University of Utah did not help Zhifan Dong before she was killed, documents show


Zhifan Dong told the University of Utah two days after her ex-boyfriend was arrested that he assaulted her.

The 19-year-old freshman and her ex-boyfriend, classmate Haoyu Wang, had an argument while at a hotel on January 12, she said. As she was packing, he allegedly turned off the lights, then held her neck and arms.

“I started scratching it to get down. He started hitting me,” Dong said, according to a report from January 14 written by an employee of the university’s housing office. “I was scared, I quickly packed my bags, the hotel reception helped me to call the police. As far as I know, he was in jail for an hour.

University policy required housing staff to immediately notify school police, student conduct staff, and the Title IX office of possible intimate partner violence. But in an echo of a previous tragedy involving a University of Utah student, those actions would not be taken until February 8 – nearly four weeks later.

By then, it was too late: on February 11, the police found Dong’s body in a hotel room, with Wang next to her. He confessed to giving her a lethal dose of heroin and fentanyl, according to an affidavit, as part of what he described as a suicide pact.

Wang, 27, is now charged with murder in the death of his ex-girlfriend. His attorney said he pleaded not guilty.

The Salt Lake Grandstand recently won a court battle to force the university to release the police report on Dong’s death. On Tuesday, the university released more than 100 pages of documents related to the case, showing that employees made crucial missteps in the weeks leading up to the death of Dong’s ex-boyfriend. Her death echoes the case of Lauren McCluskey, another University of Utah student killed by a former romantic partner who was on the school’s radar.

After McCluskey’s murder in 2018, the university pledged to improve domestic violence training and streamline the school’s response to reported abuse. But records of Dong’s final days indicate that university staff waited weeks after she was last seen to escalate the matter to campus police, repeatedly called a number phone out of service for Dong’s ex-boyfriend and called another student with a similar name. questions about the extent to which the school’s processes have really improved and the quality of its support for international students.

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The university acknowledged “shortcomings” this week in its response to Dong’s case, including “insufficient and unprofessional” communications and housing workers’ delay in notifying campus police and other offices. Two housing workers resigned during an internal investigation and three others were disciplined, school officials said.

“In this case, key details were overlooked and staff failed to make connections to other parts of campus that could have expedited the university’s ability to gather additional information and respond in a meaningful way. more urgent,” said Lori McDonald, vice president of student affairs. A declaration. “This is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”

Brian Stewart, the Dong family’s attorney, said police and the university’s housing office failed to prevent Dong’s murder despite knowing Wang allegedly assaulted her weeks later. early.

“Especially after claiming to have learned of the death of Lauren McCluskey, it is inexcusable that the University should continue to make the same mistakes with the same tragic consequences,” said Stewart, whose firm also represented McCluskey’s family, in a statement. communicated.

Dong’s parents, Junfang Shen and Mingsheng Dong, said the university betrayed their trust by failing to ensure their daughter’s safety.

“They knew Zhifan was in grave danger but failed to protect her when she needed it most,” they said in a statement provided by Stewart.

Among the documents released on Tuesday was a timeline of school actions since Dong and Wang, international students from China, were admitted and started dating last fall.

After the January 12 altercation – which left Dong with visible injuries, according to a police report returned to the Tribune – City officers took Wang to jail and released him the same day after he accepted a temporary restraining order, Salt Lake City police said.

City police did not notify university police of the protective order. No policy or law requires them to do so, Salt Lake City police and the university said. Instead, city police said they list restraining orders in a statewide database that law enforcement officers can search.

The next day, officers who were called to the same hotel involuntarily hospitalized Wang due to a suicide attempt, Salt Lake City police said. Police believe Dong called for help, but officers found Wang alone and could not determine whether Wang violated the protective order.

The school first heard of the Jan. 12 altercation two days later, when Dong raised concerns about Wang’s suicidal ideation with university housing staff. The couple continued to live in the same dorm, which the university says is allowed when there is a protective order as long as both people follow it.

When Dong asked the housing office to perform a health check on Wang, staff replied that they were “unable to do much to help” that night and promised to follow up. They closed the initial report by stating that “no further action was required”. The action was contrary to their training, which required them to report possible domestic violence and suicidal ideation to police and other campus officials, the university said in a statement. disciplinary letters after Dong’s death.

Over the next few weeks, housing staff repeatedly tried to contact the two students by email and phone, even though they knew Wang’s number was out of service. On January 31, the housing staff called another Haoyu Wang enrolled in the same international program, who reported that he was fine. Unaware that they had spoken to the wrong student, they did not report Wang missing – even though he had not been in his dorm for a week.

In early February, Dong’s roommate and one of her instructors reported that they were worried they hadn’t seen her for a while. On February 8, housing staff filed a missing person report on Dong, alerting campus police for the first time. Officers quickly discovered the city police report on the Jan. 12 incident and Dong’s protective order, according to the school.

During a video call with university police on February 8, Dong appeared to be alone, but refused to tell them where she was, according to the school. Officers searched several local hotels and spoke with Dong’s mother, who assured them that her daughter would return to campus that week.

Instead, the search ended in tragedy. At 3:51 a.m. on February 11, Wang emailed a housing administrator to tell him that he and Dong were still in love and had made a pact to die together by suicide. The administrator saw the email an hour later and called the police, who found Dong dead in a local hotel room and arrested Wang.

Wang is being held in jail awaiting a jurisdictional hearing in his case. His attorney said in a statement on Friday that “there are mental health issues relating to everyone involved in this matter that will need to be resolved prior to trial and I would conclude with the need for adequate mental health assessments and care. and early warnings that could prevent further tragedies to come.

Dong’s death comes less than two years after the university settled with McCluskey’s family for $13.5 million, acknowledging that it mishandled his repeated attempts to get help from officials of the University. McCluskey, a 21-year-old track and field athlete, told campus police in 2018 that she was harassed and extorted by Melvin Rowland, whom she briefly dated before finding out he was a registered sex offender, according to an academic journal.

According to a lawsuit filed by her parents, McCluskey provided a campus officer with explicit photos of herself that Rowland used to blackmail her; the officer then bragged about the photos uploaded to his home phone and shared them with a colleague not involved in the case. Days later, Rowland shot and killed McCluskey on campus before committing suicide.

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In addition to Dong and McCluskey, three other University of Utah women have been killed in domestic violence cases, according to the Tribune. Staff member Katherine Peralta was killed by her husband in 2016, medical resident Sarah Hawley was killed by her boyfriend in 2019, and student Mackenzie Lueck was killed in 2019 by a man she had spoken to on a dating app.

Jhumka Gupta, an associate professor at George Mason University who studies domestic violence, said Dong’s case illustrates the need for universities to think about how their violence prevention programs support international students, who may already feel more isolated on campus.

“It is important to also note the confusion of names by university staff – another Haoyu Wang was contacted by university housing staff at one point, which highlights the critical importance of integrating an intersectional perspective in the prevention and intervention of violence in on-campus dating,” Gupta said in an email.

Kimmi Wolf, spokesperson for the Utah Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said it takes “strength and courage” to bring allegations of abuse to authorities and that institutions must respond appropriately .

“A response to domestic violence, whether in the community or on a college campus, must be a coordinated effort,” Wolf said in a statement. “When victims reach out for help, there is no room for silos or a lack of open communication, especially when the victim is in the midst of a crisis.”

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