Yingying Zhang was an international scholar from China who was engaged to be married when she was kidnapped and brutally murdered in Champaign, Illinois by Brendt Christensen. She was engaged to Xiaolin Hou, and her family was living in China.
Her father, Ronggao Zhang, flew to Illinois from China to join in search parties within days of her disappearance. He sent a message he hoped his daughter would hear, saying “Dad is waiting for you to come back,” according to New China.
Her fiance, Xiaolin Hou, said life in prison was not a harsh enough sentence for Christensen, according to CBS Chicago. More than two years after Zhang’s death, her mother, Lifeng Ye, still cries almost every day.
The story of her tragic death is being retold on ABC 20/20 in an encore episode that airs Friday, June 12, 2020 at 9 p.m. Now, Zhang’s family is still looking for closure.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Her Fiance, Xiaolin Hou, Said Yingying’s Murderer Should Have Faced the Death Penalty
Brendt Christensen escaped the death penalty in the kidnap and brutal murder of Yingying Zhang June 9, 2017. Zhang was a visiting scholar from China researching crop production at the University of Illinois in Champaign. Christensen described the murder in detail during a recorded confession he gave his girlfriend, Terra Bullis. Christensen was sentenced to life in prison when the jury reached a split decision on his sentence in 2019.
Zhang’s fiance, Xiaolin Hou, had strong words about the jury’s decision following the sentencing, according to CBS Chicago.
“The result today seemed to encourage people to do crimes,” he said.
He told the federal jury Zhang’s family was devastated. Zhang’s mother, Lifeng Ye, cried almost daily, more than two years after her daughter’s death.
2. Yingying Zhang’s Dad, Ronggao Zhang, Traveled from China to Help Search for his Daughter
Before Brendt Christensen’s arrest in the death of 26-year-old Yingying Zhang, her dad traveled from China to Illinois to help search for his daughter.
“Dad is waiting for you to come back,” he said six days after her disappearance, according to New China.
Zhang’s body has never been found. After the murder, Christensen placed Zhang’s butchered body in three separate garbage bags and tossed them in a dumpster, he told the FBI in August, 2019, according to WTTW. The revelation meant her remains could now be “smaller than a cellphone” and “impossible to find.”
“If what that man said is true, it further confirms that he is a heartless and evil person,” Zhang’s father, Ronggao Zhang, said through a translator during a press conference Wednesday in Urbana, according to the news station. “We condemn his brutal and malicious actions and we hope that he suffers the rest of his life as he made Yingying suffer in the final moments of her life.”
“We now understand that finding (Yingying) may be impossible,” he said.
3. Yingying Zhang’s Mom, Lifeng Ye, Cries Nearly Every Day Since her Daughter Was Murdered
Yingying Zhang’s mother, Lifeng Ye, told a federal jury about the devastation she experienced at the death and brutal murder of her daughter.
“She told jurors how the family was devastated by the loss of her beloved daughter, who had aspired to become a professor and to help her working class family financially,” CBS Chicago reported.
She broke down in tears when she read a statement at a press conference. She read the statement in Chinese, which was translated into English.
“We cannot imagine living our lives without her,” she said.
“My daughter did not get to wear a wedding dress,” she said. “I really wanted to be a grandma.”
4. A GoFundMe for Yingying Zhang’s Family Exceeded $160,000
A GoFundMe for Yingying Zhang’s family raised $161,445 before it was closed. The fundraiser was called “Yingying Zhang Family Emergency.” It includes a poster that was placed around Champaign, Illinois after Zhang was kidnapped June 9, 2017.
The fund was created to assist Zhang’s family “with expenses incurred as the search for her continues.”
It was later updated to say, “It was Yingying’s will to complete her education and return to China to become a university professor, support her family. At this time, we are asking your support to fulfill YingYing’s wish to help her family.
“Thank you for helping ensure that Yingying’s dream comes true.”
Emily Lux, a family friend, responded to rumors the proceeds were being used to benefit the family, and that Yingying Zhang was not really missing, according to Fox Illinois.
“When we think about how these comments affect the family in so many different ways as far as financially, but also for their safety it’s just been horrifying for the family and they felt very isolated because of this,” Lux told Fox.
5. Yingying Zhang’s Family Filed a Lawsuit Against the University of Illinois
Yingying Zhang’s family filed a lawsuit against the University of Illinois, alleging the school should have acted immediately when Brendt Christensen attended a counseling session and said he was experiencing homicidal thoughts, according to ABC News. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Zhang’s estate in June against two counseling center employees. The suit alleges the counselors “acted with deliberate indifference” to the risks and warning signs presented by Christensen.
Christensen’s intake appointment in March 2017 was with an intern training to be a counselor. Their session was recorded, according to ABC 20. He told her he was experiencing suicidal and homicidal thoughts. When pressed, he even said he had purchased items to be used in a murder. The intern asked a counselor for help, and she discussed voluntary hospitalization with Christensen. He declined, but agreed to come to another appointment. He downplayed the thoughts and attributed them to alcohol abuse. He never attended a second session.
Attorneys representing the counselors moved to have the case dismissed in August, arguing that Zhang’s estate did not make a valid argument that the counselors created or increased a danger for her, and that as government employees, they are immune from lawsuits. The judge has not yet ruled on the motion, ABC News reported.
“We will continue to support the [Zhang] family as we have throughout this ordeal, and we will defend the social workers who are named in the civil suit,” said Robin Kaler, a university spokesperson in response to the lawsuit and Mike Christensen’s comments. “The professionals and staff of our counseling center are highly qualified and trained to provide care and services to students consistent with the best practices in mental health care, and we are confident they have followed these best practices.”