‘Why is he walking the streets?’ asks past robbery victim of man suspected in Aaron Lowe killing

Records show the suspect had been charged with a series of crimes and was last released from jail in March.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A memorial for Aaron Lowe, by the gate of the house on the corner of Broadmore St. and Yermo Avenue, on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021. Lowe was fatally shot at a house party in the area early Sept. 26, 2021. A 22-year-old man has been arrested on suspicion of aggravated murder, attempted murder and felony discharge of a firearm in Lowe's death, according to Salt Lake City police.

The 22-year-old suspected of fatally shooting University of Utah football player Aaron Lowe at a house party has been charged with an escalating series of crimes in recent years, from retail theft to robbing victims he found through KSL Classifieds.

Buk Mawut Buk is still on probation for one of two robberies he was convicted of committing in 2019. He was last released from jail in March, after an officer stopped a stolen car he was in on Nov. 1. In that case, court records said, police found a stolen handgun on the floorboard where Buk said he was sitting in the back seat, and in his pocket, police found ammunition consistent with the caliber of the recovered weapon.

But charges of gun possession and theft by receiving stolen property were dismissed, and Buk pleaded guilty only to failing to stop at the command of law enforcement. He was sentenced to 115 days that he had already served and was released.

George Bekmezian, a victim in one of the robbery cases, said he was shocked to hear of Buk’s Sunday arrest in connection with Lowe’s death. He thought Buk would be behind bars for at least five years, he said, for robbing him and his daughter while holding up what they thought was a firearm in 2019. Police later determined it had been a BB gun, while his accomplice held a knife, court records said.

“I started trying to figure out, why is he walking the streets and not in prison?” Bekmezian said of his reaction.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill defended his office’s handling of Buk’s past charges. In the most recent case, he noted, multiple people had been in the stopped car, and “we could not definitively attach any one person to a gun” based on available evidence. Buk “pled to the charge for which we had the evidence,” Gill said.

And when prosecutors sought to revoke his probation in the robbery conviction, citing the new allegations, Buk was assessed to be a “moderate risk,” Gill said.

”So, we can speculate all we want. That’s the way our process sort of works,” he said. “And our focus really is this allegation of a very serious issue [in Lowe’s death], which we are working diligently to screen as quickly as we can and put that case together and gather all the evidence.”

Buk is being held without bail in the Salt Lake County jail following his arrest on suspicion of aggravated murder, attempted murder and felony discharge of a firearm, according to the Salt Lake City Police Department. Buk has not been formally charged with any crime in connection with Lowe’s death.

Buk has been represented in the past by attorneys with the Salt Lake Legal Defenders Association. The office declined a request to comment on Buk’s past cases.

Lowe was killed during a Sugar House party early Sept. 26 after uninvited guests, including Buk, were asked to leave, according to the probable cause document filed for the warrant for Buk’s arrest. According to police, Lowe and a woman allegedly shot and injured by Buk were both invited guests.

[Read more: Two hours, six noise complaints, one party: How Aaron Lowe’s killing highlights police staffing troubles]

The 20-year-old woman remained in critical condition as of Sunday, police said; Lowe was pronounced dead across the street from the party.

Early cases dismissed over Buk’s uncertain age

Buk was born in Sudan, and after his mother died when he was a child, he fled to Kenya to live with his stepmother, court records state. The two came to the United States as refugees in 2011, and Buk has a brother and other relatives living in the Salt Lake Valley, records show.

He attended Granger High School but withdrew as a junior, in March 2017, the district confirmed. He later enrolled in Job Corps, a Department of Labor program that offers free education and vocational training, but he told a probation officer that he was kicked out for having contraband, prosectors said in a court filing.

Buk’s stepmother did not know when he was born, and like other refugees who don’t have known birth dates, Buk was assigned one: Jan. 1, 1999, according to Buk’s attorney in a 2019 case. Prosecutors noted that date was listed on his immigration green card, his Social Security account, other criminal records, jail booking records and his driver’s license.

But Buk’s attorney said the family of Buk’s stepmother contacted relatives in Sudan, who sent a picture of a handwritten birth certificate, which appears to have been issued by the Republic of South Sudan and stamped with an official seal dated June 13, 2017. (South Sudan did not become independent from Sudan until 2011.) The certificate listed Buk’s date of birth as Nov. 19, 2001.

In a burglary case, Buk was accused of breaking into a West Valley City man’s home on Feb. 20, 2019, stealing a bag of tools and making the man’s dog yelp in pain, as heard on a home surveillance video. The man spotted Buk in the neighborhood the next day, called police and followed him, court documents state, and Buk showed a detective where the bag of tools was hidden.

The burglary and animal cruelty charges were among a series of cases that were filed from 2017 to 2019 and dismissed after the question of whether Buk was a minor was raised. Besides the differing birth dates on identification documents, a court record later noted Buk “has a history of using other family member’s names and identification when he is in trouble.”

In that same period, Buk pleaded guilty to misdemeanor counts of retail theft and failure to appear in justice court. On Aug. 8, 2018, he was sentenced to 10 days in jail, but the time was suspended and he was placed on probation for one year.

More serious charges follow

On May 20, 2019, Felipe Pacheco saw an ad on KSL Classifieds for a $300 iPhone, according to court records. After talking to the seller by phone, Pacheco told The Salt Lake Tribune, he met the man at a public place, in a shopping center parking lot in the Taylorsville area.

He noticed the seller was young and that the phone still had personal information on it, he said.

“When I was about to pay him, he grabbed the money and he just flew. He ran away,” Pacheco said. ”But he was not violent or anything, or I didn’t feel threatened ... He just, you know, he just got the money, he didn’t have any weapons or anything.”

Pacheco didn’t pick Buk out of photos at the time. But when Bekmezian’s similar robbery occurred in October 2019, Pacheco told police he recognized Buk in media coverage.

Bekmezian and his daughter also hoped to buy an iPhone that had been listed for sale on KSL.com, and the ad’s poster directed them to a Salt Lake County address, he said. But when they knocked on the home’s front door on Oct. 12, 2019, no one answered.

The father and daughter climbed back into their car, and two people in hoodies walked up to the open driver’s side door, Bekmezian said. One of the two people said he was there for the phone sale and tossed a charger at Bekmezian and his daughter, who started examining it.

That’s when one of the people pulled out what looked like a handgun and pointed it toward Bekmezian, Bekmezian said. “He says, ‘Hey, I’m not messing around. Give me the money,’” said Bekmezian, who added that he noticed the second person was holding a knife.

As his daughter explained she was a college student short on cash and implored the two robbers to leave them alone, Bekmezian said, he handed over $290 in cash and his own cellphone.

The father then grabbed his own gun out of his car’s center console and fired several shots at the two robbers as they headed toward the street corner, he said. Bekmezian is a concealed-carry permit holder.

A Unified Police Department officer responded with a police dog, who found Buk and his accomplice “crouched in a backyard behind some bushes,” a court filing states.

Bekmezian said he notified the court that he wanted to stay updated on the prosecution against Buk. He got a couple of letters about hearings, he said, but expected there would be a trial — and didn’t realize that the case had been resolved with a guilty plea.

Four cases against Buk were combined into one resolution on June 8, 2020: The two iPhone robberies in May and October 2019, and two allegations that he had given police false personal information — once in February 2019 and again as police investigated a trespassing call in August 2019.

Under the 2001 birthdate, Buk would not have turned 18 until Nov. 19, 2019. But prosecutors had asked the court to find that Buk was an adult by February 2019, court records show.

In the February case, Buk allegedly had used the messaging app Letgo to arrange to buy a $300 pair of Beats by Dre Headphones. Buk allegedly snatched the headphones from the seller and the seller’s brother and ran away, and the pair chased him down and held him until police arrived, court records said. According to charging documents, Buk later admitted he had given an officer the wrong birthday.

Buk pleaded guilty to class A and class B misdemeanor counts of providing false information and two second-degree felony counts of robbery, and other charges were dismissed. He was sentenced to one year in jail, with credit for 240 days served, and three years on probation.

Pacheco said he does not think that sentence was fair,because it escalated, right? With me [there] was no violence, with the other victim [Bekmezian], [he] was violent. He had a gun.”

He added: ”I lost my money and it wasn’t pretty. Even though it wasn’t violent, it was a traumatic experience.”

Buk served a total of 325 days — 10 1/2 months — before being released on Sept. 1, 2020, according to Salt Lake County jail records.

‘An open and active investigation’

On Nov. 1, 2020, police pulled over a stolen car in Salt Lake City, and five people — including Buk — got out of it. Police found a stolen handgun on the car’s floor, and found ammunition in Buk’s pocket. Buk was booked into the Salt Lake County jail, then released the same day. He was booked again on Dec. 2, accused of violating his probation.

Buk initially faced two felony counts — possession of a dangerous weapon by a restricted person, and theft by receiving stolen property — but eventually pleaded to a misdemeanor charge of failing to stop at a law enforcement officer’s command. He was sentenced to 115 days, all of which he had served while waiting for his case to be tried. Buk was released on March 29.

When asked if Buk’s cases could have been handled differently, Gill responded: “Let’s be very clear. The most important thing is this [Lowe] homicide, that we have is an open and active investigation.”

“What I can say as a matter of public record is that he was convicted of two second-degree robberies, and he was sentenced to one year at the county jail for those robberies,” Gill said. “And then subsequently, when we convicted him of the Class A [failing to stop], that was used as a means by which to revoke his probation.”

Prosecutors have been working closely with law enforcement, Gill said, including to identify Buk as a person of interest in Lowe’s death. But Buk “has the presumption of innocence, and we’re in the process of putting that case together,” Gill said. “I want to be very careful not to editorialize too much because that is our focus.”

Police said they had executed search warrants in Layton and Draper and conducted more than two dozen interviews during their investigation into Lowe’s death. Police said they located Buk in Draper early Sunday morning and took him in for questioning.

Lowe was a sophomore cornerback on the Utah football team. Originally from Mesquite, Texas, Lowe was a close friend and high school teammate of late Utah running back Ty Jordan, who died from an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound last December. Lowe had changed his jersey number to No. 22 this season to honor Jordan.

— Tribune reporter Julie Jag contributed to this report.