She used to bike to the Pacific Ocean. Years later, she’d re-create those days by putting on her bikini and basking in the sun that shines on the high-altitude desert that is Salt Lake City.
As a student at the University of Utah, she expressed feminist opinions and left one of the major political parties to register with a conservative third party.
She competed on the swim team and played water polo at her high school in Southern California. At U. football games, she cheered in the student section known as the MUSS.
Those are a few of the memories MacKenzie Lueck’s friends shared after she was reported missing June 20.
On Friday, police arrested 31-year-old Ayoola Ajayi on suspicion of kidnapping and murdering Lueck. Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown has said Ajayi and Lueck met early June 17 at Hatch Park in North Salt Lake. What happened after that still hasn’t been made clear, but Brown said detectives serving a search warrant at Ajayi’s Fairpark home found charred tissue in the backyard and that DNA samples matched Lueck’s.
In the eight days police searched for Lueck, Utah got to know her in the same context as other missing girls and women — from Elizabeth Smart to Lori Hacking, Susan Cox Powell and Elizabeth Elena Laguna-Salgado. Only the Smart search ended happily.
But the 23-year-old Lueck was not an unknown face on a screen or a newspaper page to her friends. As they hoped the person they knew as “Kenzie” would be found alive and well, these friends spoke to The Salt Lake Tribune. They remembered a woman who seemed to get along with everyone.
“Everybody gravitated toward her,” said Carra Barbee, her close friend from El Segundo High School said Thursday, a day before the announcement about Lueck’s death. “Honestly, I didn’t know anyone who didn’t like her.”
“She's like a nurturer,” Kennedy Stoner, one of Lueck’s sorority sisters at Alpha Chi Omega, said Wednesday. “She's almost a mother to me. She is one of those people [who is] always cooking for you. She wants to make sure you’re getting fed. She wants to make sure if you need a drink, that you have a drink.”
Small beach town
Lueck was reared in El Segundo, the second of her parents’ four children and the only daughter.
Home to 16,000 residents, El Segundo, with the sprawl of metropolitan Los Angeles on three sides and a mighty ocean on the fourth, has just two public high schools.
“Even though it’s in the middle of L.A.,” Barbee said, “it still has that small-town feel. Almost everybody knows each other.”
Barbee met Lueck at El Segundo High. The two were teammates on the school’s swim and water polo teams. Some days they were in the water for six hours.
The friends also started a school club on breast cancer awareness. Besides being a worthy cause, Barbee said, it was a way to boost their extracurricular resumes for college applications. The activism also represented an early example of Lueck showing an appreciation for women’s issues.
Lueck found time for teenage fun, too. On warm weekends and summer days, Barbee and Lueck had a circuit, Barbee remembers. They’d ride their bicycles to the Manhattan Beach pier, order a drink from Starbucks, and then buy cupcakes from a shop.
After graduating from high school in 2014, Barbee went on to live in Northern California. Lueck enrolled at the University of Utah.
“She wanted to be independent a little bit,” Stoner said.
‘Little’ sister to ‘big’ sister
Carly Reilly says she got lucky.
In spring 2015, Reilly was a sister in the U.’s Alpha Chi Omega. As a sorority veteran, Reilly was supposed to serve as a “Big.” That’s a mentor to a new member, called a “Little.”
The Bigs and Littles get matched by choosing one another. Reilly picked Lueck, and Lueck picked Reilly.
“Before we were even paired,” Reilly wrote in a text message Thursday, “I was drawn to her outgoing and positive personality, and knew I wanted her in my life as my Little or as a close friend if the former did not work out.”
Alpha Chi Omega consumed much of Lueck’s free time, her friends said. Besides mandating that members maintain a 2.5 GPA, the chapter requires them to attend a certain number of social events and participate in philanthropic endeavors. The chapter’s charity work focuses on domestic violence awareness and prevention.
The sorority also gave Lueck her social circle. A semester after Lueck was a Little, Stoner pledged to Alpha Chi Omega and selected Lueck as her Big.
“She was the first one,” Stoner said, “who was like, ‘Hey, we’re going to the Utes game. Come over to my house.’”
Lueck joined most other U. Greeks in cheering in the MUSS, Stoner said.
College years can be times of change, and there were some for Lueck. In El Segundo, Lueck had been raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In Salt Lake City, the global faith’s headquarters, Lueck didn’t practice. Stoner said Lueck and her other sorority sisters enjoyed going to bars and having wine or cocktails, something the church counsels against.
Lueck registered to vote as a Republican almost as soon as she arrived in Salt Lake City in September 2014. Then, in October 2018, she changed her affiliation, according to Salt Lake County voter records. Lueck became a member of the Independent American Party.
That party takes its conservative platform partly from the teachings the late LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson gave on the proper role of government. Earlier this month, the Utah chapter hosted a talk by Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who has refused to recognize the federal government’s role in managing public lands.
In one of her final Facebook posts, Lueck celebrated the anniversary of women’s suffrage. Her Instagram profile promoted “free the nips.”
Stoner said Lueck didn’t necessarily want women to go without bras or expose their nipples. Instead, the phrase can be used to promote the idea that women shouldn’t be shamed for their bodies.
Lueck herself liked to spend free time on warm Salt Lake City days outside, enjoying the sun in a bikini, Stoner said — not that there was a lot of free time. Besides school and the sorority, Lueck held jobs. Stoner said her friend was a personal assistant to a family. At the time of her death, she worked at a Salt Lake City biological testing laboratory.
Lueck’s father, Greg Lueck, worked in health care logistics and administration, according to his public social media profiles. The younger Lueck pursued a career in health care, too, by majoring in kinesiology and prenursing.
Stoner, who graduated in May with a degree in psychology, said Lueck appeared to be taking awhile to graduate because she sometimes reduced her class load to part time so she could also work.
Still a friend
Stoner said Lueck had two serious boyfriends while she was in Salt Lake City and was dating casually at the time of her death.
Friends say they saw no personality changes in Lueck through the years. She continued to enjoy animals. She had hedgehogs, guinea pigs and a cat at the time of her death.
Lueck stayed in touch with friends in California and Utah. Barbee last saw Lueck a couple of years ago, but they traded text messages about once a month.
Stoner and Reilly said there were regular, if infrequent, nights where they’d meet for dinner, drinks or just to have a girls’ night in. One friend, Juliana Cauley, told CBS News she was supposed to have a girls’ night with Lueck when she returned last week to Salt Lake City.
“As we continued to grow within our own lives,” Reilly wrote in a text message to The Tribune, “as well as our friendship, we had periods of distance but always managed to come back together, and it was as if not even a day had gone by since I had seen her.”
Stoner remembers a night in December. Lueck had been dating a man and hadn’t been spending much time with friends. All of a sudden, Lueck texted Stoner and invited her to go to a Main Street restaurant. Stoner said Lueck even offered to pay — perhaps because she still saw herself as Stoner’s Big.
The two spent the evening talking and eating, Stoner said. Later, they went back to Stoner’s residence, watched YouTube videos and sang along with music. Another friend came over, and the three went to a bar.
“It was just a really good night,” Stoner said. “A really fun night.”
Loved and missed
Lueck’s family has declined interview requests. The Lueck friends who spoke to The Tribune have said they do not know Ajayi or why Lueck would have been meeting someone at 3 a.m. in a park in North Salt Lake, as Salt Lake City police have said occurred.
Barbee has read online speculation and judgments about what Lueck was doing. Maybe Lueck was doing something she didn’t want other people to know about, Barbee said, and perhaps if people weren’t so judgmental, Lueck wouldn’t have felt that way.
“Maybe we would have known where she was,” Barbee said, “if she was comfortable telling people where she was going.”
After news of Lueck’s death, Stoner launched a GoFundMe page to help the family with funeral expenses. She also had a final message for her friend.
“Rest In Peace, Kenzie,” Stoner wrote on the fundraising page. “You are loved and will be deeply missed.”