SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah college student missing 11 days was abducted and killed and her remains burned in the yard of a man now facing aggravated murder and other charges, authorities said Friday.
Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown, who became emotional at times during a morning press conference, said Ayoola A. Ajayi will be charged with aggravated murder, kidnapping, obstruction of justice and desecration of a body in the death of 23-year-old Mackenzie Lueck.
He was arrested without incident Friday morning by a SWAT team.
Ajayi, 31, is an information technology worker who attended college on and off but never earned a degree and was briefly in the Army National Guard but didn’t complete basic training.
He doesn’t have a criminal record, according to online court information, but a northern Utah police department said he was accused of a rape in 2014. Police investigated but the alleged victim, an adult woman, declined to pursue charges, North Park police said in a news release.
Brown said telling the missing woman’s parents in Southern California was “one of the most difficult phone calls I’ve ever made.” Her parents are “devastated and heartbroken by this news.”
Lueck disappeared on June 17, after she returned from a trip home for her grandmother’s funeral and took a Lyft ride from the airport to a park north of Salt Lake City. She was last seen apparently willingly meeting someone there at about 3 a.m.
Her text conversation with Ajayi was her last communication and phone location data shows them both at the park within a minute of each other, Brown said.
“This was the same time as Mackenzie’s phone stopped receiving any further data or location services,” he said.
He declined to say whether or how exactly they knew each other. Ajayi has acknowledged texting with Lueck around 6 p.m. on June 16, but denied talking to her later, knowing what she looked like or having seen any online profile for her — despite having several photos, including a profile picture, Brown said.
The police chief said investigators were seeking to determine if others were involved. A second person was questioned at the time of his arrest and later released, Brown said.
Police have not discussed a motive for the killing, or specified a cause of death. A judge ordered Ajayi held without bail. It was not known if he has an attorney to speak on his behalf. He had not returned previous messages from The Associated Press prior to his arrest.
After discovering that Ajayi was the last person Lueck communicated with, police searched his home on Wednesday and Thursday. Police Thursday described him as a “person of interest.”
In his backyard, they said they found a “fresh dig area,” and charred items that belonged to Lueck. They also found burned human remains that matched her DNA profile, Brown said.
Ajayi has worked in information technology for several companies including Dell and Goldman Sachs, according to his LinkedIn page.
According to Ajayi’s LinkedIn profile, he has worked in the Provo area as a senior technical support analyst for Dell since 2018.
Goldman Sachs confirmed he worked as a contract employee for less than a year at the Salt Lake City office ending in August 2018. Dell said Ajayi had worked there but didn’t provide his dates of employment.
Ajayi also appeared to have pursued employment in modeling with a bio page on a website called modelmanagement.com. Court records show he is divorced.
Lueck was a part-time senior at the University of Utah studying kinesiology and pre-nursing, and was expected to graduate in Spring 2020. She had been a student since 2014 and had an off-campus apartment. The university offered counseling services to any students or staffers affected by her death.
She is from El Segundo in the Los Angeles area and flew to California for a funeral before returning to Salt Lake City, police said. Her family reported her missing on June 20 and became more concerned after she missed a planned flight back to Los Angeles last weekend.
Lueck’s uncle, who did not provide his name at the police press conference, held back tears as he read a statement from her family thanking the investigators for their work.
“They’re also grateful to her community, her friends and others around the nation who have supported this investigation,” he said.
She was a bubbly, nurturing person who helped others and took care of animals like guinea pigs, hedgehogs and cats, friends have said. They did not respond to requests for comment after the arrest was announced.
Lueck’s sorority, Alpha Chi Omega, said in a statement the group is grieving her loss and hoping the members closest to her can find comfort as they remember her lasting impact on her loved ones.
For 63 years, Brent B. Ashworth has been collecting documents, letters and artifacts of American History. His friend Ronald L. Fox has done the same.
The two are teaming up to bring a portion of these pieces together in conjunction with the Cries of Freedom and America’s Freedom Festival.
The display will be available for viewing from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. July 4-6 at the SCERA Center for the Arts at 745 S. State Street in Orem. Entrance is free.
Ashworth said those who come to the museum will see the handwriting and signatures of some of America’s greatest and most recognized names. From the Founding Fathers — including, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson — to modern heroes like baseball great Babe Ruth; Neil Armstrong, the first man to step on the moon, and Boxing great Mohammed Ali, the collection brings a wide variety of Americana.
There are artifacts that go with those names, like Washington’s wallet or Ali’s boxing gloves. All will be on display.
There are some great stories behind these pieces and that is where Ashworth and Fox come in.
“Stories are what make things wonderful,” Fox said. “There are some great stories like about the seal of the president.”
Fox is referring to the very first presidential seal that he acquired with a letter featuring the wax seal. It will be on display. The seal, featuring 30 stars of each state, was designed by President Millard Fillmore around 1850 but got lost. By 1863 President Abraham Lincoln ordered a new seal.
“It hadn’t left the White House, it got misplaced,” Ashworth said. “It was found during a transition of power most likely between the James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur administrations.”
Another artifact came from the first minting in the United States. In 1792 the U.S. government starting minting coins, and the silver for the first minting came from a large collection of Martha Washington’s silver set, according to Ashworth.
They minted about 1,200 of the small coin.
“It was called a half disme, which was changed to dime before it became a nickel,” Ashworth said. “It was a five cent piece with what appears to be Martha’s portrait.”
The coin will be on display along with a letter from Dolly Madison and invitations to the dedications of the Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge, and the Washington Monument.
Also on display will be a tribute collection celebrating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. There are photos, autographs and a small U.S. flag that traveled with the crew to the moon.
The duo’s collection also includes artifacts from the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Ashworth said his first autograph was on a letter from Heber J. Grant, an early prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The letter was in a box he found in his grandmother’s attic.
June 27 was the 175 anniversary of the martyrdom of Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum Smith. Ashworth will have on display the handwritten receipts for their coffins and other LDS Church items.
Both Ashworth and Fox are notable figures on their own right. Outside of their acquiring profound pieces of history, these two men have made worldwide connections that have allowed them to expand their illustrious hobby.
Ashworth received a Juris Doctorate degree from the University of Utah in 1975. He served as an assistant Carbon County attorney and practiced law with the firm of Frandsen and Keller. He was vice president and general counsel for Nature’s Sunshine Products in Spanish Fork and for Neways International in Springville.
He has assisted the Glenn Beck organization, LDS Church History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University libraries and special collections. He has assisted the Utah State Archives and has donated many books and other items in his collection to the LDS Church and for display at the Crandall Historical Printing Museum.
Fox owns Fox’s Words and Images in Salt Lake City — a company that deals in rare documents, books and photographs.
Since 1972, Fox has provided volunteer assistance to the White House Advance office and U.S. State Department, Protocol Office assisting Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Donald Trump. He has assisted with the planning and follow-through of numerous visits of foreign heads of state.
In 2000, Fox was elected as a member of the Electoral College. In 2002 he produced and directed the State of Utah’s Welcoming Ceremonies for President George W. Bush and Laura Bush.
Lehi-based DigiCert held its first ever “Women in Tech” event Friday to officially kick off a company-wide group committed to creating a diverse and inclusive environment and helping employees learn and develop in their careers.
The event was the brainchild of Nikita Raje, who has worked as the principal database engineer at DigiCert for just over a year. She wanted to create a group that would raise awareness about women in tech and help women move up in their fields.
“My last two jobs that I worked, the first one did not have anything like this, and the second one did,” Raje said. “And I kind of realized how much of a difference (it made) because I had ideas. I had things I wanted to talk about but I never had the confidence to speak out, and just being able to be in a group of women who share the same concerns, had noticed the same issues at work, and just discussing it with them kind of helped.”
Discussions about beginning just a small group began in November of last year, Raje said, but after discussing the idea with DigiCert executives, Raje said she was encouraged to make it into a larger event and group.
Friday’s event featured several speakers from outside the company who spoke on things like career development, statistics on women in the workforce and equal opportunity in the workforce.
Angela Trego, president of Trego Engineering, gave the keynote speech titled “How to Get Equal Opportunity.” She discussed the differences between diversity and inclusion at length, as well as gave suggestions on how to promote diversity and inclusion within a company.
“To be successful you need both,” she said.
Trego referenced a study from MIT and Carnegie Mellon that found having a higher proportion of women on a team produces a higher collective intelligence, but according to data she collected and shared, only two out of 100 women who study STEM fields in college will remain in the STEM field throughout the years.
“Having women on teams helps you be successful,” Trego said.
Suggestions Trego offered for creating a more diverse and inclusive company included transparency in hiring, controlling one’s own fears and understanding diversity. For transparency in hiring, Trego invited those in a position to hire to look for people who don’t resemble themselves, and to cast hiring nets “broadly” and in “new waters.” She also suggested job descriptions be written by more than one person, so as to reflect different viewpoints.
The majority of Trego’s comments referred to recognizing personal bias and working to overcome it in oneself and also in the hiring process and company culture by developing processes that remove potential biases. She referenced a study from the year 2000 that found when orchestras held “blind” auditions that concealed the identity and gender of musicians auditioning, the percent of female musicians in five of the highest-ranked orchestras in the nation increased 15% over 23 years as an example of a process to remove potential bias.
Diversity and inclusion isn’t just based on gender, however. Trego also referenced the importance of developing mentor programs that aid in professional development and instituting policies such as flexible time off and positive parental leave, as well as pay parity, to make companies a friendlier place to women and other underrepresented groups.
“Small changes can make a big difference,” Trego said.
Later, Trego led an activity that gave those in attendance, roughly 40 people, an opportunity to think about their own biases. Other speakers at the event included Ruth Todd, senior vice president of public affairs for NuSkin, and Susan Madsen, the founding director of the Utah Women and Leadership Project.
Raje said she felt “super happy” with the way the event turned out attendance-wise, and was especially pleased by the number of men who attended.
“I’m really happy that there are more men here, I did not expect it at all. Because half of the time, you’re trying to tell them it’s not a women thing, it’s for everybody, and I’m glad that they got the message and they showed up here,” Raje said.
She also enjoyed the activity Trego led, which gave people the opportunity to reflect on their own biases.
“I think I’m ... very open and accepting, but even me, I have bias, and that was like an eye opener to me,” Raje said.
DigiCert provides digital certificates that businesses use to secure web connections and protect user data. They have over 12 locations worldwide; three locations in the states and then offices in England, Australia, South Africa, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Ireland, Korea and more. One employee at the Friday event had flown from Cape Town, South Africa to attend.
“I think it’s awesome,” Natalie George, the South African employee, said. “It made me think about things differently.”
There’s a sense of relief among Utah County’s LGBTQ groups after they were quietly accepted in this year’s Grand Parade as part of America’s Freedom Festival in Provo.
Though five LGBTQ-serving groups marched in last year’s parade, it was only following a last-minute press conference and a threat of pulled funding.
In 2017, Encircle, a nonprofit which provides support services for LGBTQ youth, was initially approved to walk in the parade, but a last-minute rejection by parade staff made headlines across the state. In 2018, Encircle and four other groups marched in the parade, after an initial rejection by parade staff was reversed. That reversal followed a press conference to draw attention to the issue and Utah County Commissioner Nathan Ivie, who came out as gay last month, threatening to pull public funding from the parade if the groups weren’t included.
This year, all four of those groups who applied were accepted to march in either the parade or pre-parade. Encircle, Provo Pride, Provo PFLAG and Mormons Building Bridges will all be in the pre-parade or grand parade. Queer Meals decided not to apply for the parade this year, but will be making sure there is a safe space along the route for LGBTQ spectators.
“We did have a good response to that last year,” said Queer Meals founder Jerilyn Hassell Pool. The group was able to hand out thousands of rainbow items, and hopes to do so again this year.
“Whether or not you’re LGBTQA, there are still people marching who deserve support we can give from the sidelines,” Hassell Pool said.
Freedom Festival Executive Director Paul Warner said that this year, the Freedom Festival revised the rules to make it clear that, regardless of the group applying, the purpose of the parade is to celebrate the Fourth of July.
“That’s why we have it, that’s why people come,” Warner said.
Warner said a few items with the applications needed clarification, but said the groups were all very cordial and willing to make adjustments.
“It’s been a really smooth process,” Warner said.
The biggest concern with the parade this year, Warner said, are typical issues like figuring out the logistics of getting all the floats down the parade route with the new bus stations splitting University Avenue down the middle, and finding volunteers to help with tasks like holding banners.
Brianna Cluck, president of Provo Pride, said she went to the parade planning meeting as soon as it was announced. She wanted to be able to ask lots of questions and get a good idea of what to do to get in this year and make it a smooth experience. After submitting the entry, Cluck said she was asked to specify exactly what people would be wearing, which she attributed to the fact they had someone in drag march in the parade last year.
She says she took great care in planning, making sure the entry would comply with the parade’s guidelines in every possible way, because she didn’t want there to be any reason it could be viewed as unpatriotic or be denied.
“I still have a fear in the back of my mind that somehow it will all fall apart,” Cluck said. “At least it’s been a lot more straightforward than last year, that’s really appreciated.”
Stephenie Larsen, the founder and CEO of Encircle, said last year required difficult conversations — conversations that ultimately she’s glad were had, though she joked that she was still recovering from last year’s experience.
“It was nice this year that we applied and just got in like any other group would,” Larsen said. “That’s progress.”
Erika Munson, co-founder of Mormons Building Bridges, said the organization’s float will, like last year, feature military veterans from the LGBTQ community. Munson described last year’s experience in the parade as being “delightful,” and hopes that the float will become something people look for every year at the parade.
Coming into this year’s application process, however, Munson said there was some worry that there could still be some discomfort on the part of parade organizers with LGBTQ entries. When everything was approved without a hitch this year, all she felt was relief.
“I don’t want last-minute press conferences and tense meetings,” Munson said. I can do without that, thank you very much.”
At the end of the day, though, Munson said Provo is acting as a “shining example.” MBB has once again been turned down to march in the Days of 47 parade in Salt Lake City for being an advocacy group. While recognizing that the Days of 47 is a private parade not receiving public money like the Freedom Festival does, Munson said she believes that an event celebrating a state holiday on public thoroughfares should still be inclusive of everyone.
“For all the snootiness Salt Lake has about Provo sometimes, Provo is being an example to Salt Lake here,” Munson said.
Munson said last year, she heard an older man from the crowd ask, “What does LGBT mean,” as the MBB float was passing. That underscores the importance of the groups being in the parade, she said.
“That’s great to just have that conversation, learn what LGBTQ means,” Munson said.
Larsen credits the change to having hard conversations — discussions that haven’t been had before between conservative people and the LGBTQ community.
“It’s great to see all the people who were really brave and vulnerable in those conversations, and also people from the parade who were willing to sit down and listen and make the changes necessary to be inclusive,” Larsen said. “I think change is hard, and there is a lot of fear in it. And they did what it took and it got changed. It leaves the next generation of youth in a better place. They are going to grow up with things easier than this generation thanks to those changes.”
Groups say there is still progress to be made in the community as far as being inclusive.
For instance, well-known martial arts artist Chuck Norris was chosen to be one of the parade grand marshals for his work with veterans, along with Jennie Taylor, whose husband Maj. Brent Taylor was killed while deployed to Afghanistan with the Utah Army National Guard. Norris has previously expressed support for California’s Proposition 8, a ban on same-sex marriage.
Warner said Norris’ stance on gay marriage “was not on the radar” when he was selected as a parade marshal, but that he was chosen because of his commitment to help veterans and “be an advocate for those that are down and out.”
Cluck said she believes most people aren’t aware of the remarks Norris has made before about the LGBTQ community.
“He’s not super high-profile for that,” Cluck said. “Everyone just knows him as Walker Texas Ranger.”
Munson called it an opportunity for conversation.
“I would love for him to be able to meet everybody that’s on our float,” Munson said.