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In the early morning hours of June 17, 2019, 23-year-old college student MacKenzie Lueck’s was seen at the airport.
Her flight from California had just landed in Utah around 1:35 a.m. and the University of Utah senior was seen in surveillance images gathering her suitcase at the baggage claim before casually getting into a car waiting outside the quiet airport.
They would be the final haunting images ever captured of the 23-year-old.
From the outside, Lueck appeared to be the average American college student. Her friends described her to “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered,” airing Wednesdays at 8/7c on Oxygen, as a responsible person, who cared deeply for those in her life.
“She had a job. She was going to school, she was like checking off everything that a responsible adult would have on their checklist, I guess,” friend Kennedy Stoner said.
Lueck, who grew up in El Segundo, California, came from a close, tight-knit family, but like many her age, she also wanted to establish her own identity. While she was raised in the Church of Latter-Day Saints, friends said she didn’t remain devout in college.
“She wanted to find her own path,” friend Ashley Fine told "Dateline."
The night she disappeared, Lueck had been returning to Salt Lake City after attending her grandmother’s funeral. She texted her mother at 2:01 a.m. to say that she had landed safely. She was then spotted in the surveillance images getting into a waiting car outside the airport before the car drove out of sight.
It wasn’t until three days later that her concerned father, Greg, called Salt Lake City Police to conduct a welfare check on his daughter after he had been unable to reach her.
“I’ve been trying to get ahold of her and her phone just tends to go to voicemail,” he said in the call. “I was just wondering if I could have somebody maybe go by her house and check on her?”
Officers headed to her town home and discovered her car in the driveway but found no sign of the missing college student.
The case quickly caught the attention of the Salt Lake City Police’s homicide division.
“We get a lot of missing persons cases in Salt Lake City,” Lt. Todd Mitchell told "Dateline" correspondent Keith Morrison. “I try my best to sift through those and find the ones that kind of raise the hair on the back of your neck, for lack of a better term, and this raised the hair on the back of my neck.”
Lueck’s friend Ashley Fine and a cousin were able to provide police with their first valuable clue. Through some sleuthing of their own, they discovered that Lueck had gotten into a Lyft car the morning she disappeared.
“I assumed that the Lyft driver abducted her or maybe they were in a car accident and their car had driven off the road,” Fine said.
But when police were able to track down Lyft driver Heath Canada six days after Lueck vanished, he told officers he had successfully completed the fare just before 3 a.m., dropping Lueck off at Hatch Park in North Salt Lake.
Investigators were able to rule him out as a possible suspect after uncovering surveillance footage that showed his car leaving the park to pick up his next passenger. They also reviewed tracking data from Lyft that showed Canada continuing to pick up a steady stream of customers the rest of his shift.
Canada later told “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered” that when he left the 23-year-old she had been “smiling” and was “in good spirits.”
Although Lueck even commented herself about the “odd” choice of being dropped off at a park in the middle of the night, Canada said he wasn’t concerned because a car had been waiting there to pick her up.
“The situation seemed very safe,” Canada said. “She obviously knew the person that she was getting in the car with.”
Her cell phone was turned off just minutes later and Lueck’s trail went cold.
The case remained at a frustrating standstill until investigators got a tip from former Salt Lake City Police officer-turned-private-investigator Rob Joseph.
Joseph and a friend had met Lueck out a bar a few weeks before she disappeared.
“She seemed like a very bright, bubbly girl,” he said.
As they talked, Joseph said Lueck opened up about being on a dating site known as Seeking Arrangement. The site is designed to connect wealthy, successful older men to young women known as “sugar babies.”
“I don’t know whether she was seeking approval or just advice and recommendations,” Joseph recalled.
After receiving the tip, investigators looked into her financials and discovered plane tickets paid for by men she had met on the site and a $300 deposit by another man.
It was enough to help them secure a search warrant for a phone number Lueck had been texting the night she disappeared. Investigators tracked the phone to the wireless network at a Salt Lake City home owned by 31-year-old Ayoola Ajayi, a former National Guard member, part-time model, and successful tech worker.
Ajayi initially claimed he had never spoken to Lueck and told police that the texts may have been sent by someone staying at the Airbnb he ran in the basement of his home — but later that day Ajayi went to the police station to admit that he and Lueck had texted briefly after meeting through the dating site, although he claimed that she later blew him off and he forgot about it.
Investigators got a search warrant for the property and made the chilling discovery that a mattress was missing from the home and that the house smelled like bleach. Ajayi’s neighbor also reported there being an unsanctioned fire in his backyard the week earlier.
After digging up the backyard of the home, they found more evidence including charred clothing, purses or backpacks, a burnt iPhone, and fragments of human tissue.
Investigators believed Ajayi had likely moved the body and used his cell phone data to track him going to an area in Logan Canyon. There, they recovered Lueck’s remains.
“It was horrific,” Det. Nate Wiley said. “It was a sight that none of us wanted to see.”
Ajayi was arrested and pleaded guilty to killing Lueck on Oct. 7, 2020, admitting as part of a plea deal that he had planned the murder before he ever picked Lueck up that night in the park.
“He never offered any reasoning of why or even how,” Wiley said.
Before he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, Lueck’s father, Greg, confronted her killer in court, saying he had no compassion for man who had taken his daughter’s life, according to The Associated Press.
“I’m not sure you even have anything to look forward to in the afterlife, if you believe in that,” he said. “My daughter Mackenzie Lueck was a sweet, amazing young lady with the world ahead of her. She was a kindhearted person that cared about others. Now, I will not have the opportunity to see her blossom in life.”
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