An 11-day search for a college student from El Segundo who went missing after flying to Salt Lake City ended in tragedy Friday when police announced the arrest of a person suspected of killing her and burning her body in his backyard.
Salt Lake City police Chief Mike Brown said the suspect, Ayoola Ajayi, 31, was arrested Friday morning.
“With a heavy heart,” Brown announced the arrest during a mid- morning news conference, confirming that charred material — including female human tissue and personal items of 23-year-old Mackenzie Lueck — were found during a search conducted at a Salt Lake City home on Wednesday.
According to Brown, DNA from the tissue matched that taken from Lueck’s personal items.
Lueck was reported missing June 17 when she arrived in Utah after spending time in the Los Angeles area for her grandmother’s funeral. She texted her parents that she had landed safely and was last seen about 3 a.m. by a Lyft driver who dropped her off at Hatch Park in North Salt Lake City, where police said she got into another vehicle. Authorities did not have a description of that vehicle or its driver. Surveillance cameras at the park were not working.
She missed a planned flight back to Los Angeles on Sunday.
Police descended on a Salt Lake City apartment complex Friday morning and two people were seen being taken into custody. Salt Lake City police announced around 9 a.m. California time that one person had been taken into custody “regarding the Mackenzie Lueck case.” Brown said later that Ajayi was arrested on suspicion of aggravated murder, kidnapping, desecration of a body and obstruction of justice.
On Wednesday night, police served a search warrant on a separate home – – believed to be owned by Ajayi — and removed bags of evidence, including ammunition and a pitchfork.
According to Brown, witnesses told investigators they saw the suspect burning something in the backyard of the home on June 17 and 18. Investigators discovered a fresh dig area in the backyard, in the same area witnesses reported the burning activity.
“A forensic excavation of the burning area was conducted, which resulted in the finding of several charred items that were consistent with personal items of Mackenzie Lueck. Other charred material was located which has now been forensically determined to be female human tissue. A DNA profile of that human tissue was obtained during forensic testing by the Utah state lab. That DNA profile was compared and is consistent with the DNA profile obtained through further forensic testing of personal items of Mackenzie Lueck,” Brown said.
Brown said the suspect, when interviewed by police, admitted having text conversations with Lueck on June 16 but denied every having personal contact with her. But the chief said phone records placed him at Hatch Park at virtually the same time as Lueck, at 3 a.m. June 17.
All communications and data from Lueck’s phone stopped at that time, Brown said.
Brown said he personally notified Lueck’s parents Friday morning about their daughter’s death and the arrest.
“This is one of the most difficult phone calls I’ve ever made,” he said.
Lueck was a pre-nursing student and senior at the University of Utah, majoring in kinesiology, according to a school spokesman.
Lueck’s family issued a statement, which was read by her uncle during Brown’s news conference in Utah.
“The Lueck family would like to express their gratitude for the efforts put forth by the Salt Lake City Police Department and all partnering agencies that assisted, as well as all of the people that provided tips on this case,” according to the family. “They’re also grateful to her community, to her friends and others around the nation that 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. Again, we ask that everybody respect the privacy of Mackenzie’s family and friends at this time.”
According to his LinkedIn profile, Ajayi was a U.S. Army information technology specialist from September 2014 through June 2016. Since last year, he has worked for Dell as a technical support analyst.