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Utah University Admits ‘Shortcomings’ in Handling Domestic Abuse Case

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

Two days after the Jan. 12 assault, Ms. Dong, 19, told the director that she was concerned about her ex, Haoyu Wang, 26. She said he had suicidal ideation and that she had not heard from him since he was arrested in connection with the assault.

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

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

The paper trail reveals the university’s missteps but it does not fill in the blanks of what happened to Ms. Dong in the final weeks of her life, when she missed classes and stopped staying in her dorm room. In danger and far from home, the only glimpse at her experience is a few vague text messages sent from her phone in which she declined help from the school and said she needed “rest.”

Days later, on Feb. 11, police found Ms. Dong dead next to Mr. Wang in a motel room in downtown Salt Lake City. Mr. Wang had told a member of the university housing staff 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 records related to the case for months and the newspaper said a court had set a July 28 deadline for the university to grant it access to a campus police report filed after Ms. Dong was reported missing. Instead, the university released more than 100 pages of documents.

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The documents show that after Ms. Dong first told university housing staff members on Jan. 14 about the motel room assault, they were slow to involve other groups, including the campus police and the university’s Behavioral Intervention Team. It took more than three weeks before those groups were involved, even though housing staff members failed to get in contact with Ms. Dong until Feb. 6 by phone or during visits to her dorm room, according to the university’s timeline.

In that time, staff members had one visit with Mr. Wang in his dorm room. He told them that he had a counseling appointment scheduled for that day, Jan. 24, and would not need more help, according to the documents.

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

The university said its shortcomings included the staff members’ delays, a need for better training and processes in housing, and “insufficient and unprofessional” internal communications. The school said these issues had been addressed.

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“I’ve challenged university senior leaders to leave no stone unturned as we seek additional ways to enhance safety,” said the university’s president, Taylor Randall.

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

“They knew Zhifan was in serious danger but failed to protect her when she needed it the most,” the parents said. “We do not want her death to be in vain.”

On Feb. 6, Ms. Dong’s roommate said she was concerned because she had not seen her in more than a week. The next day, staff members determined Ms. Dong had not swiped her building access card since Jan. 28.

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On Feb. 8, a housing administrator organized a meeting with the University’s Behavioral Intervention Team, which filed a missing-person report with the campus police. It was the first time that the University of Utah Police Department was contacted about the Jan. 12 motel room assault.

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

On Feb. 10, a housing administrator spoke on the phone with Mr. Wang, who said he was upset about his arrest in January and about his reputation as a “domestic abuser,” according to the documents. Ms. Dong had been issued a temporary protective order for the Jan. 12 assault, but the school did not receive notice.

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

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Years before Ms. Dong was killed, the University of Utah said it had not properly handled concerns raised by another student, Lauren McCluskey, 21, who was fatally shot in 2018 by a man she had dated for a few weeks.

Ms. Dong’s parents are being represented by the same law firm as Ms. McCluskey’s parents, who accused the school of failing to take action after their daughter asked officials 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 necessary action to prevent Zhifan’s murder despite receiving repeated reports of the real risks she faced.”

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

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Jesus Jiménez contributed reporting.

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