‘She did nothing to deserve this’: Friends and family mourn slain Utah student MacKenzie Lueck

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Denise Dial, a longtime friend of the Lueck family, holds a sign in remembrance of MacKenzie Lueck during a vigil at the University of Utah on Monday, July 1, 2019.

When MacKenzie Lueck threw a birthday party for her cat, she didn’t hold back.

“She even got champagne,” said her friend, Katie Kvam.

“Oh my goodness. Do you remember the cake?” added Kennedy Stoner. “She made it out of special cat food.”

All of Lueck’s closest friends were invited to celebrate Nova, a fluffy gray kitty whom she adored, as she turned another year older. They were asked to wear pointy party hats and throw confetti. And everyone sang off-key while Lueck unwrapped a new toy for the cat.

“Now, that’s one of my favorite memories of her,” Stoner added, trying to smile but wiping away tears as they carried mascara down her cheeks.

Stoner and her friends were surrounded by nearly 200 people who came to a vigil Monday night to remember Lueck, a 23-year-old student and sorority member who was killed last month. They stood on the grass outside the student union building at the University of Utah, clinging to carnations and to one another.

They shared stories of how Lueck loved to get tacos from street carts and always seemed to be raiding someone’s fridge for a snack. They talked about how she smiled so much after she got braces that it cut into her lips. They said she was bubbly and kind and always planning road trips to Lake Powell.

In front of them was a big picture of Lueck in a yellow swimsuit — bathing in the sun like she liked to do. And as the setting sun shone down on those mourning, they promised to honor her the best they could.

“Kenzie, we miss you,” said her friend, Juliana Cauley, as she spoke to the crowd. “We want you back. But we know nothing can change what happened.”

She stepped down from the microphone and joined a line of sorority sisters from Alpha Chi Omega, all wearing black dresses and holding hands next to a makeshift memorial piled high with bouquets, battery-operated candles, notes, ribbons and a string of pearls like Lueck wore when she wanted to look like Audrey Hepburn.

Lueck was reported missing two weeks ago after she got off a plane, texted her parents that she had made it back to Salt Lake City, and then left the airport and was not heard from again. Her friends searched for eight days to find her. On Friday, police arrested a man who they say kidnapped and murdered her.

She is the third female University of Utah student to die in the past year in an act of violence.

Many of the women at the memorial Monday have struggled to come to terms with the tragedy and questioned whether they can be safe.

“That could happen to my daughter,” said Aimee McLean, whose 22-year-old takes classes at the U.

“She did nothing to deserve this,” noted Casey Thompson, 21, a survivor of abuse. “Young women don’t deserve this. It’s so unfair.”

Her friend, Megan Mertz, tried to comfort her as they sat under a tree on campus. Mertz met Lueck at a party last year. She said the two were sitting on couches and made goofy faces at each other from across the room as people danced. They instantly connected over how awkward they thought it was.

Lueck walked over and saw that the lock screen on Mertz’s phone was a photo of her cat, Jasper. They started talking about their love of animals and what they were studying. Mertz was getting a degree in anthropology, and Lueck in kinesiology.

“She was very, very kind,” Mertz said.

Thompson added: “She had so much she wanted to do with her life.”

Investigators have said that Lueck took a Lyft from the airport to Hatch Park in North Salt Lake in the early morning on June 17. She was picked up there by Ayoola Ajayi, 31, who has been booked into jail but not formally charged. Police have not said how the two knew each other or how long they’d been in contact. But Lueck’s phone stopped transmitting data at the park.

What happened after that still hasn’t been made clear.

On Wednesday — nine days after Lueck was last seen and a week after her parents reported her missing on June 20 — police began an all-night search on Ajayi’s home in Fairpark. Phone records showed he was the last person who Lueck communicated with before she disappeared.

In his backyard, investigators found a “fresh dig area” where neighbors had said they saw Ajayi using gasoline to burn something a few days earlier. A forensic search of the area uncovered charred items matching Lueck’s personal belongings. Police also found human tissue that matched her DNA.

Cauley, Lueck’s friend, referred to the suspect as “Kenzie’s killer,” adding: “There’s too many murderers’ names that we know.” She asked those at the vigil not to focus on him but on Lueck.

Ashley Fine, a sorority sister, also suggested, “This person took away our friend, but he will not take away our strength.”

When Cauley was about to graduate last year, she said, she remembered the night before the ceremony that she had wanted to decorate her cap. She called Lueck and the two ran to the craft store.

They came back with pounds of glitter. And they spent four hours bedazzling Cauley’s mortarboard.

“I was really looking forward to helping her with hers this spring,” she said, covering her eyes with a tissue. Many in front of her sniffled and sobbed.

Those at the vigil remembered how, growing up in California, Lueck used to bike to the Pacific Ocean. In high school, she competed on the swim team and played water polo. She loved Starbucks and cupcakes and her two brothers.

Denise Dial, 58, said her kids grew up in El Segundo with Lueck’s family, and she carried a sign that said “El Segundo loves Kenzie.” Dial used to honk every time she drove past the Lueck’s house. Lueck, she said, used to wave every time she walked past hers with her dog.

“She was so positive, sweet, fun, energetic,” Dial said.

Many in the crowd wrote notes to Lueck and her family. They said things like “with love” and “rest in peace” and “I’m so heartbroken.”

Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown added a badge to the memorial, saying, “We want to bring justice for her.” Friends and family also decorated “The Rostrum,” a rock on campus that’s traditionally painted red for homecoming. On Monday, it was painted black and covered in roses. It sits across the street from Lueck’s sorority house.

The University of Utah’s victim-survivor advocates can be reached at 801-581-7779. Additionally, the university operates a 24-hour crisis line at 801-587-3000.

U. President Ruth Watkins spoke briefly at the vigil. She said Lueck’s death was senseless and defies understanding. Lueck was going to graduate in the spring and hoped to go to medical or nursing school.

“Now, we stand together in enhancing safety and wellbeing on campus,” she said. (The school has also been criticized for how its police department handled U. student Lauren McCluskey’s murder in October.)

The Alpha Chi Omegasorority pledged to start a nonprofit called MacKenzie’s Voice to help other victims and their families. Their chapter currently focuses on raising awareness to prevent domestic violence.

Kvam and Stoner said they wish they could have hugged Lueck one more time. They said they’ll continue to celebrate her cat’s birthday every year in her honor. But they wished she was here for it.

Nobody, they suggested, could have thrown a party as well.