SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — More than 100 people gathered at the University of Utah to memorialize a student who authorities say was killed and her charred remains found in a Salt Lake City man’s backyard.
The crowd was silent while friends recalled 23-year-old Mackenzie Lueck as a bubbly, nurturing person who loved spending time with her family and looked forward to a career in medicine or health care.
“Everyone who knew Kenzie knew how fun she was to be around. She was a people pleaser,” Kennedy Stoner, one of Lueck’s close friends, said through tears as she spoke at the vigil. “It breaks my heart knowing she died alone in such a scary place.”
Other friends shared memories of cramming for exams together and taking weekend trips up to Lake Powell. A native of El Segundo, in the Los Angeles area, Lueck was a member of the Alpha Chi Omega sorority and a part-time senior at the University of Utah studying kinesiology and pre-nursing. She was expected to graduate in spring 2020.
Some students couldn’t help but draw comparisons between the vigil and that held a few months ago for slain University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey, who was killed by her ex-boyfriend on campus last year.
“It’s awful that this is the situation that makes the community come together, but it’s good to see how large of a crowd comes out to support,” Kendall Smith-Williams, a sophomore at the university, said.
She was leading a freshman orientation trip when the news broke of Lueck’s death. “It shocked everyone again. We’re still waiting for more information, but it makes everyone be a little more careful and wary of their surroundings,” Smith-Williams said.
Lueck disappeared June 17 after she got back from a trip home to California for her grandmother’s funeral. Police have said she took a Lyft from the airport to a park north of Salt Lake City, where she met someone in the early morning.
She was reported missing June 20, launching a wide-ranging search that ended with authorities arresting the man they say was the last person to communicate with her: 31-year-old Ayoola A. Ajayi, whose phone location data also puts him in the same park at the same time, police said.
He was arrested Friday on suspicion of aggravated murder, kidnapping and other crimes after authorities said they found her remains and personal belongings burned and buried in his backyard. Neighbors reported noticing a fire there around the time Lueck disappeared.
At the vigil, Mackenzie’s friends announced that they would be creating a nonprofit organization to advocate for victims of violence and assist families in finding their missing loved ones.
“Mackenzie did not have a voice during her disappearance or time of death, and I want to continue being that voice for her,” Stoner said.
Drew Crawford, a recent graduate of the university, said the vigil was a sobering reminder of his privilege. “She doesn’t get to graduate, or experience life after college,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine this happening to me or my family.”
It was not known if Ajayi has an attorney to speak on his behalf. He 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, but a northern Utah police department said he was accused of a rape in 2014. Police said the woman, a co-worker in the northern Utah city of Logan, said the contact began consensually, but when she wanted to stop he refused and had sex with her anyway, the Salt Lake Tribune reported . The woman appeared to blame herself for the assault, according to the documents released Monday. She made a report “in case he did the same thing to someone else” but opted not to pursue formal charges.
Police have not discussed a motive for the killing or how Lueck died. It isn’t clear how Ajayi and Lueck knew each other. Police have also said they are investigating a report from a construction contractor who said Ajayi approached him in April about building a secretive and soundproof room under a front porch.
The vigil and nonprofit organization are only the first steps in honoring Lueck’s memory, friends shared.
“Kenzie would want to be remembered as a kind, helpful person who wasn’t afraid to stand up for what she believed in,” Carly Reilly, one of Lueck’s close friends, said. “She could make you smile when all you wanted to do was cry, and that has been helping me get through this.”