SALT LAKE CITY — Over the year and a half that her family searched for answers in the disappearance and death of Mackenzie Lueck, investigators arrived at just one.
Unlike most, the murder of the 23-year-old University of Utah senior wasn’t tied to money, relationships or revenge.
“The only conclusion that the evidence can suggest is that Ayoola Ajayi simply wanted to know what it felt like to kill someone,” deputy Salt Lake County district attorney Marc Mathis said Friday, shortly before Ajayi was sentenced to life in prison. “Tragically, for Mackenzie Lueck and her family, he chose her. This was murder for murder’s sake.”
Third District Judge Vernice Trease sentenced Ayoola Adisa Ajayi to life in the Utah State Prison without the possibility of parole, adhering to the terms of a plea agreement that spared Ajayi the death penalty.
She called his crimes among the most egregious on the books in Utah, saying he demonstrated “cruelty and depravity” in setting fire to Lueck’s remains and burying them.
More than a year after police recovered the remains from a shallow grave in Logan Canyon, Ajayi admitted earlier this month that he had planned to kill her after the two met on a dating website in 2018 but before ever seeing her in person. The 32-year-old tech support worker pleaded guilty to a charge of aggravated murder, a first-degree felony.
Lueck’s tearful family members recalled her Friday as a born nurturer, a spitfire and an aspiring nurse. Her aptitude for the line of work was on display as she held her sick grandmother’s hand in a southern California hospital, where the two said a final goodbye.
Lueck “brought a feeling into the room no one else could,” her cousin, Carly Stephens, said. Lueck vanished just a week later.
On June 17, 2019, Lueck touched down in Salt Lake City after returning from her grandmother’s funeral in her native El Segundo, California, authorities said. A short time later, her Lyft driver dropped her off to meet Ajayi at North Salt Lake’s Hatch Park about 3 a.m.
Once he and Lueck arrived at his Salt Lake City home, Ajayi tied her hands behind her back and choked her with his hands and a belt as she protested and until she stopped moving, court documents say. To prevent any documentation of her presence there, Ajayi had turned off his security video cameras.
Speaking in court Friday, Lueck’s parents said they are comforted to know Ajayi can no longer pose a threat to others. They fought back emotion as they listed the milestones they won’t celebrate with their daughter, including a start to her planned career, marriage and kids of her own.
“Instead of planning my daughter’s graduation party, I planned her memorial,” Diana Lueck said.
Greg Lueck told Ajayi that he hopes Ajayi will spend the rest of his life watching his back in prison.
“I have no compassion for you, as you had no compassion for my daughter,” Greg Lueck said.
In addition to the murder charge, Ajayi also pleaded guilty to a charge of abuse or desecration of a human body, a third-degree felony. He admitted that after detectives investigating Lueck’s disappearance knocked on his door, he unearthed her remains from his backyard and buried her again in the northern Utah canyon.
A shackled Ajayi, wearing an orange jail uniform and a face mask, hung his head at times during the Friday hearing and issued a brief apology to Lueck’s family.
“I’m sorry for what I did, and I deserve what I get — deserve what I’m going to get. I know this won’t bring her back,” he said.
In exchange for his guilty pleas and as part of the plea bargain, other charges tied to Lueck’s murder were dismissed. They include aggravated kidnapping and obstructing justice.
As part of the plea agreement, Ajayi admitted to an unrelated charge of forcible sexual abuse, a second-degree felony, admitting that he assaulted a woman during a March 2018 date at his home. Investigators said the woman saw coverage of Lueck’s death and came forward to report her assault.
Trease sentenced Ajayi to consecutive prison terms of one to 15 years on that charge and up to five years for the abuse of a body. Although the additional sentences won’t add any time to what is already a life sentence, they’re symbolic, reflecting the severity of his crimes, the judge said.
Lueck, a part-time senior at the university, was reported missing June 20, 2019, kicking off the formal police investigation. Police found her remains after Ajayi, through his own attorneys, told prosecutors of their location.
He and Lueck had met on the website Seeking Arrangements, which bills itself as a platform for so-called sugar daddies to meet sugar babies. They ultimately agreed to meet once Lueck returned to Salt Lake City from the funeral in California.
He had attended Utah State University in Logan on a student visa, sporadically taking classes there. His LinkedIn page identified him as a technical support analyst for Dell.
Jail records have previously indicated that Ajayi, originally from Nigeria, is a U.S. citizen, but the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office clarified Friday that isn’t the case. He had secured legal permission to reside in the country but not citizenship, the office said.
Ajayi authored a novel that his Amazon author profile describes as the story of a young man who witnesses two murders and must decide if he wants to pursue a life of crime. The profile describes the writer as someone who “survived a tyrannical dictatorship, escaped a real life crime, traveled internationally” and excelled in several different lines of work.
After the hearing Friday, Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown wrote in a tweet that officers who worked tirelessly on the case won’t forget Lueck.
“For the Lueck family, I know this does not assuage the loss you have suffered,” Brown said. “You remain in our hearts today.”