A man jailed on suspicion of killing Mackenzie Lueck, a 23-year-old University of Utah student from El Segundo, was charged Wednesday with aggravated murder and desecration of a human body days after police found the woman’s charred remains buried in a shallow grave.
Ayoola Ajayi, 31, also is facing counts of aggravated kidnapping and obstruction of justice related to Lueck’s slaying, Salt Lake County Dist. Atty. Sim Gill said.
Ajayi would be eligible for the death penalty if convicted of the charge of aggravated murder, but prosecutors have not decided whether they plan to pursue it.
“I think it would be premature to talk about the death penalty,” Gill said.
Ajayi was arrested on suspicion of Lueck’s death last month after authorities searched his house and found a human bone, charred human tissue that matched the woman’s DNA and some of her personal items in a freshly dug area in the backyard, Gill said.
Investigators also found burned black fabric and buckles in an alley near his home that were taken into evidence, Gill said. Authorities, however, did not find Lueck’s body until last week, when investigators say data from Ajayi’s cellphone led them to a secluded area in Logan Canyon, roughly 80 miles from Salt Lake City.
Lueck’s body was buried in a shallow grave in the heavily forested area. Her arms had been bound behind her back with a zip tie and a rope. Coroner’s officials determined that she died of blunt force trauma to the left side of her head, Gill said.
Lueck, a pre-nursing student at the state’s flagship university in Salt Lake City, went missing June 17 after arriving at the Salt Lake City airport following her grandmother’s funeral in Los Angeles. Her disappearance, which was reported to police by her father on June 20, quickly gained national attention.
Investigators said that after Lueck arrived at the airport, she took a Lyft to a park in North Salt Lake, where she was picked up by Ajayi in the early morning. Records showed her phone was turned off shortly after she arrived at the park and was never powered back up.
Records also showed Ajayi was the last person Lueck communicated with using her cellphone, though he denied having contact with her that day, authorities said.
Gill said Ajayi purchased a red gas can — later found in the trunk of his car — around 9 a.m. June 17. A neighbor told police she detected a “horrible smell” coming from his backyard later that day, according to the district attorney.
Gill declined to comment on any prior interaction between Lueck and Ajayi or the nature of their communications. Authorities have not provided a possible motive in the slaying.
“This continues to be an ongoing, active investigation,” Gill said. “It has not come to a conclusion.”
According to inmate records, Ajayi is a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Nigeria. He joined the Utah National Guard and was discharged in June 2015 after six months of service, according to Maj. David Gibb. He had been a member of the 214th Forward Support Company in Tooele, Utah, but did not attend training.
Officials at Utah State University said Ajayi attended the school three separate times for short periods between 2009 and 2016. He never earned a degree, said Tim Vitale, a spokesman with the university.
Ajayi’s LinkedIn profile indicated he had worked in IT for companies including Dell and Microsoft, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. His account has since been deactivated. He also is an author, publishing the crime novel “Forge Identity” last year. The novel is about a man drawn to crime after witnessing gruesome murders at age 15.
Ajayi does not have a previous criminal record in Utah, according to court records. In 2014, he became the suspect in a rape investigation, but the probe was dropped after the woman decided not to press charges, according to a police report.
Lueck’s parents, who have not spoken publicly about their daughter’s death, asked Gill to share their gratitude for the generosity of the community.
“The support and the prayers have helped them through this very difficult time,” Gill said. “They are genuinely appreciative and moved by the outpouring of love and compassion, and they wanted me to expressly thank everyone who has reached out to them in that capacity.”
Times staff writer Alejandra Reyes-Velarde contributed to this report