The man who admitted to killing a University of Utah student whose burned and bound body was found in a northern Utah canyon last year will spend the rest of his life in prison.
Ayoola Ajayi, 32, pleaded guilty earlier this month to killing MacKenzie Lueck.
The sentence, handed down Friday by 3rd District Judge Vernice Trease, was agreed upon as part of a plea deal, in which Ajayi pleaded guilty to aggravated murder and desecration of a human body.
Lueck’s family on Friday tearfully remembered the 23-year-old as kind and loving — a “true spitfire,” her mother, Diana Lueck said.
The woman’s death has left a hole in their family, Lueck’s parents said. They’ll never get to see their only daughter married, or be able to hold her children. She was about to graduate from the U., they said, and had her whole life ahead of her.
“This sentence today will not bring back MacKenzie,” Diana Lueck said. “But I hope it will keep this defendant out of the public eye and unable to commit these heinous crimes again.”
Lueck’s father, Gregory Lueck, was more angry. He told his daughter’s killer that he hoped he spends the rest of his life in isolation and said he looked forward to the call from Utah officials informing him that Ajayi had died.
“I can only hope that it will be a slow, painful death,” the father said.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the only people allowed in the courtroom were Ajayi, Lueck’s family, the attorneys and the judge — who all donned face masks for the hearing. The public was able to watch the sentencing through a livestream.
Ajayi hung his head through much of Friday’s sentencing and gave a brief apology.
“I’m sorry for what I did,” he said, his voice muffled by his face mask. “I know this won’t bring her back.”
Deputy Salt Lake County District Attorney Marc Mathis said Ajayi’s actions gripped Utahns and the nation not just because of the heinous way in which Lueck died, but also because there is one question that has never been answered: Why her?
“Most homicides we deal with have clearly identifiable motives: financial gain, revenge, perceived wrongs,” he said. “But that doesn’t exist in this case. Without having met her in person before, Ayoola Ajayi already decided to murder her. The only conclusion that evidence suggests is that Ayoola Ajayi simply wanted to know what it felt like to kill. This was murder for murder’s sake.”
Defense attorney Neal Hamilton said at a hearing earlier this month that Ajayi had planned to kill Lueck even before he met up with her at a park last June.
Hamilton said Ajayi and Lueck met on Seeking Arrangement, a dating website where wealthier men pay for dates — and sometimes sexual intimacy — with women.
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.
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 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 her 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 and took her to Logan Canyon, 85 miles from his home, and buried her again in a shallow grave.
Ajayi has been in jail since he was arrested on June 28, 2019, more than a week after he killed Lueck.
After his arrest, he told his attorneys where Lueck was buried. They worked with Salt Lake County prosecutors to find her body 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. The child porn case was dismissed as part of a plea deal, and Ajayi pleaded guilty to forcible sexual abuse involving the other woman. He was given a sentence Friday of one to 15 years in prison for that charge.
Trease, the judge, opted to run that sentence back to back to the other sentences she handed down Friday: life in prison for aggravated murder and up to five years for desecration of a body.
The judge said that the consecutive sentences were largely symbolic, but was appropriate to address the Lueck family’s loss and acknowledge the trauma of the other woman whom Ajayi sexually abused.