On June 17, 2019, after returning from her grandmother’s funeral in California, 23-year-old Mackenzie Lueck, a senior at the University of Utah texted her parents at around 2 a.m. from the Salt Lake International Airport. We don’t know what the text said—it could have been, “I arrived safely, love you.”

What we do know about their exchange brings chills. Because it was their last.

The mystery…

Surprisingly common, a “sugar baby”— is an individual (female or male) who collects money in exchange for social and semi-sexual related meet-ups. “The fact is that people don’t really talk about it and women are constantly blamed,” Mackenzie’s friend explains, “Society believes that victims like Kenzie deserve to be tortured, raped and murdered because they were stupid.”

At the time Mackenzie’s parents and many of her friends were unaware that she had ongoing communication with a man named Ayoola Ajayi, and that she agreed to meet with him after her return to SLC.

Shortly after sending that text to her parents, Mackenzie scheduled a pick-up from a Lyft driver to take her to Hatch Park in North Salt Lake. Later, the Lyft driver who picked up Mackenzie reported to police that he dropped her off around 3 a.m. to meet a single man waiting in his vehicle. It was the middle of the night and still dark—we can’t help but wonder—was she scared?

One of Mackenzie’s friends, who asked to remain anonymous for the purpose of this story, said she probably wasn’t. This was a man she knew. Her friend says, “Kenzie was an incredibly independent and confident person, a natural-born leader who was maintaining both a job and supporting herself while in school.” Her Lyft driver also confirmed her confidence in the situation, as he watched Mackenzie place bags in the waiting car without showing any signs of distress.

Mackenzie may have carried some apprehension of this encounter, but we will never know her thoughts. She knew what she was doing: meeting her “sugar daddy” Ajayi, a man who paid Mackenzie for her company. Building a relationship with a “sugar-daddy” takes place over several conversations in order to build a certain level of trust before ever meeting with them in person. Ajayi’s invitation must have been convincing enough, or the amount of money he promised her high enough, that she wasn’t going to back out of it. As her friend states, “Connecting with someone online is super-easy, and for a small amount of time and energy, you can earn more in a single meeting that you would in an entire week at a regular job.”

Mackenzie never returned to her sorority at the U, Alpha Chi Omega. After a day or so, friends and family started texting and calling non-stop, trying to locate her but without response. They used social media to reach out for clues to her whereabouts, adding the hashtags #FindMacKenzie and #MacLueck. As it turns out, her smartphone became the best detective in the case.

Ajayi’s neighbors reported to detectives that on June 19, 2019, a “horrible smell” was coming from the suspect’s backyard. After forensic analysis of the burned area, the worst outcome was confirmed: Mackenzie’s charred personal items, as well as female human tissue matching her DNA profile, were found.

Search warrants allowed FBI investigators to trace Mackenzie’s cell phone records and on July 10, 2019, Salt Lake City’s District Attorney Sim Gill made a statement to the public revealing those details. “Lyft records indicated that Mackenzie was dropped o at Hatch Park at approximately 2:59 a.m. Cellphone records for both Mackenzie and Ajayi placed them at Hatch Park during this time. Additionally, Mackenzie’s cellphone records indicate that her phone was powered off at 2:59 a.m and was never powered back on.”

Ajayi’s neighbors reported to detectives that on June 19, 2019, a “horrible smell” was coming from the suspect’s backyard. After a forensic analysis of the burned area, the worst outcome was confirmed: Mackenzie’s charred personal items, as well as female human tissue matching her DNA profile were found. On June 25, 2019, SLC police probed further into both Mackenzie and the suspect’s phone records—that information led them to Logan Canyon where the remainder of her body was found charred and buried. Her autopsy revealed that Mackenzie’s death was caused by a blunt force trauma to the left side of her head.

On June 27, ten days after Mackenzie’s return from California, Ajayi was taken into custody and charged with aggravated murder, kidnapping, desecration of a body and obstruction of justice.

When the news of Mackenzie’s disappearance and murder broke, a wave of shock resonated from the city and the university community. How could a smart, outgoing and popular student like Mackenzie end up dead?

A seemingly sweet deal.

The answer is surprisingly common: According to a friend, Mackenzie was earning extra income as a “sugar baby”— an individual (female or male) who collects money in exchange for social and semi-sexual related meet-ups. It’s ostensibly a business relationship, and like any business transaction, it involves risks as well as benefits.

But this is also where it gets very personal. How hard up was Mackenzie for the money? Some young women without options do things like this—but Mackenzie was attractive and a college student from a middle-class family. Most simply can’t understand why a young woman like her would take these risks.

“The fact is that people don’t really talk about it and women are constantly blamed,” Mackenzie’s friend explains, “Society believes that victims like Kenzie deserve to be tortured, raped and murdered because they were stupid.”

For just a moment, set aside everything you currently know about this and have been conditioned over a lifetime to believe. Attempt to take a seat at the anti-judgment sugar baby table of the why’s and how’s behind this story. We are horrified by Mackenzie’s death but many of us are unaware of the semi-secret subculture that set it up, a culture facilitated by technology, the computer we all carry in our pocket. While technology and ultimately smartphones revealed clues to solve the crime, they also provided the tools to set it up and carry it out.

Seeking arrangements. And students. 

A quick google search turns up lots of sugar daddy/baby sites; the premier one seems to be SeekingArrangements.com (SA.com).

Sugar baby sites like SA.com market to students, because they are the ideal candidate and in demand—young, attractive and always in need of more money.

On the homepage of SA.com it announces a student incentive, “Using an .edu email address earns you a free upgrade!” It’s fair to say that college is expensive and many students are seeking a quick way to earn extra cash. Obtaining a background check on a prospective sugar daddy/momma is an option, but it costs extra. Who pays for these criminal background checks? Sadly, the “baby” does. And many babies take their chances, like Mackenzie, and opt out because of the added cost ($30) associated with it.

A background check on Ajali supplied evidence that could and should have persuaded Mackenzie to decline his invitation. His record showed two previous criminal charges.

Several of the top free dating app platforms don’t screen for convicted sex offenders, either. The Criminal Justice Institute (CJI) ran an analysis tracking 150 incidents that involved sexual assault associated with dating apps. According to this study, “Most incidents occurred during the app users’ first in-person meeting, in parking lots, apartments and dorm rooms.” And, “Most victims, almost all women, met their male attackers through Tinder, OkCupid, Plenty of Fish or Match.” The Match Group owns them all.

“Do you want your profile to get even more attention?” Ironically, in the age of online false identities and catfishing, authenticity is valued even in a sugar daddy transaction. Members want to know prospective dates are serious and that profile information is real. To verify your age and your pictures, the site asks for links to your social media accounts (Facebook, Google, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn, etc.). Each verification earns a “badge”, which becomes visible to other members. The more verifications a member has, the more messages and favorites a member receives.

Who are the sugar babies?

“It is easy and relatively safe,” she admits, “While I don’t view this as a long-term solution, like a lot of folks, I’m just trying to live, and being a nice-looking person, you can use that to your advantage.”

Mackenzie was not alone. Lots of young women and men (but primarily women) augment their income or allowance through quasi-sexual activities that seem harmless. Questionable, but harmless. Sugar baby is such a sweet and innocent sounding job title. Risks are part of any business deal, but this one gets tricky— it’s not illegal, but it is unregulated, and of course, there is a heavy social stigma attached to it.

A few years back, “Emma”—who, like Mackenzie’s friend, chooses to stay anonymous—opened up an account on seekingarrangements.com to make some extra income. As a 25-year old single mom who lives in SLC with her two-year-old daughter, she became aware of the site through a private women-only group on Facebook. From that, she learned about how she could strike up deals with sugar daddies, many who had particular fetishes. With Emma’s $12 an hour full-time paycheck, she earned too much to qualify for any Federal assistance for food stamps or daycare and began selling her lightly-worn panties, socks, flirtatious texts and phone conversations to various men, including soldiers. “It is easy and relatively safe,” she admits, “While I don’t view this as a long-term solution, like a lot of folks, I’m just trying to live, and being a nice-looking person, you can use that to your advantage.”

The homepage of SA.com states, “Sugar Daddies or Mommas get what they want, when they want it.” Mackenzie, like many, dabbled a bit further into escorting, which flirts with prostitution, but it’s not exactly what we traditionally think of as whoring in that sex-for-pay may or may not be included as part of the deal.

Seeking Arrangements did not return our calls, but Mackenzie’s friend, who admits to participating in sugar baby activities herself, estimates that around 60 percent of all her circle of University sorority sisters participate in some type of illicit transactional activities on a site like SA.com. She however, also estimates that less than 10 percent are agreeing to actually have sex. Prices and fetishes vary. “One guy posted that he would pay someone $500 to tie him up and kick him in the balls repeatedly.” She also explains that you can state explicitly that sex or physical contact is not part of the arrangement. A response like a message or text generally pays around 20 to 30 dollars, a meet-up date might be around $100, and sex can range between $300 to $1,000. “There is a large misconception, and I’d say about 75 percent of my friends do not have sex,” adding, “Most meet-ups are primarily Skype dates or ‘arm candy’ where they will pay for dinner or to have a pretty girl standing next to them at the bar.”

Finding protection.

ARE WE WOKE YET?

The bigger question: Are our morals or economics changing or both? How did this gray zone of sexuality come about? Mackenzie’s friend speculates,“It isn’t so much morals changing as it’s the technology which is allowing people to connect in this way.” And if you consider this, young people seeking extra income via “sugaring”—while not prostitution—has been around forever and most likely won’t be going away anytime soon. “Because sex at parties is such a casual thing, it begins to lose its meaning entirely.” She adds, “In the past, a positive comment about my physical appearance was flattering, but now, I no longer view that as a compliment.”

SLC District Attorney Sim Gill says, “We are facing huge systematic and cultural barriers when it comes to sexual assault victims. Blame is often attached to the sugar baby, not to the offender. There is stigma and shame that we need to confront head on. In Utah, on average, only twelve percent of those who are victims of sexual assault will report that crime to law enforcement. My message for victims is that we believe you, we see you, and it is not your fault.”

 

While not all sugar babies are university students, Mackenzie Lueck was a student at the University of Utah and students are highly sought after as participants. What do schools do to educate and protect students about this kind of activity? Jason Ramirez, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs & Dean of Students at the University of Utah, explains what happens if a student is reported missing, as Mackenzie was. “If they’re [living] on campus we actually have a lot of ways we can track a student down. If they’re off-campus it’s a little trickier because the jurisdiction of the University comes into play. I can’t send my officers to wherever they want.” After 24 hours, an emergency contact is notified and the University will run a “health and wellness check.” If a student lives off-campus, the University works with services from other jurisdictions (i.e. the Salt Lake Police Department).

As for education and protection, Ramirez says, “We have conversations all the time with different off-campus entities trying to solicit and take advantage of students. We try to do as much education as we can. This slides into a really difficult boundary issue… we have very limited control over what students can legally access or not access.” That said, Ramirez didn’t go into specifics into how exactly they are educating their students. Does the University share stories like Mackenzie’s? Point out that the .edu url can attract the wrong kinds of attention? Offer information about how students access background checks and sex offender lists?

Ramirez says, “I have relatively little control over what a student can actually choose to spend their time on the internet with and look at, so the education pieces come into play. We try to teach and make students as aware as we possibly can. There are some areas where we do really well and some areas we probably have some growth points to do.”

“This incident and how ugly it was, was a big wake-up call for the State of Utah,” says Mackenzie’s friend. She believes Mackenzie would have wanted to help others by sharing her story and to take precautions and learn something from it. She explains, “Society needs to step up and do everything in their power to protect ourselves from those acting on their evil desires.” Opening our eyes to how common this really is, and allowing real communication about it will play a big part in doing just that.

Update as of March 2020: charged with aggravated murder of Mackenzie Lueck, Ayoola Ajayi’s trial has been postponed to a later date due to increased evidence. To read the full story go here.


 

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