SALT LAKE CITY — The man accused in the murder of University of Utah student Mackenzie Lueck will avoid the death penalty after pleading guilty in the case, instead serving a life sentence.
Ayoola Ajayi pleaded guilty to the murder of Mackenzie Lueck in a Salt Lake City courtroom Wednesday.
Ajayi, barely audible, responds “Guilty, your honor,” eyes downcast, when judge asks for plea to murder charge.
— Annie Knox (@anniebknox) October 7, 2020
He appeared in person, wearing a mask, in the same room with the judge and attorneys. Reporters and others wanting to observe the proceedings did so remotely.
As part of the plea deal, Ajayi pleaded guilty to criminal homicide, aggravated murder, abuse or desecration of a human body and forcible kidnapping. In exchange, prosecutors will not seek the death penalty, and dropped charges of aggravated kidnapping and obstruction. Instead, Ajayi agreed to serve life in prison without possibility of parole.
“I want to thank the prosecutors, investigators, and police officers that helped resolve this matter,” Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said in a statement. “The entry of the pleas today starts the process of bringing some closure and a measure of justice to the Lueck family.”
The plea bargain also means Ajayi will plead guilty in a separate sex assault case.
The Mackenzie Lueck case
Mackenzie Lueck disappeared on June 17, 2019, after returning to Salt Lake from a trip to her home state of California to attend a funeral. Police say after she landed early that morning, she took a Lyft ride to Hatch Park in North Salt Lake. The Lyft driver told police she met someone there and got into a vehicle without any signs of distress.
DA Gill later said her last text was sent at 2:58 a.m. on the morning of June 17, 2019, to Ajayi’s phone. Just one minute later, Gill said her phone was powered off and did not come back on.
Police said phone records placed Lueck in the park at the same time as Ajayi, who also once rented an apartment near the park. Gill said phone records showed Ajayi was at his home in Salt Lake City’s Fairpark neighborhood just a few minutes later, by around 3:07 a.m.
As their investigation continued, police searched that home, where they found evidence including charred personal items and human “muscular tissue” that Gill said fit the DNA profile of Lueck. A neighbor told investigators Ajayi poured gasoline and burned something in his backyard that produced a “horrible smell.”
According to the charging documents filed last summer, police noticed a strong smell of gasoline in the trunk of Ajayi’s car when they searched the home.
“Inside the trunk was a red gasoline can,” the charges stated. “Further investigation revealed that Ajayi purchased a similar gas can at Smith’s” at around 9:00 a.m. on June 17, 2019, or about six hours after Lueck was last seen.
Investigators found her body in July 2019, 18 days after her disappearance, in Logan Canyon, nearly 80 miles away, where prosecutors said phone records placed Ajayi’s phone on June 25. Her remains were charred and buried in a shallow grave.
He buried her in his back yard, burned her belongings – and some of them were thrown into the Jordan River.
After investigators went to his home, he disinterred her remains and buried them in Logan Canyon. They stayed there until through his attorneys, he gave cops location.
— Annie Knox (@anniebknox) October 7, 2020
A medical examiner determined the cause of death to be blunt force trauma.
The plea deal and other charges
The plea deal puts an end to a lengthy ordeal for the family of Mackenzie Lueck, whom prosecutors say agreed to the arrangement.
In December 2019, a judge ordered Ajayi to stand trial on charges related to the sexual assault of another woman with some similarities to Lueck’s case. According to police, Ajayi was accused of assaulting the woman, whom he met on a dating app, after inviting her to dinner at his home in March 2018. She came forward after seeing reports about Lueck’s death, telling police she was able to escape. Ajayi pleaded not guilty in that case originally, but pleaded guilty to forcible sex abuse as part of Wednesday’s plea deal.
Ajayi appeared in court on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020, to face 19 felony counts related to the alleged discovery of child pornography on his computer. Investigators say they found images of children as young as four years old in the course of the investigation into Lueck’s murder. However, they were not linked to her death. Ajayi pleaded not guilty. Those charges were dropped in Wednesday’s plea deal.
Ajayi will be sentenced Oct. 23, 2020.
Contributing: Colby Walker, Marc Giauque
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