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University of Utah admits to 'shortcomings' prior to student's death

Posted at 4:14 PM, Jul 19, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-20 17:18:00-04

SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah has released the findings from an internal review conducted after a student was allegedly murdered by her ex-boyfriend earlier this year.

On Tuesday, university administrators released documentation and a timeline in their investigation into the death of 19-year-old Zhifan Dong. She was killed by 26-year-old Haoyu Wang on Feb. 11, according to police. Wang allegedly injected Dong with a lethal dose of heroin and fentanyl. He was arrested and charged with murder.

Tuesday's report states that there was an "intimate partner violence situation" between Dong and Wang, but staff with U of U Housing and Residential Education did not report it to police until Dong was reported missing just days before her death.

"Although the university made extensive efforts to support and ensure the safety of Dong and provide assistance to Wang, our self-evaluation revealed shortcomings: a delay by former members of our housing services staff in notifying the University of Utah Police Department of indications of intimate partner violence; processes, procedures and trainings in housing that needed to be clarified and improved; and insufficient and unprofessional internal communication. We have addressed each of these areas, including employment actions," U of U President Taylor Randall wrote in a letter regarding the internal review.

To address some of these "shortcomings," the university said it made updates to its emergency procedures manual for employees. The university also took "corrective action" with staff members who were directly involved in the situation between Dong and Wang. Two have since resigned.

According to a timeline of events included in the review findings, Dong and Wang both lived in on-campus housing and began dating in the fall of 2021. However, they were staying at a motel in downtown Salt Lake City on Jan. 12 when Dong reported that Wang assaulted her. Wang was arrested by Salt Lake City Police, released from jail "within hours," and Dong was issued a temporary protective order. The university was not notified of this, but the timeline points out that local police departments are not required to do so.

On Jan. 14, Dong told housing staff about Wang's "suicidal ideation" and requested a wellness check. Mental health specialists attempted but were unable to get in contact with him in-person, by phone or by email, however.

After multiple follow-up attempts, housing staff found Wang in his room on Jan. 24 and offered him help with mental health, but he said he was doing better and had an appointment with a counselor later that day.

After Dong did not return calls or emails, housing staff attempted wellness checks on Jan. 24 and Jan. 31 but did not find her there. Her suitemate told staff on the 31st that she hadn't seen Dong in a while. One of her instructors expresses concern to the university's Global Engagement office that she had not been in class.

On Feb. 6, Dong responded to texts from housing staff and said she was OK, and that she said she was handling a family situation and did not need any support. The next day, staff learned that she had not swiped her housing access card since Jan. 28.

On Feb. 8, housing staff filed a missing persons report for Dong. This was sent to the university's Behavioral Intervention Team, which then filed a report with University of Utah Police.

University police began an investigation and learned about the Jan. 12 domestic violence report with SLCPD and Dong's protective order.

Also on Feb. 8, officers were able to reach Dong via video call. She showed them the hotel room she was staying in and showed that nobody else was in the room with her. However, she declined to tell them where she was and did not want in-person contact with police. She also told a victim advocate that she did not want any help with the protective order.

Police started looking for Dong at downtown hotels based on her cell phone ping location data, but were unable to find her. They showed photos of both Dong and Wang to hotel staff, and none of them recognized either student.

On Feb. 9, university staff contacted Dong's mother and told her they were concerned for her safety because she hadn't been seen in person for about 10 days and wouldn't tell anyone where she was. Her mother told them Dong was fine but was sad because she broke up with Wang. She said Dong would return to campus on Feb. 11, and Dong agreed to meet with a housing administrator on the 11th as well.

Wang responded to a housing administrator's email on Feb. 9 and said his phone did not have service because the bill was not paid, but he would call them the next day.

University police tried to call both Dong and Wang on Feb. 10, but neither answered. Wang spoke to a housing administrator by phone, however. The administrator offered support and informed him about the protective order. They also told Wang that he could lose housing eligibility if he did not increase his course hours. The administrator also sent a follow-up email with that information.

Wang called the administrator back later that day after receiving the email. He said he was upset about being arrested the previous month and about having a reputation as a "domestic abuser." He said he told his parents everything, then asked the administrator to stop calling and said he would not be returning to campus.

Early in the morning the next day (Feb. 11), Wang emailed a housing administrator and said he and Dong were still in love and that they decided to die by suicide together. The administrator saw the email about an hour later and called campus police. The U of U Police Department pinged the phones of both Wang and Dong and learned that they were at a downtown hotel. University police and SLCPD conducted a wellness check at the hotel, where they found Dong unresponsive. They attempted lifesaving efforts, but she was ultimately pronounced dead at the scene. Wang was then arrested.

The report released Tuesday said there was a "reporting gap" between university housing and police.

In written warnings, individual housing staff members involved with Dong and Wang's case were told by U of U human resources that they should have recognized the urgency of the situation — that they should have treated it "with particular care, including raising these issues to others outside of HRE [Housing and Residential Education]." They were told that their university-mandated training on handling domestic violence should have made them aware of this.

"Supporting students and their safety is our top priority," the letter read in part. "However, because domestic violence and suicidal ideation can have such serious consequences, we must all remain especially vigilant whenever either concern is raised."

The warning letters told the housing employees involved that in any future cases of domestic violence or suicidal ideation, they are expected to inform the U of U's Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, as well as the Behavioral Intervention Team.

“This was not a case of a student asking for help and not receiving it, 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,” said Chris Nelson with the University of Utah.

Nelson said housing officials were late to share important information to campus police.

“They did provide a lot of outreach, there was a lot of connecting with these students trying to provide support,” said Nelson. “But again, not enough.”

“It’s such a tragedy that someone’s daughter was murdered and it could’ve been prevented,” said Jill McCluskey.

Jill’s daughter, Lauren, was shot on campus by an ex-boyfriend back in 2018. She said the events leading up to Lauren and Dong’s death are tragically similar.

“[Wang] had expressed suicidal ideation, which that was the same with Lauren’s murderer. And that she had tried to break up with him and that’s when he killed her,” she said.

Bailey McGartland, a student who lived in Dong’s college suite, helped Dong reach out to authorities.

“They were in a very toxic relationship and there were a lot of things that escalated that abuse and triggered her death,” McGartland explained.

She feels it could’ve been prevented.

“That was just aggravating to see that: ‘Don’t rush. Don’t worry.’ When she definitely did need the help and the urgency,” she said.

“They will learn from this and hopefully it won’t happen again,” said McCluskey.

The full report, along with documentation, can be found on the university's website.


Domestic violence victim resources (free, 24/7, confidential):

  • Utah Domestic Violence Coalition:
    • Hotline: 1-800-897-LINK (5465)
    • Online help:
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline
  • If you or someone else is in immediate danger, or in an emergency, call 9-1-1 immediately.

For those struggling with thoughts of suicide, the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline can now be reached by simply dialing 988 any time for free support. Resources are also available online at