YingYing Zhang’s Cause of Death: How Did She Die?

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Although YingYing Zhang’s body has never been found, the grisly circumstances of her death were revealed during the trial of Brendt Christensen, the former Ph.D. student researcher from Champaign who was convicted by a federal jury in connection with her disappearance.

Yingying Zhang was a 26-year-old University of Illinois visiting scholar from China when she vanished. What was her cause of death? Those details were revealed during the trial. You can read more about them later in this article, but be forewarned that they are disturbing.

Christensen was found guilty on June 24, 2019, of kidnapping resulting in death and two counts of lying to investigators. Although they never found a body – despite her family’s pleas for that closure – Christensen admitted that he murdered Zhang. That was a bid to be spared the death penalty, which he ultimately was (he was given a life prison term.)

Christensen’s attorney made the stunning admission during opening statements in Christensen’s trial. “Brendt Christensen is responsible for the death of Yingying Zhang,” federal defender George Taseff said, according to WTTF-TV. “Brendt Christensen killed Yingying Zhang.”

The case is being featured on 20/20 on November 15, 2019.

Here’s what you need to know:


The Manner in Which Zhang Died Was Horrific

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University of Illinois Police DepartmentUniversity of Illinois Police Department photo of Yingying Zhang.

In her opening statement, Christensen’s attorney admitted that her client had killed Zhang, but disputed some of the evidence against him. She argued he had mental health issues and her 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. Christen 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.

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 years. “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 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.

Authorities long ago said in an affidavit that they believe Zhang is dead. The jury sentenced Christensen to life in prison after splitting on the death penalty. “Now that the trial is over, and the jury has made its decision, we ask the defendant to unconditionally tell us what he knows about Yingying’s location,” her father, Ronggao Zhang, implored in Chinese, according to CNN. “If you have any humanity left in your soul, please help end our torment. Please let us bring Yingying home.”

According to the University of Illinois police, Zhang, a graduate student from China, disappeared on June 9, 2017.

Police said from the start that it was possible Zhang was in danger and was kidnapped, but they initially explored multiple scenarios for her disappearance. “We are deeply concerned anytime someone cannot be contacted for an extended period of time. While we are exploring a number of possible scenarios which may have contributed to this incident, we are treating this as a very urgent matter,” police reported in an update.

However, on June 27, police wrote: “The FBI has announced that investigators located the black Saturn Astra used in the abduction of Yingying Zhang.” They later determined that the vehicle belonged to Christensen.

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.

Zhang was a visiting scholar at the Urbana-Champaign campus, and her disappearance is big news in China, which sends many students overseas to study in the United States.


Zhang Disappeared After Riding a Public Bus & Speaking to the Driver of a Black Saturn

yingying zhang

University of Illinois PoliceYingying Zhang.

Zhang was last seen on an Urbana street.

According to the University of Illinois Police Department, “Yingying Zhang boarded an MTD Teal line bus at the south shelter at Orchard Downs at 1:35 p.m. on Friday, June 9. She exited the bus at Springfield and Mathews avenues in Urbana at 1:52 p.m. Friday.” She was then seen speaking to the driver of a black Saturn vehicle. You can watch that video below.

She has never been seen again.

At the time, police wrote, “she was wearing a charcoal gray hat with a white logo on the front. She has shoulder length brown hair, glasses, and a white/pink flannel print long sleeve shirt, white undershirt, jeans, white shoes, and a navy backpack.”

After identifying him as the driver of the vehicle, the FBI placed Christensen under surveillance and monitored his conversations. That recording provided them with the key piece of evidence outlined in the affidavit.

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,” an affidavit contends. It doesn’t reveal whom Christensen was allegedly speaking with at the time.

According to Daily Beast, blood was found in his apartment and on a baseball bat, and prosecutors said he compared himself to Ted Bundy.

U. of I. Police continue search for missing personWe are releasing this video as we continue our search for Yingying Zhang, missing since Friday, June 9. In this security video from the B-4 parking garage on North Goodwin Avenue, Urbana, just after 2 p.m. Friday, Ms. Zhang is seen standing on the east side of Goodwin Avenue as a black Saturn Astra (unknown…2017-06-12T16:53:50.000Z

The above video, University of Illinois police say, shows the B-4 parking garage on North Goodwin Avenue, Urbana, just after 2 p.m. Friday, June 9, the day that Zhang disappeared.

“Ms. Zhang is seen standing on the east side of Goodwin Avenue as a black Saturn Astra (unknown year) pulls up beside her,” police wrote on YouTube. According to CNN, “The FBI says the vehicle appeared to be driven by a white male who circled the area before making contact with Zhang.”

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Yingying Zhang.

“She and the driver speak for some time before she enters the vehicle, which then continues north on Goodwin Avenue. The very last clip of the video is a closer view of the vehicle, just before picking up Ms. Zhang,” police wrote.

Police said they have “used vehicle records to identify a list of people who drive that make and model vehicle, and we’re speaking to people who drive that kind of vehicle.” On June 27, police announced that they had located the vehicle. However, they have not provided other details about it or the driver.

Police described the extensive investigative efforts employed to find Zhang and said they are investigating “reports of a black sedan whose driver poses as an undercover police officer to lure people into the car.”

“We are enlisting every available resource to help find Ms. Zhang. Investigators have spoken with people who know her, and we are searching security camera footage, local hospitals, working with rideshare programs like Uber and Lyft, and checking other records,” police wrote. “Investigators have also looked into reports of a black vehicle whose driver invited other young women into the car. Although we cannot release many specific details of our investigation, we are exploring a number of routes which we hope may help us find Ms. Zhang.”

In the affidavit, authorities gave more details. 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.”

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.


Zhang Had a Master’s Degree in Environmental Engineering

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Yingying Zhang.

Zhang had come to Illinois from China.

According to CNN, Zhang “had a year-long position at the university’s department of nature resources and environmental sciences.”

She graduated from “Beijing’s prestigious Peking University last year with a master’s degree in environmental engineering,” CNN reported.

“She was about six weeks into her appointment as a scholar in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences when she disappeared,” said University of Illinois spokeswoman Robin Kaler to the cable news network.