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Tech worker pleads guilty to killing and burning California student Mackenzie Lueck

By LINDSAY WHITEHURST | The Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY  — A tech worker pleaded guilty on Wednesday to strangling a Utah college student whose disappearance over a year ago sparked a search that ended with the discovery of her charred remains in his backyard.

FILE – In this Dec. 20, 2019, file photo, Ayoola A. Ajayi appears in 3rd District Court in Salt Lake City. Ajayi pleaded guilty in the death of a Utah college student Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, more than a year after her disappearance sparked a large-scale search that ended with the discovery of her charred remains in his backyard. Ajayi is expected to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in the death of 23-year-old Mackenzie Lueck. (Jeffrey D. Allred/The Deseret News via AP, File) 

Ayoola A. Ajayi acknowledged he planned the death of 23-year-old Mackenzie Lueck, whom he met on a dating app and arranged to meet 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 met Ajayi, 32, on the site Seeking Arrangement, which bills itself as a way for wealthy “sugar daddies” to meet women known as “sugar babies,” his lawyer said. She took a Lyft to meet him in a park, 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