Southern California

Suspect Arrested in Death of Utah Student From Southern California

Mackenzie Lueck mysteriously vanished June 17 after a flight from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City, where she was dropped off at a park

A suspect was arrested Friday morning in the death of a University of Utah student who vanished after returning to Salt Lake City on a flight from her native Southern California, police said.

Thirty-one-year-old Ayoola A. Ajayi will be charged with aggravated murder, kidnapping and desecration of a body in the death of 23-year-old Mackenzie Lueck, prosecutors said. Salt Lake City police chief Mike Brown said Friday morning that Ajayi met Lueck at Hatch Park, where she was last seen after taking a Lyft from the airport at 3 a.m. on June 17.

The two had connected a day before Lueck's disappearance, Brown said. He said they communicated electronically, but did not provide details. 

Brown said burned evidence, including Lueck's belongings and her remains, were found at his home, which was searched on Wednesday and Thursday. Witnesses told investigators that they saw the suspect burning something in the backyard of the home on June 17 or 18, Brown said.

Ajayi was the man previously identified as a person of interest. He was arrested Friday morning at an apartment complex. 

Brown added that the suspect, when interviewed by police, admitted to text conversations with Lueck on June 16 but denied having personal contact with her. The chief said phone records indicated he was at Hatch Park at the same time as Lueck -- 3 a.m. June 17.

"This was the same time as Mackenzie's phone stopped receiving any further data or location services," Brown said. 

Brown notified the victim's family early Friday of Lueck's death.

"This is one of the most difficult phone calls I've ever made," he said.

Lueck was a pre-nursing student and senior at the University of Utah, majoring in kinesiology, according to a school spokesman. Her grieving uncle spoke at a Friday morning news conference with police, thanking investigators for their work during the 11-day search.

"The Lueck family would like to express their gratitude for the efforts put forth by the Salt Lake City Police Department and all partnering agencies that assisted, as well as all of the people that provided tips on this case," according to the family. "They're also grateful to her community, to her friends and others around the nation that have supported this investigation. The family will not be taking any questions, and no interviews will be held. Inquiries should be directed to the Salt Lake City Police Department. Again, we ask that everybody respect the privacy of Mackenzie's family and friends at this time."

It wasn't immediately clear if Ajayi had an attorney. He has not returned previous messages from The Associated Press.

The Lyft driver had previously been cleared in the case. 

Lueck is from El Segundo, about 20 miles southwest of downtown Los Angeles. She flew to Southern California for a funeral before returning to Salt Lake City, police said. Family members reported her missing on June 20 and became more concerned when she missed a flight back to LA last weekend.

The university issued a statement following news of her death.

"The death of Mackenzie Lueck is devastating news," said university President Ruth V. Watkins. "On behalf of the university, I express our heartfelt sympathy to the family, friends and classmates of Mackenzie during this very difficult time."

Few details about Ajayi were available early Friday afternoon. He was discharged from the Utah Army National Guard in June 2015 after six months of service. He did not attend basic or advanced individual training and was ineligible to deploy or conduct any tours of duty, according to military records.

A northern Utah police department said the suspect was once accused in a 2014 rape, but after a police investigation, the woman who made the accusation declined to press charges, North Park police said.

He doesn't have a criminal record, according to online court information.

Ajayi is credited as the author of "Forge Identity," in which a 15-year-old boy witnesses a gruesome murder and other violence before meeting his first love, according to its Amazon description. His Amazon profile says Ajayi was born and raised in Africa and currently resides in Salt Lake City.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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