Brendt Christensen is a former Ph.D. student researcher from Champaign who was convicted by a federal jury of kidnapping in the death of Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old University of Illinois visiting scholar from China.
Christensen was found guilty on June 24, 2019, of kidnapping resulting in death and two counts of lying to investigators. However, was Zhang’s body ever found?
The answer is no. Tragically, and horrifically, her family has not been given that closure. However, there’s no doubt, sadly, that Zhang is dead. That’s because, not only was Christensen convicted in Zhang’s death, but his lawyer revealed in court that he admits to murdering her. In fact, the details of how Zhang died, which came out during trial, were awful. She was even decapitated.
The case is being featured on 20/20 on November 15, 2019.
Here’s what you need to know:
The Murder Weapon Was a Bat, Her Body May Have Been Scattered in Landfills & Christensen Searched Abduction Websites
According to ABC 7, after Christensen’s trial, it was revealed that he told his lawyers that he “put Yingying’s remains in three separate garbage bags and placed them in a dumpster outside his Champaign apartment.” Authorities think Zhang’s body might be in multiple landfills, but that’s never been determined for sure. “If Yingying’s remains are ever found, we will return to take her home to China where she belongs,” her father said, according to ABC 7.
Christensen was accused of saying on tape: “She’s gone. She’s gone forever. She’ll never be found.”
According to ABC News, “Law enforcement believes the bags were then taken to a landfill in Danville, Illinois.” But it was too late to recover her body.
“By the time they provided that information, it was almost 18 months after she would have been placed in the landfill,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller, ABC reported.
“It is evident that any attempt to recover Yingying’s remains would be complicated and expensive, would require government oversight and the cooperation of the landfill owners and would have no certainty of success,” said Steve Beckett, attorney for the Zhang family, according to ABC.
“It just adds to the tragedy,” Miller said, because Zhang’s family doesn’t have her body back. “Yingying is an incredible young lady. She wanted to make a difference in the world.”
It took more than two years for Christensen to be convicted. There was a trial, but it was more about whether he would get the death penalty (he didn’t; he got a life sentence), than it was about guilt or innocence. That’s because Christensen’s attorney said during an opening statement that Christensen had killed Zhang, but disputed some of the evidence against him. The attorney argued he had mental health issues and the case was essentially to set up the next phase of the trial, Christensen’s sentencing. The same jury who convicted him later split on the death penalty. Christensen is serving a life prison term. Illinois has outlawed the death penalty, but the case was tried in federal court.
The affidavit filed after Christensen’s June 2017 arrest provides chilling details; it says that authorities examined Christensen’s phone and alleges that he accessed a website entitled “Abduction 101” and sub-threads that were called things like “perfect abduction fantasy” and “planning a kidnapping.” He had also worked as a Physics class teaching assistant.
It was also revealed that Christensen was photographed attending a rally for the victim. Prosecutor Eugene Miller alleged that Zhang’s blood was found on a bat that Christensen used to strike Zhang, as well as in other places in his apartment, according to WTTW-TV. He’s also accused of stabbing and choking her and comparing himself to Ted Bundy. WGN-TV reported that he raped and beheaded Zhang, and implied he had 12 other victims, but this was never proven. He also claimed he choked Zhang for 10 minutes as she fought for her life.
One student who had Christensen as a TA wrote on Reddit, “I had him 3 years ago for physics 212 TA. He seemed like a normal physics grad student. Completely normal, perhaps a bit awkward but with no unusual vibes.”
According to the University of Illinois police, Zhang, a graduate student from China, disappeared on June 9, 2017. She was supposed to check out an apartment to lease and never showed up. Video showed her at an Urbana, Illinois, bus stop getting into a black Saturn vehicle, and, after that, she vanished without a trace. Her disappearance was big news in China as well as the United States as the Urbana-Champaign community mobilized to find the promising young environmental engineer who was researching crop production.
Zhang was remembered as intelligent and extroverted. “She played guitar and sang in a band called ‘Cute Horse’ in China. One of her favorite songs was ‘The Rose,’ a hit in 1980 for American singer Bette Midler,” reported The Chicago Tribune.
The Lack of a Body Delayed Arrest Early on & Led Authorities to Monitor Christensen’s Conversations
It’s clear from an affidavit in the case that authorities thought they had their man, but they needed more evidence to seek an arrest, especially because they did not know where Zhang’s body was.
The FBI placed Christensen under surveillance and monitored his conversations. That recording provided them with the key piece of evidence outlined in the affidavit.
A prosecutor told the court on July 5, 2017, that Christensen was recorded at a rally for Zhang by authorities and “explained the characteristics of his ideal victim” and, according to CNN, “pointed out those in the crowd who matched them at a vigil he attended for the missing woman.” The person helping authorities record Christensen was his then-girlfriend Terra Bullis. In one recording, Christensen is accused of saying that “Zhang fought him, and that he took her back to his apartment and held her there against her will last month,” CNN reported. The judge has denied bail for Christensen.
According to Bullis, who testified during Christensen’s trial, she felt very conflicted because she still cared for Christensen, but she also cared about what had happened to Zhang. “… it’s incredibly painful,” Bullis said in court, according to CBS Local. ABC reports that Bullis testified that she Christensen seemed excited and proud when he discussed killing Zhang.
According to News Gazette, she testified that Christensen typed the following, showed it to her, and then deleted it:
“It was me. She was No. 13. She is gone. Forever.”
In one of the audio recordings, according to ABC, Christensen described how Zhang fought back, saying, that it was “supernatural almost how [Zhang] just didn’t give up.” He then claimed he attacked Zhang with a baseball bat before decapitating her.
On June 29, 2017, “while Christensen was under law enforcement surveillance, agents overheard him explaining that he kidnapped Zhang. Based on this, and other facts uncovered during the investigation of this matter, law enforcement agents believe that Ms. Zhang is no longer alive,” the affidavit contends. It doesn’t reveal whom Christensen was allegedly speaking with at the time.
That alleged admission built on previous statements that Christensen made to the FBI in which he allegedly confessed that Zhang had been in his car, although he claimed she left it voluntarily, the affidavit says.
On June 15, 2017, Christensen was interviewed at the FBI’s Champaign office. According to the affidavit, authorities allege that he “admitted to driving around the UI campus when he observed an Asian female with a backpack standing at a corner appearing distressed. Christensen claimed that he drove up to the Asian female, who relayed she was late to an appointment. Christensen stated that he offered the Asian female a ride. The female entered his vehicle and attempted to show Christensen where she needed to go through her cell phone map app.”
Christensen allegedly claimed that “he believed he made a wrong turn because the female became panicked.” He initially claimed that he then let the female out of the vehicle in a residential area a few blocks away from where he picked her up.
However, on June 29, 2017, Christensen “was captured on audio recording while under law enforcement surveillance explaining how he kidnapped” Zhang. Christensen stated that he brought Zhang “back to his apartment, and otherwise held her in his apartment against her will,” the affidavit alleges.
The affidavit provides a detailed accounting of the last moments Zhang is seen.
Police said that, on June 9, 2017, Zhang went to UI’s Turner Hall where she conducts research and then returned to her apartment for lunch. At 1:39 p.m., she sent a text message from her cell phone to a manager of a different apartment complex in Urbana, Illinois, where she intended to sign a lease. She said she was running behind, but would arrive about 2:10 p.m.
At 1:35 p.m., she was observed on video boarding a public bus. She exited the bus and tried to flag down another one, but it continued past her without stopping. Zhang was observed on video walking to an intersection and standing at a bus stop. At 2 p.m., a black Saturn Astra, driven, police say, by Christensen was observed on video passing Zhang at the bus stop and then circling back to her location, according to the affidavit.
She was observed speaking with the driver through the passenger window for about one minute, before entering the car. At 2:38 p.m,, the apartment manager sent Zhang a text message and received no response.
By 9:24 p.m., an associate professor reported that Zhang was missing. An officer met with the professor and other colleagues of Zhang, who said they had not been able to contact her for several hours. She had previously told people she was going to sign an apartment lease and would return shortly after. Calls to her cell phone went unanswered. Police searched her apartment and found nothing.
Then came the break in the case: The Saturn.
Authorities narrowed their search down to 18 four-door Saturn Astra vehicles registered in Champaign County and interviewed the owners. On June 12, 2017, they went to the 2500 block of W. Springfield Ave. in Champaign and saw the car registered to Christensen. Authorities interviewed Christensen who allegedly told authorities that, between 2 and 3 p.m. on June 9, 2017, the day that Zhang disappeared, he “could not initially recall his whereabouts. He later advised, however, he must have been either sleeping or he was playing video games at his residence all day.” He admitted the car belonged to him, the affidavit said.
Later, in the other interview, authorities extracted an admission from Christensen that Zhang had been in his car, prompting the surveillance, according to the affidavit.
Police noticed that the Saturn in video footage had a sunroof and cracked front passenger hubcap, as did Christensen’s car, alleged the affidavit.
Since Zhang was last seen in the video entering the car, said the news release issued by authorities, “the FBI, the University of Illinois Police Department and the Illinois State Police and local law enforcement have worked around the clock to locate Ms. Zhang and to investigate her disappearance.”