‘Her death is not her fault’: Friends of slain Utah student condemn victim-blaming

In this Sunday, June 23, 2019 photo, Ashley Fine and Kennedy Stoner, close friends of missing person Mackenzie Lueck, speak during a press conference outside the Salt Lake City Police Department in Salt Lake City. Police and friends are investigating the disappearance of the 23-year-old University of Utah student, whose last communication with her family said she arrived at Salt Lake City International Airport on Monday, June 17. (Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)
Ashley Fine and Kennedy Stoner speak during a press conference outside the Salt Lake City Police Department, June 23, 2019. –Leah Hogsten / The Salt Lake Tribune via AP

Since the day Mackenzie Lueck disappeared, her friends have been in front of the story, advocating for the 23-year-old University of Utah student to police, the public and the press.

After Lueck left Salt Lake City International Airport in the early morning hours of June 17 and went dark, her friends said the silence was out of character. When more time passed without word, some who didn’t know her insinuated Lueck had run away by her own volition. Her friends rejected that theory, too.

Now, days after police said they found Lueck’s DNA in a backyard fire pit and arrested a suspect on murder charges, the young woman’s friends are speaking out again. In an interview with Fox News, Kennedy Stoner, Ashley Fine and Katie Kvam shut down those who have blamed their friend for her own death.

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“Her death is not her fault,” Kvam told Fox News. “And for people to say things other than that is hurtful. It’s hurtful to us. It’s hurtful to her family. It’s hurtful to other victims out there. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Kennedy Stoner, left, with Mackenzie Lueck, center, and Grace Peterson. —Courtesy of Kennedy Stoner via AP

Salt Lake City police announced at a news conference Friday that 31-year-old Ayoola Ajayi had been charged with aggravated murder, aggravated kidnapping, obstruction of justice and desecration of a body. Ayayi’s neighbors had told police they saw him burning something in his backyard in the days after Lueck disappeared.

Authorities searched his home and backyard and excavated the burned area, which they said appeared to be freshly dug. They found items consistent with those that belonged to Lueck, police said, and also “human tissue” that matched her DNA.

Police said they also cellphone data to track her final whereabouts before she disappeared. After returning from her grandmother’s funeral in California, Lueck left the Salt Lake City airport in a Lyft ride-hail vehicle. She did not go home, though, but to a park in the opposite direction.

At 3 a.m. on June 17, the driver dropped her off at Hatch Park, where she met an unidentified person waiting in a vehicle, authorities said. The Lyft driver said she did not appear distressed when she left the car.

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Lueck’s last communication was with Ajayi, authorities said. They tracked his phone location to Hatch Park, too, at the same time Lueck was there. After that, her phone went dark.

Police said they interviewed Ajayi, who told them he had texted with her June 16 but denied ever meeting her or even knowing what she looked like – despite having photos of her in his possession, authorities said.

Ajayi was booked into the Salt Lake County jail.

Since then, Lueck’s family has said nothing publicly beyond a short statement read by an uncle at the end of the police news conference. In the statement, Lueck’s parents asked for privacy and time to grieve; they said they did not wish to talk about their daughter’s death.

Others have used their platforms to mock Lueck’s disappearance or blame her for what happened. Just before police announced her death, a now-fired writer for Barstool Sports wrote a crude post that focused Lueck’s reported use of dating apps.

Commentary and speculation like that led the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition to release a statement: “Victim blaming and shaming is inappropriate and unacceptable. In addition to perpetuating myths about abuse, assault, and violence, victim blaming wrongly excuses the perpetrator’s behaviors.”

Lueck’s friends are spreading the same message.

“It hurts victims, and it stops them from coming forward,” Fine said in the Fox News interview. “Regardless of anything somebody does, they do not deserve to be treated this way. That’s why we’re here and why we want to spread this message. We want victims to come forward regardless of the potential to be shamed.”

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Fine added: “No person regardless of their gender or dating life deserves to die. . . . Mackenzie is not responsible for the death and murder of Mackenzie. There’s only one person responsible for that, and we’re here to hold him responsible and we’re going to keep holding him responsible.”

Stoner, one of Lueck’s sorority sisters, echoed that sentiment.

“There’s a lot of people that say she deserved this because she put herself in this situation and we don’t officially know that,” Stoner told Fox News.

In the interview, the three friends said they felt Ajayi was “hunting for women.” Stoner called him a “narcissist” and a “psychopath.”

An attorney for Ajayi could not be immediately reached for comment.

Fine, Kvam and Stoner told Fox News that they were inspired by the outpouring of support they received in the nearly two weeks Lueck was missing. They plan to build a nonprofit called Mackenzie’s Voice that will offer resources to those who have experience kidnapping, assault and other traumas, they said.

“It wasn’t the outcome we wanted,” Kvam said in the interview. “I think we’re grateful to have answers, so we can work towards closure. I just think that’s going to take time.”