The announcement by police that a Salt Lake City man was arrested on suspicion of killing University of Utah student Mackenzie Lueck has sparked grief from her sorority sisters in Utah as well as her family in California.
Lueck had been missing for days, but family and friends held out hope that she was still alive.
Authorities now allege a man killed her and burned her body in his backyard.
Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown announced Friday that Ayoola Ajayi, 31, was being booked into jail on suspicion of aggravated murder, kidnapping, obstruction of justice and desecration of a body.
The Lueck family released a statement expressing appreciation for law enforcement’s efforts and asking for privacy.
“The Lueck family would like to express their gratitude for the effort put forth by the Salt Lake City Police Department and partnering agencies who assisted, as well as all of the people that provided tips on this case,” the statement said, “They are also grateful to her community, her friends, and people around the nation who have supported this investigation. The family will not be taking any questions and no interviews will be held. Inquiries should be directed to the Salt Lake City Police Department.”
Friends described her as an energetic and caring person who was always there for them.
“I will remember her as a ball of light. That’s what she was. A blond bubble of happiness,” Michelle Galison, a sorority sister told KSL-TV. “I’ll never forget seeing her face when she became a part of our little family.”
“She’s like a nurturer,” Kennedy Stoner, a sorority sister, told the Salt Lake Tribune. “She’s almost a mother to me.”
The sorority, Alpha Chi Omega, said on Facebook that it is “grieving the loss of Mackenzie Lueck and we send our deepest sympathies and prayers to her family during this incredibly difficult time. We hope that our Alpha Chi Omega sisters who knew Mackenzie best can find peace and comfort as they reflect on the lasting impact she made on the lives of her family members, friends, and sisters.”
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert expressed his condolences to Lueck’s family in a tweet Friday.
“Our hearts go out to the family and friends of Mackenzie Lueck at this very difficult time. I was horrified and sickened by today’s news,” he wrote. “I appreciate the work of our public safety officials and their professional and timely efforts as they work this case to its conclusion.”
The arrest comes two days after investigators served a search warrant at a home in the Rose Park neighborhood of Salt Lake City and seized evidence that they said related to Lueck’s disappearance. While authorities did not specify what evidence was found, KUTV-TV reported that detectives booked 27 boxes of assault rifle ammunition and a pitchfork into evidence, along with bags of other items.
Brown said at the time that the homeowner — later identified as Ajayi — was a “person of interest” in the case.
Records show that the last person Lueck communicated with using her cellphone was Ajayi, authorities said, although the man denied having any contact with her in an interview with detectives. He also told authorities he didn’t know what Lueck looked like and hadn’t seen photos of her online, despite having at least one photo of her in his possession, Brown said.
Lueck, a pre-nursing student studying kinesiology, went missing June 17 after arriving at the Salt Lake City airport following her grandmother’s funeral in Los Angeles. After leaving the airport, she took a Lyft to a park in North Salt Lake, where she met with Ajayi, authorities say.
It wasn’t immediately known when or how Lueck was killed. Police did not provide a possible motive for the slaying.
Ajayi’s neighbors told authorities that they saw him burning something using gasoline in his backyard on June 17 and 18. When authorities searched his home, they found a freshly dug area along with human tissue belonging to a woman and some of Lueck’s personal items that had been charred, Brown said.
Brown said he called Lueck’s parents Friday morning to tell them about their daughter’s death and the arrest.
“This is one of the most difficult phone calls I’ve ever made as both Greg and his wife were devastated and heartbroken by this news,” he said.
Times Staff Writer Shelby Grad contributed to this report.