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'They failed her;' family, attorney speaks out following University of Utah student death

Posted at 9:13 PM, Jul 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-21 00:04:41-04

SALT LAKE CITY — Zhifan Dong’s parents are calling out the University of Utah for its “failure” in keeping her safe.

Dong was allegedly murdered back in February by her ex-boyfriend, Haoyu “Chester” Wang. Prosecutors believe Wang injected Dong with a lethal dose of heroin and fentanyl in Salt Lake City on Feb. 11.

“She was their only child and they were both only children,” said the family’s attorney Brian Stewart. “And that will be the end of their family.”

Stewart is a partner at Parker & McConkie, the same law firm that represented Lauren McCluskey’s family. Lauren was murdered by an ex-boyfriend on the University of Utah campus in 2018.

Stewart said the University of Utah needs to work on improving communication and gaps between campus police and the Salt Lake City Police Department.

“This problem is part of the problem that existed with Lauren and certainly a big problem with Zhifan’s death,” he said.

In the events leading up to Zhifan’s murder, she and the housing office communicated multiple times. She shared her concerns and abuse. The housing office also reached out to Wang to discuss the allegations and his mental health.

“This was not a case of a student asking for help and not receiving it,” said University of Utah spokesperson Chris Nelson on Tuesday. “This is a case of a student sharing some details, the housing staff reacting in certain ways but not reacting how they were trained to react.”

“The culture in any organization comes from the top,” said Stewart. “If that’s not communicated and not internalized by the people on the frontline, then it’s the fault of the leadership.”

Zhifan’s parents released statements, her mother, Junfang Shen, writing, “We trusted the University of Utah with our daughter’s safety and care. They failed her and now our hearts are broken because our precious daughter was taken from us.”

“We 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. We do not want her death to be in vain,” said Mingsheng Dong, her father.

Stewart said his firm intends to interview housing staff, look over the timeline of university employee interaction with Dong and Wang, and speak to the police.

“I think it’s clear that we and the university agree that they made serious mistakes,” he said.