Ayoola Ajayi pleads guilty to killing University of Utah student MacKenzie Lueck

(Jeffrey D. Allred | Deseret News/pool) Ayoola Adisa Ajayi, accused of murdering University of Utah student Mackenzie Lueck and setting fire to her body, appears in court in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 20, 2019.

An attorney for Ayoola Ajayi, accused of murdering the University of Utah student whose burned and bound body was found in a northern Utah canyon last year, said Ajayi had planned to kill MacKenzie Lueck even before he picked her up at a park.

Defense attorney Neal Hamilton said Ajayi and Lueck met on Seeking Arrangement, a dating website where wealthier men pay for dates — and sometimes sexual intimacy — with women. Police had not previously specified how Ajayi and Lueck met, although court documents showed they both had accounts on the site.

Ajayi, 32, pleaded guilty Wednesday to aggravated murder and desecration of a human body in connection with her slaying. Judge Vernice Trease is expected to sentence him on Oct. 23 to life in prison without the possibility of parole, under the terms of a plea deal.

Prosecutors agreed to dismiss some of the charges filed against Ajayi in exchange for not seeking the death penalty in Lueck’s murder. He also pleaded guilty to one count of forcible sexual abuse in an unrelated case. A child pornography case was dismissed.

Ajayi has been in jail since he was arrested on June 28, 2019, more than a week after he killed Lueck.

(Photo courtesy of Kennedy Stoner) Kennedy Stoner, left, and MacKenzie Lueck, center, pose in 2015. Both women were in the Alpha Chi Omega sorority. Lueck was the mentor, called a "Big," and Stoner was the pledge, called a "Little."

Lueck disappeared after flying back to Salt Lake City from California, where she had attended her grandmother’s funeral. Early in the morning of June 17, 2019, she took a Lyft from the airport to Hatch Park in North Salt Lake. There she met Ajayi, who once lived in an apartment complex near the park, and police have said she was last seen getting into his car.

Neal said Wednesday that Ajayi and Lueck first met in 2018 on the dating website. They had chatted and decided to meet at the park, Neal said, without specifying whether that was the first time they had seen each other in person.

Lueck’s phone was turned off at the park after she texted Ajayi. His phone, which investigators later tracked to the park at that time, was turned off when he arrived back at his home in Salt Lake City.

“To avoid documenting her presence in his home," Hamilton said, "Mr. Ajayi turned off the video of his home security system before leaving to meet Ms. Lueck.”

Once they were at Ajayi’s home, Hamilton said, Ajayi tied Lueck’s hands behind her back and tried to choke her with his hands. Hamilton said that Lueck “protested” and told Ajayi to stop, but he didn’t. Instead, he moved her on to her stomach and strangled her with a belt until she stopped moving, the attorney said.

Police have said Lueck died from blunt force trauma to the head.

Hamilton said Ajayi then buried Lueck and her belongings in his backyard, and threw some of her things into the Jordan River. The next morning, Ajayi bought a gas can around 9 a.m. and burned the remains, police have said, and a neighbor reported a “horrible smell” coming from the backyard fire.

Days later, police went to Ajayi’s house to ask him questions about Lueck’s disappearance. After they left, Hamilton said, Ajayi dug up Lueck’s remains and took them to Logan Canyon, 85 miles from his home, and buried her again in a shallow grave.

After his arrest, he told his attorneys where Lueck was buried. They worked with Salt Lake County prosecutors to find her body — which police found charred, with her arms bound behind her back with a zip tie and rope, on July 3. The burial site was beneath trees just off the main road.

Prosecutors also charged Ajayi with multiple other offenses, including accusations that he kidnapped and sexually assaulted another woman and had pornographic images of children on his computer. He also will be sentenced Oct. 23 on the forcible sexual count involving the other woman.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Ajayi sat at a table next to his attorney wearing an orange jail jumpsuit, thick-rimmed black glasses and a blue medical face mask. He looked down during much of the session and spoke softly and briefly when answering basic questions from the judge, such as confirming he understood the terms of the plea deal. A court interpreter translated the proceedings into Yoruban for him.

Ajayi has represented himself as having been born in Africa, briefly serving in the U.S. Army and working in information technology for major companies such as Dell, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft and Comcast.

After the hearing, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill thanked the police and prosecutors who worked on the case from Lueck’s disappearance to its near-resolution on Wednesday.

Gill said that while he and the family agreed to this outcome, he understands that it will fall short of “perfect justice" for Lueck’s loved ones.

“The goal is to try to give them the opportunity move on with their lives," he said. “There is no perfect justice in a tragedy like this, but [Ajayi]'s being held accountable for this murder."