11, the police found Ms. Dong dead next to Mr. Wang in a motel room in downtown Salt Lake City. Mr. Wang had told a university housing staff member in an email that morning that he had killed Ms. Dong by injecting her with heroin. In March, he was charged with murder.

The Salt Lake Tribune had been seeking documents related to the case for months and the newspaper said a court had set July 28 as the deadline for the university to grant it access to a filed campus police report. after Ms. Dong disappeared. Instead, the university released over 100 pages of documents.

Documents show that after Ms. Dong first told university housing staff members on January 14 about the motel room assault, they were slow to implicate other groups, including campus police and the university’s behavioral intervention team. It took more than three weeks for these groups to get involved, even though housing staff members failed to get in touch with Ms. Dong until February 6 by phone or during visits to her dormitory, according to the university calendar.

During this time, staff members had a visit with Mr. Wang in his dormitory. He told them he had a counseling appointment scheduled for that day, Jan. 24, and that he wouldn’t need any more help, according to the documents.

A few days later, a staff member called another student named Haoyu Wang, not realizing that he was the wrong person. As a result, the staff member did not report the ex-boyfriend missing even though he saw that his access card had not been used in the dorm for seven days.

The university said its shortcomings included late staff members, the need for better training and housing processes, and “insufficient and unprofessional” internal communications. The school said these issues have been resolved.

“I have challenged senior university leaders to spare no effort as we look for additional ways to improve security,” said university president Taylor Randall.

Ms Dong’s parents, Junfang Shen and Mingsheng Dong, said on Friday that they “trusted the University of Utah for the safety of our daughter, and they betrayed that trust.”

“They knew Zhifan was in grave danger but failed to protect her when she needed it most,” the parents said. “We don’t want his death to be in vain.”

On February 6, Ms. Dong’s roommate said she was worried because she hadn’t seen her for over a week. The next day, staff members determined that Ms. Dong had not used her building access card since January 28.

On February 8, a housing administrator arranged a meeting with the university’s behavioral intervention team, which filed a missing person’s report with campus police. This was the first time the University of Utah Police Department had been contacted about the Jan. 12 motel room assault.

Officers spoke to Ms. Dong in a video call that day. She showed police a motel room where she said she was staying, but did not say where she was and refused to meet with them. Police used Ms. Dong’s cellphone pings to try to find her, but were unsuccessful after visiting seven hotels in downtown Salt Lake City. Ms. Dong agreed to meet with a housing administrator on campus on February 11.

On February 10, a housing administrator spoke on the phone with Mr. Wang, who said he was upset by his arrest in January and his reputation as a “violent housekeeper”, according to the documents. Ms. Dong had received a temporary protective order for the assault on January 12, but the school did not receive a notice.

In an email received at 3:51 a.m. on February 11, Mr. Wang wrote to a housing administrator that he had killed Ms. Dong with drugs he had purchased on the Internet and was planning to kill himself. Officers broke into a motel room where Mr. Wang had been a registered guest since Feb. 3 and found Ms. Dong dead, a Salt Lake City Police Department detective said in a probable cause statement.

Years before Ms Dong’s death, the University of Utah said it had failed to properly address concerns raised by fellow student Lauren McCluskey, 21, who was fatally shot in 2018 by a man she had been dating for a few weeks.

Ms Dong’s parents are represented by the same law firm as Ms McCluskey’s parents, who accused the school of doing nothing after their daughter asked authorities for help. They reached a $13.5 million settlement with the university in 2020.

Brian Stewart, a lawyer representing Ms Dong’s parents, said on Friday that the university “failed to take the necessary steps to prevent Zhifan’s murder despite repeated reports of the real risks she faced”.

“Especially after claiming to have learned of the death of Lauren McCluskey, it is inexcusable that the university continues to make the same mistakes with the same tragic consequences,” Mr Stewart said.

Jesus Jiménez contributed report.


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