The perfect stranger: a cautionary tale of online dating

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Destinee Arroyo heard the tragic news of a University of Utah student’s murder Oct. 25. Lauren McCluskey was killed by a man she had dated after discovering the violent past he had attempted to hide.

Stunned by the story, Arroyo decided to research some of the young men she had dated during her time at BYU. The very first hit on Arroyo’s Google search was a mugshot and an arrest record.

The IBIS reported rape is the only violent crime in Utah that is higher than the national average, where other violent crimes are historically half to three times lower than the national average.

BYU nursing professor and certified sexual assault examiner Julie Valentine said this trend may be linked to past responses of local criminal justice systems.

“Historically, we have had a lower criminal justice system response. Some areas of the state were only submitting 4 percent of their sexual assault kits in a year,” Valentine said. 

She also said Utah’s conservative culture may be another reason why the state sees such high rape counts, explaining victims are less likely to come forward in conservative cultures and many assailants may have a mentality where they believe they can get away with assault.

Arroyo did not expect to find anything particularly out of the ordinary during her Google search, however, when she searched a man she had matched with on Tinder — who will go by the initials L.L. for this story — what she discovered shocked her.

McCluskey’s killer, like L.L., also had a criminal history he had lied about. Arroyo discovered L.L. had been accused of several charges all attached to one incident and one victim.

L.L. matched with Arroyo on Tinder less than six months after the incident and roughly a year after matching with the victim — who will go by the initials N.B. for this story. 

N.B. downloaded Tinder to ease back into things after taking some time away from the dating scene. Two short months after downloading the app, N.B. matched with L.L. and he quickly showed interest in getting to know her better.

“We didn’t exchange a lot of messages before we met. He said he just preferred to take me on a date,” N.B. said. “It kind of surprised me because a lot of people spend so much time messaging on the app and never meet up, and he was the opposite.”

They met for their date at a gelato shop and after talking for some time, L.L. invited N.B. to extend their date to go see a movie at a nearby theater.

“He was very aggressive in the movie in the sense that he had his arm around me and he was trying to grab my hand, and he was holding me and it was just uncomfortable,” N.B. said. “He was coming on so strong and I got very overwhelmed and so I had a really hard time saying no and I think he could sense that.”

N.B. said the theme of coming on strong continued as their relationship progressed. After only a week of going on dates, N.B. said L.L. pressured her into an exclusive relationship and would ask to be her boyfriend multiple times a day. She said she finally agreed to be in a relationship because she felt like she couldn’t say no.

Similarly, Arroyo said she only agreed to go on a date with L.L. because she felt if she refused, he would “freak out” and wouldn’t leave her alone.

“I felt like to really end it I had to go on a date with him and let him believe that I really gave him a shot. And that’s kind of another place where I saw that he was very manipulative,” Arroyo said.

N.B. said she had no clue these seemingly insignificant behaviors were warning signs of a potentially dangerous situation, despite feeling uncomfortable about being pressured into a relationship, and that she felt overwhelmed by L.L.’s intensity.

BYU Victim’s Advocate Lisa Leavitt said it can be really difficult to recognize red flags, but it’s important for women to trust their gut. “Nine times out of 10, if you’re feeling like something’s not right, it’s probably true.”

She also explained a sudden change of plans — like L.L.’s invitation to extend the date to the movies — could be a red flag, along with feeling afraid to say no.

L.L. invited N.B. to move in with him after about a month of dating, as she was unhappy with her own living situation at the time. N.B. said everything changed once she moved in. She said he would frequently and unexpectedly become angry with her.

“I called them rage fits. It was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. When Mr. Hyde came out, I knew I was in trouble and I would do anything to calm him down and sex was the only way to do that,” N.B said.  

She said this violent, erratic and sexual behavior continued for months.

Arroyo experienced similar fits of rage after refusing a second date with L.L. She said he refused to let her go and continued to text her regularly.

“There were times when we would get in fights and he would swear at me, go off on me, tell me that my opinion was crap,” Arroyo said. “He would always tell me how sweet and nice I was and if I said anything that wasn’t as sweet and nice as his expectations were for me then he would just go off.”

Eventually, N.B. said these fits of rage became progressively more violent and more sexual.

In November — about six months after their first date — N.B. said L.L. raped her and threatened her life. She said she was so shocked and scared about what happened that she felt like she couldn’t move. She slept next to him that night and then got dressed and went to work the next morning.

“I didn’t know how to process it, because you never think it’s going to happen to you and if you do you never think it’s going to be your boyfriend,” she said. “You think it’s going to be a stranger or you’re gonna be inebriated in some way, but you don’t think it will be the person you love.”

According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, or RAINN, eight out of 10 rapes are committed by someone the victim knows and 33 percent are committed by a current or former significant other.

Arroyo found L.L.’s arrest record detailing the events surrounding N.B.’s assault almost a year after the incident. “The charge on the website freaked me out. It was hard to breathe,” Arroyo said. “I was so shocked. The horrific things that I found, I don’t even know what to say.”

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 20 to 25 percent of college women are victims of forced sex during their time in college, and more than 90 percent of sexual assault victims on college campuses never report the assault.

After Arroyo discovered L.L.’s arrest record, she remembered he had just started dating someone new. She then contacted the young woman via Facebook to warn her about L.L.’s charges. Shortly after reaching out to her, L.L. texted Arroyo.

Arroyo said the text frightened her so much she struggled to read all of it.

“I just felt so scared of him. I was nauseous and shaking because I was so scared. I felt like he was going to come after me, and maybe that’s irrational but I just felt so scared. I didn’t even want to answer the door because I was afraid that somehow he found me,” Arroyo said.

Despite fearing for her own safety, Arroyo said she reached out to L.L.’s new girlfriend because she feared he would assault her too.

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 63.3 percent of men at one university who self-reported acts qualifying as rape or attempted rape admitted to committing repeat rapes.

N.B. went to the Salt Lake Family Justice Center the day after her assault and decided to pursue a protective order against L.L. “They put me in touch with a rape advocate and they really got the ball rolling,” N.B. said.

Once she got the protective order, N.B. said she knew she had begun a process she couldn’t stop. But, fortunately for N.B., she was believed every step of the way.

“I got really lucky because the police officer I spoke to was wonderful. He didn’t question me, he didn’t say I had done anything wrong, he just believed me. And I needed that more than anything,” N.B. said.

Leavitt said fear of not being believed is one of the biggest reasons victims don’t come forward.

N.B. then began a long and drawn out court process, including many hearings and pre-trial conferences. She said the hardest part, however, was the preliminary trial.

“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. And I’d be lying if I said at any point it was easy or it didn’t hurt. No, it did hurt every time and every time I was terrified,” N.B. said. “But the times I wanted to walk away the thing that kept me going was knowing I’m not doing this for me, I’m doing this for the next girl.”

L.L. pleaded guilty to first-degree felony rape Jan. 7 and was formally sentenced to probation on March 11, including an order that prohibits his use of dating apps.

Despite pleading guilty to rape — which typically holds a minimum prison sentence of five years in the state of Utah — L.L. will have a year on a GPS tracker, 36 months probation and is required to pay restitution to cover any out of pocket costs the victim may have incurred as a result of the assault. He will also be required to have a lifetime registration on the National Sex Offenders Registry.

The prosecuting attorney on the case, Lauren Hunt, said she believes L.L. deserved a prison sentence but ultimately accepted a plea deal because of the potential risks involved with going to trial.

“This case, to me, was a prison case. I would have loved to put him in prison. I think that’s where he belongs,” Hunt said. “I thought, in this case, it was better that I take what was guaranteed with the plea agreement and unfortunately in this case that meant me coming off a prison recommendation.”

Hunt said at the sentencing hearing she had gathered several other accounts and reports from women across the state who also claimed to be assaulted by L.L. While no charges had been filed on those cases, Hunt said she wanted the court to be aware of who they were dealing with should he break parole and be ordered to return to court.

According to RAINN, out of every 1,000 rape cases, only 4.6 perpetrators will be incarcerated. Valentine has collected research showing only 6 percent of rape cases in Salt Lake County were prosecuted between 2003 and 2011.

N.B. said she feels some dissatisfaction with the plea deal, even though her main focus through the trial process was protecting future victims.

“I do have mixed feelings because it sucks that he’s not going to serve any time in prison at all. He’s not going to serve one day,” N.B. said. “It’s hard to deal with because I feel like for the last year of my life I’ve been in prison and he’s never going to know what that feels like.”

After having experienced L.L.’s rage, manipulation and violence first hand, both N.B. and Arroyo said they would do things differently.

N.B said she wishes she never let her guard down and encourages women on dating apps to take things slow and stay doubtful. 

“We’re meeting people, complete strangers, and we’re acting like it’s normal and it’s not,” she said. “These are complete strangers and we can think that we know them through text but we don’t.”

Arroyo has since deleted both her Mutual and Tinder accounts.

Valentine said as her team begins coding data sets from 2017 and 2018 they have added a variable to account for victims who met their assailants online or on a dating app.

“I don’t have any of that data yet,” she said. “But this change has been driven by the fact that, as nurses, we have seen a number of patients that fall into this category.”

Leavitt said she generally is not fond of dating apps as a result of her experiences as a victim’s advocate. She also reminded women they are never obligated to go on a date with someone.

“I think a lot of girls feel responsible or feel pressured to do something they’re not comfortable with,” Leavitt said. “We have these silly rules about dating where you have to give every guy a chance. But that’s simply not the case. I don’t care if a girl has talked to someone for over 100 hours, you don’t ever owe anyone anything. If you don’t want to go you don’t have to go.”

McCluskey’s parents have started a foundation in their daughter’s honor since her death in October. The foundation aims to honor Lauren McCluskey by supporting her love of sports and animals and funds campus safety research to “keep our daughters safe.”

They have also supported SB134 in the Utah Legislature to improve safety on Utah campuses. The bill would address how campus police deal with reports of domestic and dating violence and how campus officials interact with local law enforcement.

Lauren McCluskey’s father, Matt McCluskey, participated in Senate proceedings March 4 and offered a statement in support of the bill. “Remember Lauren. Remember Lauren Jennifer McCluskey,” he said. “The bill under consideration, if enacted into law and exercised vigorously will remedy many of the systemic failures that were identified and exposed by this terrible event.”

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