As they sat on a bench Monday morning during the first court appearance for the man accused of killing MacKenzie Lueck, the three friends clasped one another’s hands.
And though Ayoola Ajayi was just an image on a screen, seeing him for the first time took their breath away.
"When I saw him, I was in complete shock," said Lueck's friend, Kennedy Stoner. "I just felt really angry and really sad at the same time."
Stoner, along with Neisha Williams and Ashley Fine, had hoped the court date would help them answer the lingering questions they have held onto since Ajayi was arrested last month and charged with killing Lueck before burning and burying her body.
Why Kenzie? What did she do to deserve this? Why was she killed in such a brutal way?
But Ajayi’s court appearance was routine and their questions remained unanswered. He appeared via a video feed from the Salt Lake County jail, and a judge read the charges against the 31-year-old man: aggravated murder, aggravated kidnapping, obstruction of justice and desecration of a body.
Fine said she wants justice for Lueck, but doesn't know if she'll keep coming back to court to watch Ajayi's case wind through the criminal justice system.
“I refuse to say this person’s name,” she said outside the courtroom. “This is probably the last time I’ll give him any sort of attention.”
Also Monday, Salt Lake City police say they have found new evidence in Lueck’s case along the Jordan River Parkway, near 700 North.
Sgt. Brandon Shearer would not say what the evidence is, and officers were still searching the area midday Monday. Shearer said officers were doing outreach with homeless people along the river when they found something.
Prosecutors could seek the death penalty for Ajayi, but Salt Lake District Attorney Sim Gill said last week that any talk of seeking execution is “premature” and that the case is still being worked by investigators.
Charging documents filed last week say Lueck died of blunt force trauma to the head, and her body was found with her arms bound behind her back with a zip tie and rope.
The 23-year-old woman went missing after she got off a flight from California on June 17, 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.
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 said they saw Ajayi using gasoline to burn something a few days earlier.
A forensic search of the dig site uncovered a charred human bone, other human remains, a cellphone and other items, according to charging documents. More charred items were found in a nearby alleyway. Police said human tissue found at the burn site had been matched by DNA to Lueck and items found matched her belongings.
Investigators found Lueck’s body on July 3 in Logan Canyon after examining Ajayi’s cellphone records, which showed him traveling near the canyon on June 25 — more than a week after Lueck went missing and days after her friends, family and police began searching for her.
Police found a disturbed area of soil under trees in the canyon, according to Gill, and discovered Lueck’s charred body there in a wooded area off the main road. The canyon is about two hours north of Salt Lake City.
Asked last week about the time lag between the burning at Ajayi’s home and this visit to Logan Canyon, Gill declined to comment.
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.
Tribune reporter Sean P. Means contributed to this article.