Investigators release images of Mackenzie Lueck, the 23 year old missing University of Utah student. Courtesy Salt Lake City Police Department.

 

Content Warning: This article discusses kidnapping, violence, crime, death and other subjects some readers may view as disturbing. Reader discretion is advised.

In a press conference Friday morning, Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown announced that they found the remains of University of Utah student MacKenzie Lueck, previously thought to be missing. At the press conference, he announced charges for the man they suspect of murdering her, Ayoola ‘AJ’ Ajayi. Ajayi, 31, has been charged with aggravated murder, aggravated kidnapping, desecration of a body and obstruction of justice.

Ayaji has not previously been charged with any violent crimes in the state of Utah, though Utah court records show that he was evicted from his Provo apartment in 2016. He was taken into custody by a SWAT team Friday morning before the press conference.

According to his LinkedIn page, which has been removed from the site since the charges were announced, Ajayi claimed to have studied computer science at Utah State University from 2009 to 2017.

Lueck, a 23-year-old kinesiology and pre-nursing student at the U, went missing on June 17 after returning to Salt Lake City from her grandmother’s funeral in California. That night, she texted her mother to let her know that her flight had landed in Utah, then ordered a ride to North Salt Lake’s Hatch Park through Lyft. The park was about nine miles from where Lueck lived. Lyft cooperated with the investigation and the police ruled out the Lyft driver as the case progressed.

Ajayi claimed not to have ever met Lueck or even seen photos of her, telling police his only contact with her was a conversation over text the day before her disappearance, according to Brown. However, Brown said police tracked Lueck’s and Ajayi’s phones to Hatch Park within one minute of each other. Ajayi also had multiple photos of Lueck.

On Wednesday, June 26, police searched Ajayi’s Rose Park home for evidence. Neighbors had reported seeing him use gasoline to burn something in the backyard. Brown said, police found a freshly dug area near a fire pit. After a “forensic excavation” of the area, they discovered burned personal effects belonging to Lueck and burned human tissue. DNA tests shows a match for Lueck.

Police did not explain how Lueck and Ajayi knew one another or what the motive for the alleged murder could be.

Under Utah law, aggravated murder charges are first degree felony charges used when a homicide was committed in conjunction with theft, arson, kidnapping, a sex crime or desecration of a dead human body, among other things. Prosecutors may seek the death penalty for commission of aggravated murder. If the death penalty is not sought, a person found guilty of aggravated murder can serve either life without parole or a sentence of 25 years to life.

Aggravated kidnapping, under Utah law, is kidnapping a person using a dangerous weapon or kidnapping with the intention of committing a sex crime or injuring the victim, among other things. The first degree felony charge is punishable by a prison sentence of life without parole, when the kidnapping caused “serious bodily injury” to the victim.

Desecration of a dead human body is a third degree felony and obstruction of justice is a second degree felony.

Shortly after the press conference, the U released a statement saying, “We are deeply saddened to learn of the death of University of Utah student Mackenzie Lueck. Our campus community mourns her tragic loss. We send our heartfelt condolences to her family and all those who knew her.”

In the statement, President Ruth Watkins wrote, “The death of Mackenzie Lueck is devastating news.” She continued, “On behalf of the university, I express our heartfelt sympathy to the family, friends and classmates of Mackenzie during this very difficult time.”

The statement explains that, “Mackenzie was majoring in kinesiology and planned to graduate in spring 2020. She was last heard from on June 17, 2019, and was reported missing on June 20, 2019. The Salt Lake City Police Department filed murder charges today, and the investigation will continue as the department works to present the case to the District Attorney’s Office for prosecution.”

“We know this news is difficult to process and affects many members of our campus community. Anyone in need of support is encouraged to use university resources.” The statement explains, “The university’s Counseling Center is open to students, and the Employee Assistance Program provides counseling to employees. For after-hours emergencies, a 24/7 crisis line is available at 801-587-3000. Additional resources and information are available at SafeU.utah.edu.”

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Elise Vandersteen Bailey
Elise is the Investigative Editor at the Daily Utah Chronicle. In her almost four years at the paper, she has won nearly 20 awards from professional journalism organizations. She currently attends graduate school at the U, studying Public Policy and Population Health Sciences, and spends her free time wondering whether it's too nerdy to Tweet whatever "cool" graph she's found most recently.

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