Missing University of Utah student Mackenzie Lueck was murdered, police say

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Salt Lake police arrest Ayoola Adisa Ajayi, 31, at an apartment complex at 1028 S. West Temple on Friday, June 28, 2019. Police say Ajayi was arrested for investigation of aggravated murder, aggravated kidnapping and desecration of a body in the disappearance of University of Utah student Mackenzie Lueck.

SALT LAKE CITY — After an exhaustive weeklong investigation, Salt Lake police somberly announced Friday that they believe a University of Utah student missing since June 17 was murdered.

A man who police say she met up with on June 17 in a North Salt Lake park was arrested in connection with the death of 23-year-old Mackenzie Lueck.

"It is with heavy heart that I address you today," Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown said in announcing the arrest.

Ayoola Adisa Ajayi, 31, was taken into custody at 9:20 a.m. at an apartment complex at 1028 S. West Temple by a SWAT team. He was later booked into the Salt Lake County Jail for investigation of aggravated murder, aggravated kidnapping, desecration of a human body and obstruction of justice. He is being held without bail.

The SWAT team had Ajayi exit an apartment at gunpoint and walk toward waiting officers with his hands on his head. In a picture of the arrest, it appears Ajayi is talking to someone on his cellphone. Salt Lake police confirmed Friday that at some point, the SWAT team talked to him by phone to have him come out of the apartment.

A second man who was in the same apartment was also placed in handcuffs and taken from the scene. Police say they questioned that man but later released him and say he has no connection to the Lueck case.

After announcing that Ajayi was in custody, Brown said he would not be saying the suspect’s name again.

The Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office was expected to review the case for formal criminal charges Friday, but charges aren’t expected until next week.

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The arrest comes a day after Ajayi was named a "person of interest" in Lueck’s disappearance after Salt Lake police spent all of Wednesday night and into Thursday morning searching his house in the Fairpark neighborhood.

Bags and bags of evidence were collected. Officers could also be seen digging holes in the backyard. Neighbors told detectives they had observed Ajayi on June 17 and June 18 burning something in his backyard.

"The search warrant resulted in the findings of a fresh dig area on his property, which is the same area that the arrested person was reported burning something. A forensic excavation of the burn area was conducted, which resulted in the finding of several charred items which were consistent with personal items of Mackenzie Lueck,” Brown said.

Gasoline was also used during those burnings, police said.

The search of those charred items also resulted in the finding of "female human tissue" that was tested and compared with DNA from other items belonging to Lueck. Brown said the DNA matched.

But the chief declined to say Friday whether Lueck’s body had been recovered.

"This investigation will continue. We are still looking for anybody that may have helped this arrested person, and any other evidence that would provide evidence for us to use in this case,” Brown said.

When asked more directly — "Do you have a body?" — the chief replied: "We’re not confirming that right now."

On Friday evening, Salt Lake police announced they had located the mattress and box spring Ajayi gave away earlier this week after offering it on a website. Investigators had said they believed two separate people took the items.

After the arrest, Brown said he called Lueck’s father.

"This is one of the most difficult phone calls I’ve ever made," he said, "as both Greg and his wife, Diana, were devastated and heartbroken by this news."

Mackenzie Lueck’s uncle gathers himself before reading a statement from her family during a press conference at the Public Safety Building in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 28, 2019. Police arrested Ayoola Adisa Ajayi, 31, after recovering several charred items, including body parts and personal items belonging to Lueck, in Ajayi’s backyard.

An uncle of Lueck, who declined to be identified, read a prepared statement at the press conference. He thanked Salt Lake police for their efforts, and the community for all the tips they had provided to police.

Lueck was last seen early on the morning of June 17 when she flew into Salt Lake City International Airport after attending a family funeral in her hometown of El Segundo, California. Surveillance video at the airport recorded Lueck making her way to baggage claim, and then getting into a Lyft vehicle.

The Lyft driver told police he dropped off Lueck at Hatch Park in North Salt Lake about 3 a.m. where another person in a car was waiting for her. That was when "all communication" from Lueck’s phone stopped, the chief said.

On Friday, Brown said cellphone data collected from both Lueck’s and Ajayi’s phones put them at Hatch Park at the same time early that morning.

Investigators confirmed that Lueck and Ajayi had communicated with each other through texting on June 16 about 6 p.m. Brown did not know how long the two had been acquainted, when they first met or how the two met each other.

Cellphone data and social media apps became a huge part in the investigation as well as forensics. Brown praised his detectives on Friday for working nonstop since Lueck was first reported missing on June 20, as well as the partnerships his department has with the FBI and others in bringing a quick resolution to the case.

"This was outstanding detective work, and this was cutting-edge investigation. When we talk about the digital footprint, through the work that we’ve done, and our federal partners, and then our state partners with the DNA, this is a cutting-edge investigation and this is what has led us to this arrest,” Brown said.

Ajayi denied seeing Lueck on June 17 and claimed he didn’t know what she looked like, even though Brown said detectives found he had Lueck’s dating profile and pictures of her on his phone.

"Ayoola denied any personal contact with Mackenzie or meeting with her at any time," a police affidavit states.

Outside of a few traffic tickets, Ajayi has no criminal history in Utah. He at one time lived in an apartment across the street from Hatch Park, where Lueck was last seen. Ajayi and his two roommates were evicted from the North Salt Lake apartment in 2016 for failing to pay rent, according to court records.

Ajayi sporadically attended Utah State University, taking classes at times during 2009, 2010, 2015 and 2016, when he left after the fall semester, according to university officials. He never had a declared major or earned a degree.

Friday afternoon, the North Park Police Department issued a statement that Ajayi lived in North Logan from 2013-2015. In 2014, officers investigated a rape allegation against Ajayi, the department stated. However, the woman "did not wish to pursue charges in this matter" and no charges were filed, according to the statement.

He also did a brief stint with the Army National Guard, being assigned to a company out of Tooele, but did not attend basic training or any advanced individual training, according to the Utah National Guard’s public affairs officer. Ajayi left the military in June 2015 after six months "with an uncharacterized discharge for failure to meet medical procurement standards," the spokesman said.

Ajayi’s digital footprint includes the details of his Airbnb rental in the basement of his home, photos from his days working as a model and an ebook he self published on Amazon.

Under his Amazon author profile, Ajayi wrote that he was born and raised in Africa, and went on to become a salesman, an entrepreneur and writer. He claims to have "survived a tyrannical dictatorship, escaped a real life crime, traveled internationally, excelled professionally in several industries" and developed a marketing strategy for his book, "Forge Identity."

The fictional book chronicles the experiences of a young man who witnesses two murders in his life and must go on to decide whether to pursue a criminal life or define his own path, according to its online description.

Ajayi’s LinkedIn profile indicates he has worked in technical support. Most recently, his profile states he started work as technical support analyst for Dell in September 2018.

Ajayi has also been married, according to state court records. A divorce was finalized in January.

Brown said the department is "devastated and heartbroken" over the outcome of the Lueck case.

"Salt Lake City is a tight-knit, caring, family-oriented community. And I hope we can all work together to help prevent this from ever happening again."

As word spread that Lueck had been killed, many offered their condolences.

"Our hearts go out to the family and friends of Mackenzie Lueck at this very difficult time. I was horrified and sickened by today’s news. I appreciate the work of our public safety officials and their professional and timely efforts as they work this case to its conclusion," Gov. Gary Herbert stated in a tweet.

"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," the University of Utah said in a prepared statement.

Lueck was majoring in kinesiology and scheduled to graduate in the spring of 2020.

Carly Reilly was in the same sorority as Lueck. She said she was immediately drawn to Lueck’s "outgoing and positive" personality.

"She was always willing to go out of her way to help someone, even if she had never met them before," she said. "She always had something positive and uplifting to say no matter what situation you were in."

Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski also issued a statement on Friday, and said she had spoken with Lueck’s father.

"As a mother and a mayor, my heart breaks for the Lueck family. Today, all of Salt Lake City mourns for them and stands ready to offer our support,” she said. “I am incredibly grateful to Chief Brown and the members of the Salt Lake City Police Department for working diligently to gather evidence that will allow our community to seek justice for Mackenzie and her family.”

Contributing: McKenzie Romero

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