SALT LAKE CITY — University of Utah student Mackenzie Lueck was mourning her grandmother’s death in June of last year, returning home from the funeral in California and hailing a Lyft to meet a man she’d spoken with online.
He, however, was plotting her murder.
More than a year after police recovered the 23-year-old’s charred remains from a shallow grave in Logan Canyon, Ayoola Adisa Ajayi pleaded guilty Wednesday to aggravated murder, a first-degree felony, in her death. In exchange for his plea, prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty.
His plea agreement stipulates that he will serve a life sentence in the Utah State Prison without the possibility of parole.
Ajayi, a 32-year-old tech support worker, admitted that he strangled Lueck at his Salt Lake home in the Fairpark neighborhood, burning her body and and burying her in his yard. After detectives investigating Lueck’s disappearance knocked on his door, he took her remains to the northern Utah canyon and buried her again, his attorney said Wednesday.
He and Lueck had met in 2018 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 up once Lueck returned to Utah.
“Mr. Ajayi had decided that he would murder Ms. Lueck before the meeting took place,” Ajayi’s defense attorney Neal Hamilton said Wednesday. Hamilton didn’t say how long his client had been planning Lueck’s murder.
Police said her Lyft driver dropped her off at North Salt Lake’s Hatch Park about 3 a.m. on June 17.
Before leaving his home to meet Lueck and to prevent documentation of her presence, Ajayi turned off his security video cameras, Hamilton said. Once he and Lueck arrived at his home after first meeting at the park, he tied her hands behind her back and began choking her.
“Miss Lueck protested this and told Mr. Ajayi to stop,” Hamilton said. “Mr. Ajayi did not stop.”
Instead, Ajayi moved Lueck onto her stomach and used a belt to choke her until she stopped moving, he said.
A shackled Ajayi, who had no previous criminal record, sported an orange jail uniform, black glasses and a blue face mask. He appeared calm for much of the hearing but hung his head after admitting to murdering Lueck.
“Guilty, your honor,” he responded in a barely audible voice when 3rd District Judge Vernice Trease asked for his plea.
Police said they recovered some of Lueck’s belongings in an alley near Ajayi’s home, and found Lueck’s University of Utah student ID card and clothing in the Jordan River.
But investigators didn’t recover her remains from the canyon until July 3, a day after Hamilton said Ajayi informed prosecutors about the location through his defense team.
Additionally, Ajayi pleaded guilty to abuse or desecration of a human body, a third-degree felony. The conviction carries an additional prison term of up to five years.
Law enforcers have said Ajayi, originally from Nigeria, is a U.S. citizen. He spoke in English Wednesday in court but listened to an interpreter in his native Yoruba, a precaution defense attorneys said would help ensure that he understands complex legal issues.
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, a first-degree felony, and obstructing justice, a second-degree felony.
The plea bargain also resolves other charges Ajayi faced in two unrelated cases.
He admitted to 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.
As part of his plea bargain, Trease dismissed 19 felony charges of sexual exploitation of a minor, a second-degree felony. Police had reported they found child pornography images on devices they seized while investigating Lueck’s death. The images depicted children ages 4-8.
After Wednesday’s hearing, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill thanked prosecutors, investigators and police officers who helped bring Ajayi to justice.
“The entry of the pleas today starts the process of bringing some closure and a measure of justice to the Lueck family,” Gill said in a statement.
He declined to talk about why his office offered Ajayi a plea bargain, but said he takes input from victims’ family members “into significant account” in such decisions.
Lueck, a part-time senior at the U., was reported missing June 20, 2019, kicking off the formal police investigation.
Her disappearance shook a university community reeling from two recent shooting deaths of students: track athlete Lauren McCluskey, who was killed in 2018 by a man she had dated; and international student ChenWei Guo, killed in an attempted carjacking the previous year.
On June 26, several police officers served a search warrant on Ajayi’s home, collecting evidence in enormous paper bags. They were also seen digging holes in his backyard near an area where neighbors reported seeing him pouring gasoline on items and burning them, telling police of a “horrible smell.”
Ajayi 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.
He also wrote 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. Ajayi asserts in the profile that he “survived a tyrannical dictatorship, escaped a real life crime, traveled internationally,” and excelled in several different lines of work.
His sentencing hearing is scheduled for Oct. 23.