SALT LAKE CITY — A tech worker pleaded guilty Wednesday to murder and other charges in the death of a Utah college student, more than a year after her disappearance sparked a search that ended with the discovery of her charred remains in his backyard.
Ayoola A. Ajayi acknowledged that he planned the death of 23-year-old Mackenzie Lueck, whom he had texted before meeting in a park. After they returned to his home, he bound and strangled her, then burned and hid her body while police and loved ones searched for her, his lawyer said in court.
Ajayi pleaded guilty to aggravated murder and desecration of a corpse in an agreement with prosecutors that removed the possibility of the death penalty. Prosecutors dropped charges of aggravated kidnapping and obstructing justice.
Ajayi also pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a different woman he met on a dating app. He is expected to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said the guilty pleas allow Lueck’s parents to begin to get closure and a “measure of justice.” Gill said the family has asked for privacy.
Lueck has been remembered as a bubbly, nurturing person who belonged to a sorority and was a part-time senior at the University of Utah studying kinesiology and pre-nursing.
She went missing in June 2019, after returning from a trip home to El Segundo, California, for her grandmother’s funeral. Lueck had exchanged text messages with Ajayi, 32, and took a Lyft to meet him in a park, apparently willingly, prosecutors have said. Her phone was turned off a minute after the last text and never turned back on.
Ajayi planned the slaying before the meeting at the park and turned off the video in his home-security system before he left to meet her, his lawyer Neal Hamilton said. When they returned to his Salt Lake City home, Ajayi tied her up and began to choke her. She tried to stop him, after which he put a belt around her neck, pushed her onto her stomach and strangled her, the attorney said.
Ajayi then burned her body and buried it in his backyard, Hamilton said. After detectives came to his door to question him, he dug her up and buried her in a shallow grave in a canyon nearly 100 miles north of Salt Lake City.
The search for Lueck went on for nearly two weeks before some of her remains were discovered in Ajayi’s backyard and he was arrested. He later revealed the location of her body in Logan Canyon, where she was found with her arms bound behind her.
A native of Nigeria, Ajayi held a green card that allows him to legally work and live in the U.S., prosecutors have said. He was an information technology worker who had stints with high-profile companies and was briefly in the Army National Guard.
Authorities have not discussed a motive for the killing or how Ajayi and Lueck knew each other. Court documents have shown investigators searched social media and dating sites while trying to find a link between them.
Ajayi said little at Wednesday’s hearing and occasionally hung his head. He was wearing an orange jail jumpsuit, glasses and blue surgical mask. He is expected to be formally sentenced Oct. 23.
Ajayi also pleaded guilty to sexually abusing another woman he met on a dating app in 2018. They went to his house for dinner, and the abuse happened while they were watching television, he acknowledged. He pleaded guilty to forcible sexual abuse in that case.
Ajayi also has been charged with 19 counts of sexual exploitation of a minor after investigators said they discovered child pornography on his computer. He has pleaded not guilty in that case.