The man accused of killing University of Utah student MacKenzie Lueck has been charged with aggravated murder and aggravated kidnapping days after police found her body in Logan Canyon.
Ayoola Ajayi, 31, faces four felony counts, including second-degree felony obstruction of justice and third-degree felony desecration of a body, in the high-profile case that has captivated the state and the nation since Lueck disappeared on June 17.
The charges, filed Wednesday by Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, say Lueck died of blunt force trauma to her head. Gill said her body was found with her arms bound behind her back by a zip tie and rope.
“As more details come out, it’s like another wave of sickness ... and pain and anguish,” said Ashley Fine, a friend and Alpha Chi Omega sorority sister of Lueck. “I will never understand what happened. I’m just so glad the person that hurt her can’t hurt anyone else.”
Ajayi had been booked into jail June 28 on suspicion of the same counts. The aggravated murder charge carries a potential death penalty if Ajayi is convicted.
“I can absolutely tell you that no deals have been made whatsoever,” Gill said at a news conference Wednesday, adding, “I think it would be premature to talk about the death penalty.”
Lueck, 23, went missing after she got off a flight from California, 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 days as police asked the community for tips.
Investigators have said that Lueck took a Lyft from the airport to Hatch Park in North Salt Lake in the early morning of June 17. She was picked up there by Ajayi, police said, and her phone stopped transmitting data at that point. A police search of Lueck’s phone showed he was the last person who communicated with her.
Gill declined to comment on the “prior history” between Lueck and Ajayi, or on “the nature or the contents" of texts between them on June 17.
“This continues to be an ongoing, active investigation. It has not come to a conclusion," he said. "... That work is open, active and engaged at this moment as we speak.”
Cellphone records showed Ajayi was near Logan Canyon between 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. on June 25, Gill said. On July 3, police went to Logan Canyon to search for Lueck’s body and located a disturbed area of soil under trees. They discovered a charred human body and DNA testing returned a profile consistent with Lueck, he said.
“This was an area that was off the main road” in Logan Canyon, Gill said. “A wooded area.”
Asked about the time lag between the burning at Ajayi’s home and this visit to Logan Canyon, Gill declined to comment.
The canyon is two hours north of Salt Lake City. He did not comment on where he believes Lueck was killed. Ajayi attended Utah State University, which is located in Logan, near the canyon.
Ajayi’s initial court appearance has been scheduled for Monday. His defense attorney, Maren Larson, did not immediately return a call from The Salt Lake Tribune.
Lueck’s parents, Greg and Diana Lueck, asked Gill to express their thanks for “the generosity of so many strangers and friends, the support and the prayers that have helped them through this very difficult time,” he said.
“They were genuinely appreciative and moved by the outpouring of love and compassion, and they wanted me to expressly thank everyone who has reached out to them in that capacity,” he said.
Police began an all-night search at Ajayi’s home in Salt Lake City’s Fairpark neighborhood on June 26 after serving a search warrant on Lueck’s phone and discovering he was the last person she had talked to.
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.
Gill said Ajayi purchased a gas can around 9 a.m. on June 17. A neighbor told police she had detected a “horrible smell” coming from the backyard later that day, the charges said.
A forensic search of the dig site uncovered a charred human bone, other human remains, a cellphone and other items, the charges said. More charred items were found in a nearby alleyway.
Investigators previously said human tissue found at the site had been matched by DNA to Lueck and items found matched her belongings.
Ajayi has no criminal history in Utah apart from traffic citations. In 2012, he was barred from Utah State University after a theft investigation. A co-worker of his reported to North Park police in 2014 that he had sexually assaulted her. Neither report led to criminal charges.
He worked in information technology at various companies, including Dell, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft and Comcast, according to his LinkedIn profile, and his resume says he worked for the U.S. Army from 2014 to 2016, although it’s unclear if he accurately represented his military experience. The Utah National Guard said Ajayi was a member for six months in 2015 and 2016 — and that he was discharged without completing initial training requirements.
The Salt Lake Tribune will update this developing story. Reporter Scott D. Pierce contributed to this report.